Day 575 - Volunteer Service - Article 18

This article was published in the Ames Tribune December 12, 2008.

Growing vegetables in tropical soil

At the end of last month, the guy who owns the house we rent arrived with a bottle of seco (a bad version of rum) and his weed whacker. By the end of the day, our yard looked like we were baling hay. The grass hadn't been cut in more than a year. We only keep the walk ways clean.

My neighbor, Leonarda, suggested we plant corn in the newly cleaned area next to the house. Sure, why not? It might be a good way to show how to use green manures and homemade compost fertilizer. I bought corn seed and headed out with a long pointy stick called a coa. I jabbed holes and threw in three kernels of corn and stubbed the holes closed with the heel of my boot, just like our Panamanian neighbors and much to their amusement.

This is the yard after the weed wacker went through and where I planted the corn.

About a week later, I seeded a bean called canivalia, a green manure, between the corn rows. I also started making compost tea. This compost tea takes about a month to decompose. I filled a five gallon bucket with one quarter balo leaves (a leguminous tree) and one quarter horse manure and finished with water and a lid on tight.

The balo and manure break down by anaerobic respiration making a nitrogen rich liquid that can be diluted and applied to the corn. Between the corn and the robust squash and tomatoes growing out of the resting side of the compost bin, I hope my neighbors will take notice.

It has taken me a year to realize the soil here is so poor it takes almost four times as much compost and fertilizer to coax anything to grow. I knew tropical soils were poor, but I didn't understand just how different that makes things. Hopefully, I can pass on what I am learning by trial and error and some previous knowledge. Ultimately, maybe they will adapt these practices themselves. And that's what it is all about!

It's a slow, repetitive, difficult process, this changing of practices engrained in culture. Luckily, Peace Corps gives each volunteer two years. Peace Corps also on recommendation of the previous volunteer will put up to four consecutive volunteers in the community. So this community could have seven more years of support to get these techniques established.

The learning goes both ways. I have learned a lot. How to speak Spanish being the most obvious. But also how to live in this culture. I really thought I would have a hard time living in an impoverished setting with oppressed people. I didn't realize they consider themselves neither of these things. They live happy, healthy lives.

I enjoy the laid-back lifestyle. Get up early, work until it gets hot. Then shower and relax the rest of the day. There is no pressure to have the best or biggest or be the prettiest. Our neighbors wouldn't mind owning a fancy truck or television, but they don't consider them worth the effort to attain. It is a refreshingly unconsumeristic approach to life.

This would be a great place to raise a family if only the education system was better.

Foy Spicer and Jeff Diesburg are Peace Corps volunteers in central Panama, some 40 miles northeast of Panama City. They live in a town of about 50 people that has no electricity.

Foy and Jeff are 1999 graduates of Ames High School and 2003 graduates of Iowa State University. Their Peace Corps assignment is from May 2007 to August 2009.

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