Simple Methods for Evaluating Soil Quality

Bruno Borsari, visiting Fulbright scholar from Winona University, offered a series of in-the-field lectures at the USMA farm in Las Minas, Herrera, Panama.  Azuero Earth Project has been fortunate to have an extended connection with the passionate and vibrant Dr. Borsari. As part of continued education, our staff attended several of the lectures.  Below, we’ll share a little of what we learned.

Simple methods for evaluating soil quality- Jim O’ Neil

The USMA farm in Las Minas
The USMA farm in Las Minas

In Panama you can take soil samples to IDIAP and to the University of Panama for analysis, but for many people the price of analysis isn’t affordable and going to the laboratory is inconvenient. Participants in this workshop learned that with just one’s eyes, nose, simple tools, and a little bit of observation, we can find out a lot about the quality of the soil.  For example, with your eyes (and a digging stick and small quantity of water), you can evaluate soil structure, soil depth, the presence of organic matter, soil cover, level of erosion, and water retention.

A simple way to make  Burlese funnel
A simple way to make Burlese funnel

Dr. Borsari showed us a simple apparatus called the Burlese funnel, that is used for measuring the quantity of invertebrates in a soil sample.  He made the apparatus out of a cardboard box, a Cornflakes box, a plastic funnel and a simple electric light.  The quantity of invertebrates is a good indication of the quality of soil because the presence of high quantities of invertebrates indicates high quantities of soil microbes.  You can evaluate the level of microbiological activity by applying hydrogen peroxide to a few tablespoons of soil.  Large quantities of bubbles indicates a lot of microbiological activity.  Its important to apply these simple soil evaluation methods to more than one soil sample to make relative comparisons between them.  Via these comparisons you can determine what part of your land is most suited for cultivation.

Dr. Borsari
Dr. Borsari, explaining the Carbon Cycle

We also had the opportunity to practice using soil test kits, a collection of small bottles and chemicals used for in-the-field tests for Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus, and pH.  It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm of the workshop participants while they practiced using the kits.  Farmers from all over Azuero were excited to be learning a simple way to evaluate their own soil scientifically.  The day’s workshop was a fantastic experience learning how to evaluate soil samples using simple and accessible methods.

The Big Cats of Cerro Hoya

IMG_5668Our April began with a very creative and educational activities at the school of Pablo Ballesteros in Los Asientos. An interactive presentation was given by Jessica Fort- Masters student Wildlife Southern Illinois University, who performed a study of Mammals with emphasis on cats in the Cerro Hoya National Park. Jessica has the help of Joseph Whelan, a Peace Corp Response Volunteer. Both spend weeks walking almost impassable trails, tracking mammals and placing wildlife cameras at strategic points, led by veterans eyes and experience of local guides areas of Cortezo and La Tronosa. IMG_5671All this effort and intensive study resulted in a series of charlas that Jessica and Joseph present, sharing their experiences to discover the biodiversity of the park with both adults and children, and explaining the subtle balance of this fragile ecosystem. With the assistance of 25 children, 4 teachers, and the AEP team, Jessica and Joseph shared an interactive talk, dance and workbook activities. All were amazed to discover and learn about the wonderful mammals that inhabit the park.

In the Field Workshop: Building your Soil for a More Productive Farm

Borsari showing farmers basic soil tests using readily available materials
Borsari showing farmers basic soil tests using readily available materials

In the heat of the Panamanian summer, over 30 participants including farmers, students and Peace Corps volunteers came together in Vallerriquito to learn about cattle farming while caring for the soil.  In traditional cattle farming in Panama, soil hasn’t been a factor. But with the heat of the summer, the lack of water, and declining meat production due to stress, farmers are looking for alternatives. With the dynamic energy of his Italian roots, Dr. Bruno Borsari gave a participatory talk on bettering the soil while at the same time managing a productive cattle farm.

Energy was high, as various farmers who are already implementing Silvopastoral systems shared their experiences. After lunch, one farmer, Señor Arsenio invited us to his farm to view his SilvoPastoral system at work.  Even during the depths of dry season, one could note the difference between plain pasture, and the pasture complemented by the shade of the trees.  Here the farmers were able to see the direct connection between what Brusari was speaking about, and how other farmers were already putting these ideas into practices.

If you are interested in learning more about cattle and soil, you can find Borsari’s presentation here.   Check back soon for full video footage of the day!

Arsenio sharing his SilvoPastoral experience with the group
Arsenio sharing his SilvoPastoral experience with the group

How to Make Organic Fertilizers that Work

Mixing ingredients for Bocashi
Mixing ingredients for Bocashi

People often ask us, “But if I’m not using chemicals, how do I maintain my yields?”  Years of experience has taught many farmers that using local and natural materials can help you maintain healthy plants without contaminating the earth.  There are many different types of natural composts, and this past Saturday in Guararé, Azuero Earth Project presented a hands-on workshop to demonstrate two fast-producing organic fertilizers – Bocashi, and Biol.  Owners of a lovely property in Albina Grande, Robert and Pat Irwin offered to host our workshop at their farm. Among those in attendance were citrus farmers, corn farmers, landowners, and members of an environmental NGO from Guararé.

Bocashi, a fermented soil amendment, is ready in no time compared to other types of composts! In a matter of 15 days, your Bocashi is ready to use, using inputs commonly found in agrarian areas, such as cow manure, ash, and peels of rice. The quickness of Bocashi comes from the fermenting process- the Bocashi heats up to over 50 degrees Celsius on the first day. Subsequently, it must be turned each day to keep the temperature low.   One of the excellent benefits of Bocashi is that there are many substitutes for the ingredients. Don’t have Carbon chunks? Use ash.  Don’t have Molasses? Use miel de caña.

After 15 days of fermenting, your Bocashi is ready for use. Because this is a strong fertilizer rich in many nutrients, it can actually burn the plants if directly applied.  We recommend digging the hole deeper than necessary, adding a handful of Bocashi, cover that with another layer of soil, and then planting your seedling.  Alternatively, you can apply your Bocashi to existing plants by digging a smaller trench encircling the plant, and burying the Bocashi under a layer of soil.  For more details, check out the Powerpoint presentation here.Presentacion-del-Bocachi-131214

Jaime describing the different inputs used to make Biol
Jaime describing the different inputs used to make Biol

Biol is a fermented foliar feed.  In comparison to soil amendments, foliar feeds are faster acting, because the plants absorb the nutrients directly through their leaves.  Biol should be diluted for application to plants.  If used directly from the tank, without dilution, it can be an herbicide.  Our staff also recommends using diluted Biol to pretreat seeds- soak seeds for twenty minutes in a ratio of 8:1 water-biol before planting.  Biol has the added benefits of little labor to produce as well as low input costs.  For all the technical details, check out the Powerpoint here. Biol 131214

Attached here, you can also find the brief handout with all the quantities and ratios for each soil amendment. Bocachi Biol Handout

A Visit from the Snake Expert

Snake Expert Jim Knight shows off a boa to students in Pedasi
Snake Expert Jim Knight shows off a boa to students in Pedasi

Which snakes bite harder, males or females? This was one of the many questions asked by the fourth graders of the Pedasi Elementary School during the “Snake Talk” given by herpetologist Jim Knight.

Azuero Earth Project welcomes snake expert Jim Knight and his wife, Karin Knight who will be conducting research in the region.   After years of working in universities and museums, Jim is now taking advantage of his retirement to explore and identify the snakes of Azuero. Recognizing that Tropical Dry Forests are among the most threatened ecosystems in the world, Jim emphasizes that there is an incredible amount of undiscovered biodiversity in the Azuero peninsula. A comprehensive survey of reptile species has not yet been conducted in Azuero, meaning that in the short time that Jim was on his preliminary visit, he encountered several species that had never before been reported in the region! Jim emphasized the crucial importance of wildlife surveys such as these in order to implement conservation projects… if there is no baseline survey, we would have no way to monitor possible changes from global warming and shifting climate factors.

As part of their visit, Jim and Karin gave a lecture in the Pedasi elementary school. In addition to donating copies of his book, Jim brought a live boa, much to the delight (and terror!) of some of the students. The students thoroughly enjoyed the class, as seen by the variety and quantity of questions, some of which included: do little snakes have more venom that big snakes and how exactly do baby snakes eat?

Oh, and in case you were wondering… female snakes do bite harder… but only because they are usually larger in order to carry their eggs.

For more information on the snakes of Azuero, check out Jim’s book. To get involved in research and conservation projects with Azuero Earth Project, click here. 

Workshop on Small-Scale Organic Gardens

Presentation of Agricultural Engineer Meinaldo Mitre
Presentation of Agricultural Engineer Meinaldo Mitre

What began as a dreary, rainy day turned into a bright, sunny morning as Azuero Earth Project staff headed off to Los Asientos. With more than 15 people in attendance, the agricultural engineer Meinaldo Mitre gave a presentation on small-scale organic agriculture production.  Mitre, native of Herrera, works with the organization Ecotropica to teach farmers how to grow organically through a series of hands-on workshops. Mitre started from the beginning of the process of building your organic garden, from the design of your plots and took us through step by step until harvest. One point he stressed was fundamental to understanding organic growing is that the soil is the source of all life. He even joked that he doesn’t grow plants… he grows soil! Mitre also mentioned that in some ways farmers have become lazy. When they see a problem with their plant, they throw a chemical on it. If that doesn’t work, they’ll try a different chemical. In organic agriculture, Mitre told us, the farmer has to be more conscious, observing the plants, the soil, and the terrain. If a plant is being attacked by pests, there is a reason, whether it be imbalances in the soil or lack of nutrients, but the plants will let you know! After the presentacion, the group headed outside to the school garden in Los Asientos for the hands on part of the workshop. Demonstrating various techniques, Mitre spoke more in depth about soil structure, erosion, and the importance of compost.

Learning to observe the plants
Learning to observe the plants

Ing. Mitre left us with an important piece of advice, “If we don’t teach our children how to grow without poisoning the earth, they are going to sell the land, move to the city, and disconnect from where their food comes from.” To learn more, visit our office in Pedasi, check out Ecotropica’s website, and take a look at the PDF Huertos Orgánicos – Prod. Sust. de Alim. a pequeña escala.

Workshop on Organic Fertilizers for your Garden

Mixing the Bocashi Ingredients
Mixing the Bocashi Ingredients

Amid the bright sun of this very strange El Niño year, people gathered for a traditional event in Azuero… a Matanza. Hosted by Olmaedo Sáenz at the Finca Doña Carmen, more then 50 people were in attendance. While the soup was still bubbling and the meat still cooking, people gathered to participate in a workshop hosted by Azuero Earth Project.

AEP is always working to reach out to new audiences, so at the request of the community, we hosted August’s Guest Lecture together with the Matanza. AEP´s own Jairo Batista gave an interactive presentation on easy to make all natural controls for use in your home garden.  Among the techniques discussed were Bocashi, a hot fermented compost. Jairo also demonstrated how to make Biofermento, a fermented foliar nutrient applied by spraying directly onto plants. For more information, and to get our recipes, click here for Bocashi or Biofermento.

Amidst the festivities, and of course, the delicious food, AEP had the chance to connect with new participants and answer questions about organic methods on a small scale. We’d like to thank to community of Los Higos for inviting us and for their continued support and interest in protecting the environment in Azuero!

And now... to ferment! The Biofermento ready for the next stage.
And now… to ferment! The Biofermento ready for the next stage.

Students from the University of Panama give talk on Responsible Fishing Practices

La Isla Iguana
La Isla Iguana

On July 14, over 20 students of marine biology at the University of Panama hosted a talk on Responsible Fishing Practices. The day began with an organized outing to Isla Iguana, where the students and their professors talked about the importance of maintaining clean beaches in protecting wildlife, especially marine wildlife. Also in attendance were a group of activists from Pedasi, and members of the association of fishermen, APROPSERTUR. The group of over 30 participants then divided into smaller groups to spread out and cover as much ground as possible collecting trash. From toothbrushes to rusty oil barrels, the range of trash was diverse and detrimental to the island’s wildlife. The ANAM guard on the island explained that most of the time, visitors are very responsible about picking up their own trash, and what we were collecting  refuse that washed up on shore from other parts. At the end of the morning, the group had over 40 bags of trash – a full boat’s worth to take back to shore.

Daniel Acosta, Lourdes Vargas, Eileen Rivera, and Carol Velásquez
Daniel Acosta, Lourdes Vargas, Eileen Rivera, and Carol Velásquez

In the evening, the students regrouped at the Azuero Earth Project Office to host a lecture on the importance of responsible fishing. In attendance were members of the community as well as APROPSERTUR, the association of fisherman and boat captains in Pedasi. After the powerpoint presentation, the students opened the floor to questions. Mentioned more than once was the importance of the distinction between industrial scale fishing and artisanal fishing. Most of the fishermen in the association use fishing poles rather than nets, with essentially eliminates bycatch.

Students from the University of Panama and Fishermen from Pedasi
Students from the University of Panama and Fishermen from Pedasi

Also discussed was the idea that consumers are not able to differentiate where their fish comes from, meaning that artisanally caught tuna has the same price as industrially caught tuna, with all the negative environmental implications that that entails.  The idea was raised to create a labeling initiative to differentiate fish caught here in Pedasi, and to perhaps be able to charge more for the locally, responsibly fished tuna.  Help us continue this conversation by checking out the link to the powerpoint presentation below, and add your comments below. Would you pay more for local, responsible fish? Have you traveled in communities where they have successfully implemented artisanal fishing marketing programs? Let us know!

Responsible Fishing

Captain Wiljem Zitman: How to Identify Marine Mammals in Their Environment

Last Tuesday, January 21st, a crowd of local fishermen, boat captains, and amateur nature enthusiasts gathered on the terrace of Casa Pasa to listen to former sea captain and naturalist Wiljelm Zitman deliver a captivating presentation on the identification of marine mammals in their environment. Capt. Zitman’s talk introduced the wide diversity of cetaceans that can be found frequenting the waters off the Azuero peninsula and the techniques that can be used to recognize them.

A group of spinner dolphins c. Wikimedia Commons
A group of spinner dolphins c. Wikimedia Commons

Identifying a fleeting whale or dolphin from the rocking helm of a boat can be a real challenge, even for experts. Capt. Zitman explained that there are techniques that are used to lump groups of closely related cetaceans together, giving the casual observer an accurate way to classify what he or she has briefly seen. Observing an animal’s behavior is one of the most important keys to identification. The Common Dolphin, like the Spinner Dolphin, is highly gregarious and often associates with pods that number in the thousands. Bottlenose dolphins and spotted dolphins, on the other hand, form smaller groups. Physical characteristics such as color, size, beak and melon shape, dorsal fin placement, and the shape and size of the blowhole all help classify these mysterious creatures.

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Humpback whale c. Wikimedia Commons

Capt. Zitman left plenty of room for anecdotal discussion. Several fishermen realized that what they may have been calling pilot whales were in fact, false orcas. Others grew excited when they learned that humpback whales weren’t the only behemoths they might find: Fin and Sperm whales, as well as Orcas, have been spotted off the coasts near Pedasi.

The audience grew excited and left the presentation beaming with energy and enthusiasm. Capt. Zitman’s talk undoubtedly left a positive impression on locals, as most of the crowd hung around afterward, eager to ask questions. Knowing how to correctly identify an animal and its behavior is an important step in its conservation. Hopefully these skills will be transmitted through generations to come.

Field Guide to Marine Mammal Identification

Capt. Zitman’s Presentation here (in Spanish), complete with descriptions of different identifying traits

Creative Recycling Worshop at the AEP

To the untrained eye, it appeared that several tables at the Azuero Earth Project offices in PedasĂ­ were covered in trash. But in truth, the empty chip bags and containers filled with used cooking oil were destined for great things, and soon would be transformed into wallets, purses, and fragrant soaps.

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Several groups from Pedasí and surrounding communities were present for December’s Creative Recycling Workshop, led by Sra. Sabina Rodriguez, from the Department for the Promotion of Culture at the National Environmental Authority offices in Ocú, Herrera.

Sra. Rodriguez began with a short introduction, followed by a brief demonstration of how to begin the process of weaving junk food bags and wrappers together to form wallets and purses. Attendees then grabbed their scissors and got to work. Potato chip bags quickly disappeared, transformed into colorful interlocking zig-zags and the beginnings of coin purses.

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When participants had mastered the fine folds necessary for making recycled purses and wallets, it was time for the second half of the workshop: homemade soaps. Sra. Rodriguez demonstrated the proper way to mix potash with water and recycled cooking oil. Then each participant had the chance to make their own soap to take home, choosing from a variety of fragrances. Attendees left with their soaps in hand, ready to be used after a one-month aging period. Learn how to make your own soap by reading Sra. Roriguez’s easy recipe.

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