Two months In

I’m two months in to my six month internship in sustainable agriculture here at UGA en Costa Rica. Things are starting to come along, so I figured I’d make a second blog post.

I studied Horticulture and grew up in the suburbs, so pigs and cows are a new experience!

In addition to all of the wildlife that takes advantage of the forested areas on campus, we have a herd of cows that graze our pastures. We rotate them through different potreros (paddocks) as needed, for the health of the herd, the grass, and the soil.

The pigs are content to eat (and eat, and eat…) although the pair that we’ve been feeding with duckweed may be getting slightly grumpy at their vegetables-to-corn ratio. The duckweed is harvested from the settling ponds below the stable biodigestor.

The biodigestor is basically a fancy septic tank, or a small-scale wastewater treatment plant… poop goes in, and biogas comes out… along with cleaner water and a nutrient-rich sludge that we add to our compost piles. Instead of venting the biogas into the atmosphere, like most septic systems do, we capture it and burn it as a cooking and heating fuel. This also converts the methane into carbon dioxide, which is a much less potent greenhouse gas.

The maintenance staff here are all from central american farming backgrounds, and many have farms that they work after hours. It’s always fun to learn from them on the job, and crack jokes during cafecito.

Organic vegetable production is frustrating. Ants will often rob the seeds when we sow in-ground. Sometimes, seeds will germinate poorly or not at all. There is an extremely limited selection of seeds in the two agricultural stores near us. However, we are making good progress in obtaining better cultivars, storing the seeds in a cool & dry environment, and preparing to grow some of our own seeds.

Fungal problems abound. I’m trying to avoid that in the plug (tiny plant) stage by experimenting with coarser growing mediums, and by sanitizing the plug trays with a fresh bleach solution. We try to practice crop rotation in the field, but it’s difficult to effectively use our greenhouse space and keep track of several-year rotations.

Weeds are tenacious, especially the star grass (estrella) that is used for pasture (big brother of Bermuda grass). And even if everything goes well, beetle larvae, cabbage worms, and other critters can decimate a crop. Or even just a strong gust of wind…

When I’m not working with animals or vegetables, I’m devoting time to setting up a coffee nursery & future plantation. The goal is to make a demonstration agroforestry plot on campus, to help with future extension work. (Costa Rica lacks a robust agricultural extension service, and the mail service in Santa Elena is spotty, which makes it complicated to do a soil test or order special equipment… ideally we would like to do those things here.) The idea is to encourage reforestation in this area, using coffee as a way to make it economically feasible. Our seedlings are crowded, and we are not even halfway done planting them (goal was to finish by the end of June!). After 5-6 months in the bags, they are ready to be planted in the field – which I and Cleve (an International Affairs UGA grad) are designing as we talk with local caficultores (coffee growers).

The people I have met here on campus and in San Luis are very knowledgeable, creative, and open to trying new things. Even the visiting students, researchers, and faculty contribute. It’s an inspiring place. And while there’s never enough time in the day to accomplish everything I’d like to, I just keep telling myself “poco a poco.”

¡Pura vida, y’all! -Gray Simpson