A couple weeks ago I jumped on the back of a motorcycle to check out some organic gardens outside of Estelí, in northern Nicaragua. A friend and fellow former English teacher in Miraflor, Juanita (Jane in her native England) founded a hostel, café and tour guiding organization, Café Luz/Hospedaje Luna, which she calls a “nonprofit social initiative.” This means the proceeds go back into the business and community instead of enriching the owners. One of the many projects under its umbrella is the development of organic gardens to grow produce for the café, generate income for small farmers, and provide nutritious food for the farmers themselves.
I rode with Rogelio, who provides technical expertise to the farmers, as we wound our way out of town on rutted roads. We first stopped at the house of Doña Martha, who toured us around with her toddler son in tow. Her small parcel of land slopes down to the banks of the Río Estelí, where she draws water to irrigate in the dry season. They’ve built raised beds from cinder blocks and stones, with soil enriched by vermicompost from a university project nearby. While not all the space is planted now, the height of the rainy season, there were lush patches of basil, mint, oregano, and parsley, young shoots of beets and carrots, and sprouts of broccoli and cabbage pushing up through the dark soil.
One section of her huerto, or vegetable plot, was planted in a polyculture, with a mix of veggies to shade the soil and take advantage of companion planting principles. We chatted about the different herbs in her garden, including the oregano, which smells and tastes like Italian oregano but looks like a succulent–Martha likes to use it in soups. She said she cooks with all the veggies she grows. She’s been working with Café Luz since February 2011, along with the 10 other families participating in the project, who span seven communities within a couple hours of Estelí.
Next we rode back up the hill, away from the river, to the huerto of Don Aristeo, the only single man involved in the project. He lives with his mother in a house shaded by mature fruit trees he planted in the last three decades—when he arrived the land was completely deforested. We walked a couple hundred feet behind the house to an open field planted in rows. Green heads of cabbage and tall okra plants with silky pods dotted the field. A long stretch of rich black soil was covered in tiny radish and broccoli sprouts while in another section bloomed unblemished heads of lettuce. When I asked Aristeo how much he ate from his huerto he responded, “I’m learning more and more about cooking with vegetables, but my favorite is beets.”
Juanita has exciting plans to expand the project, including working with farmers to improve their efficiency and the quality of the produce, as well as increasing their income (currently they average 2000 córdobas per three months, or about $90, though that increases during the dry season months of Dec.-May). She has more potential markets lined up, including a preschool in Managua and a restaurant, which will require a greater volume of produce. As with all development projects here, success depends on creativity, flexibility and resourcefulness—in addition to proceeds from the hostel the project relies on volunteers and donations. As to the veggies themselves, at Café Luz I ate a hearty salad featuring huerto-grown lettuce, beets, and carrots, and I can attest to their deliciousness!