February 29, 2008 – Melon Farm

All about melons!

Here’s one of the few photos of the two of us together on the trip.

This melon farm was on a floodplain adjacent to a river.  Across the river (which isn’t visible in this photo) is a national park.  It was a stunning place for a farm field.

These melons are ready for harvest.  This farm needs five melons per square meter to be profitable.

The farm had a number of beehives for pollination.  The river had a number of large mean reptiles up to 15 feet long that make it not such a good place to swim.

melon wagon
The melons all loaded in the wagon and hauled to the packing house.

The side of the wagon is tilted down and the melons tumble into a light chlorine bath.

The first round of hand sorting as the melons float by.

melon processing
The melons are packed and sold according to size (how many fit in a box).  These were labeled “Honeydew” melons destined for Europe, even though they looked like squash, they tasted like a honeydew melon.

one year ago…”leap day! – no year ago today post

February 28, 2008 – Mango Farm

The first stop this day was at a mango farm and packing plant.

Again, this was a large expanse of mangoes, several hundreds of acres.

Some mangoes hanging on the tree.

The perimeter of the orchard is lined with this wall of recycled plastic to protect the orchard from wind.

The mangoes that cannot be harvested by hand are harvested one at a time in this tool that has a snippers and bag to catch the cut mango.

The freshly cut mangoes extrude a milky liquid that is irritable to skin.  Workers turn the mangoes stem side down on metal grates for a half hour to let the liquid drain before further handling.

We were able to find some irregular mangoes that were not harvested for sampling.  Uniformity and consistency is very important for the export market.

At the loading dock are a couple of government inspectors looking for fruit infected with pests. Again, on the cutting board is the machete.

The workers dump to mangoes from the field crates into the waterway that leads to the plant.  You can see the crate in mid-air thrown from one worker to another.

The first hand sort separates the mangoes to be further processed with those going back out (on top conveyor belt) for other uses.

After the initial sort, the mangoes float through a fungicide bath.

An automated sorting track is the next step.  The trays tip at various locations based on the weight of the mangoes.  A number of conveyor belts are arranged perpendicular from this sorter for further packing and sorting.

Another treatment is to dump the mangoes in 105 degree water for 15-17 minutes for additional pest control.

A spray of wax is applied to the mangoes.

There is one final packing by size.  Notice the packers with the rolls of stickers that they apply to the fruit – those are the stickers that you find on fruit in the stores.

In the afternoon we visited a large fish farm where photos were not allowed.  We visited acres of ponds and toured the processing plants where my favorite new euphemism was the “relaxation chamber” where the tilapia first enter the plant.  They come in as wiggling fish and leave as frozen fillets.

one year ago…no posting one year ago

February 27, 2008 – Sugar Cane

Sugar cane day was one of the most interesting days of the trip.

They used to burn the canes before harvesting, but at this farm, they use this giant chopping machine.  It has a chopper arm that stays about 6 feet above the ground to chop off the top of the canes, and a chopper on the bottom that cuts the canes near the ground and sends them through the machine to chop into 6 inch pieces.  There is still much sugar can harvested by hand.  This was the only machine like this in this part of the country.

One of the workers grabs a machete and opens up some cane for us to taste.  It was really quite sweet and fibrous.

Next we visited a sugar mill.  This mill is a co-op that has been in existence since the ’40s.  Here a farmer comes to the mill with a load of sugar cane.

Farmers are paid on the weight and quality of the canes. This machine drills into the load and retrieves a sample.

The sample is collected and brought to an onsite lab for evaluation and ultimate payment to the farmer.

The canes are stored in piles awaiting processing.

The first step is to load the canes into this giant conveyor.  When the bundles are dropped by the crane, a guy runs out on top of the moving canes and unhooks the chains holding the bundles.

The first step inside the mill is this giant chopper.

A secondary chopper further reduces the cane.

The whole series of choppers follows down this line.

Looks like solid state technology on the control panel!

Finally, the sugar is separated and liquefied and brought to a new part of the mill.

Large vats of bubbling liquid are part of the next steps.  It felt a little like going into a Willy Wonka factory gone bad.  There were all kinds of open vats, exposed belts and gears, narrow walkways over chopping conveyor belts, steam escaping everywhere, open augers and spinning centrifuges.  To top it off, we didn’t even have to remove our jewelry and rings!

Part of the mysterious part of the plant – large vats of heated and pressurized sugar.  We couldn’t hear a thing throughout the tour.

A place where the process is checked by sampling the product.

Finally, a brown slurry come out and into a spinning centrifuge.

About 90 seconds in the centrifuge turns the sugar white and crystalline.

At the end of the line, Nicaraguans take the 120 lb bags off a conveyor belt and load them onto a truck.

The truck outside being loaded.  We weren’t too sure what they had against pallets and forktrucks. At the next stop, these bags will also have to be unloaded by hand as well, but it will be much harder to reach down and lift them.

one year ago…”Storm Day 5″

February 26, 2008 – Ferns, Strawberries and Coffee

The first stop today was at a fern farm.  It is one of the largest fern farms in the world.  The ferns are background for flower bouquets – the stuff that’s left weeks after the roses die!

The farm has a lab that has done extensive research on fern diseases and they do some top-notch research here.

The fern farm covers acres of land covered in black shade cloth.

The shade cloth is now 72% sun block.  It was recently 66% sun block.  According to the farm operators, the intensity of the sun has increased over the past few years requiring thicker shade cloth.  There is not an explanation.

Inside the packing plant, the ferns come sorted by size in the field and come in for trimming, vacuum packing, and packing.

Here’s the machine that vacuum packs the ferns.  The ferns are put into a bag and the table comes down, pushing out the air and sealing the edge, like a giant seal-a-meal.  The ferns are then put into boxes and into refrigeration.  These ferns were headed to Europe for Easter arrangements. They ship out about two shipping containers a day.  For this enterprise and others shipping to Europe, the GAP standards aim for pest and disease control with minimum hazard to workers, neighbors, consumers, and the environment. The standards require extensive record-keeping for compliance and they have frequent unannounced inspections.

Up high in a strawberry field in a beautiful setting.

Here an entomologist gazes deep into a strawberry leaf.

The covers over the berries have a simple plastic over and under adjacent wires.

During the day, the plastic can be moved up or to the sides.

We had a 20 minute walk to the fields that was not passable by bus. It was a very beautiful walk through the countryside.

The last stop was at a coffee plantation where we received a tour a bit too cheesy for most of our tastes.  I can’t remember the guide’s name, let’s call him “Fernando.”  He had a booming voice and an aura of an afternoon Spanish soap opera leading man, invoking all the romance and care of the coffee bean!

Here’s coffee out in the field.

This is an old coffee mill that is part of the tour with some coffee out for drying.

A few days later we went to a “real” coffee mill that was adjacent to the sugar cane mill.  This is where the trucks back up to unload the coffee.  Notice the high-tech abacus counter above the chute.  One of the running jokes during the trip occurred at nearly every loading dock.  Early in the trip, an employee was explaining in Spanish to us and talked a relatively long time.  The interpreter simply said, “The trucks unload here” in explanation of a long-winded explanation.

Coffee goes through many processes to remove the hull around the bean.

The coffee spends a fair amount of time soaking and fermenting in these big holding tanks.

After the beans are dried, they are sorted on this shaker doo-hickey.

Finally, the beans are bagged and ready to be sent to the roaster.  Have you seen a bigger smile on Linda’s face yet on this trip?

one year ago…”Storm Day 4″

February 25, 2008 – Banana and Pineapple Production

We visited a couple of banana locations.  The first was a banana germplasm preservation center where they were growing many varieties of bananas to save and use for possible future breeding.  The standard Cavendish banana for export teeters on extermination because of devastating disease problems.  They have not yet been able to develop another variety that has the same shipping and taste qualities of the Cavendish.  The Ticos eat another variety that does not ship well, but one with a superior taste.

Amy explains some of the problems with banana culture here in the banana reserve.

The banana tree grows its stalk and produces fruit in about a year.  Then the stalk is cut off and a new one sprouts.  The old brown stem in this photo has rings like a tree, but they are not like tree rings, more like leaves on a garlic plant.

Here’s an example of a banana bunch with its deep red flower dangling below.

Now we are in a banana plantation of many hundreds of acres.  The yellow strings are used to support the stalks.  Migrant Nicaraguan workers walk through this maze and cut the ripe bunches and haul them through the maze to the banana monorail.

Here’s a young worker pulling a train of bananas down the monorail banana trail by hand.  There is a trail that goes down the middle of the plantation about a kilometer and the workers put each bunch on a hook and pull them by hand down the monorail track.

Here the monorail crosses a road as the banana puller crosses the main road with bunches of bananas.  Bananas are very prone to insects and a plant fungus, black sigatoka.  To control insects and sigatoka, the bananas here are aerial sprayed every week of the year, in addition to the blue bags containing insecticide.

Here the bananas approach the packing shed.

The first rinse, while the bananas are still on the monorail.  The bunches usually weigh between 120 and 160 pounds.  I wouldn’t want to weave through the jungle of yellow strings to carry them to the monorail!

The bananas are put into a tank – this contains a light chlorine rinse if my memory is correct.

Next, workers cut the bunches into the bunches the size you see in the store.  These ladies are very adept at using their knives.

Bananas floating to the packers after getting cut into retail bunches.

Packers put the bunches into trays before the bananas are sprayed with another fungicide to get ready for packing in boxes for shipment for export.

We’ve now moved onto the pineapple fields.  This is a field of newly planted pineapples.

Pineapples require well-drained soil, so there are deep ditches for drainage every 50 feet for so.  In the background you might be able to make out the earth-movers preparing the drainages for the next pineapples to be planted.  The land is scraped, then backhoes dig the drainage channels, followed by bed shapers.

Here are more migrant workers harvesting pineapple.  They walk through the field and put the fruits ready for harvest on the arm that comes out from the tractor/wagons.

This is not a job I’d like.  The pineapple leaves are hard and stiff, the workers need to wear full body protection and work in very hot and humid conditions.

Here a worker catches an ride on the harvester boom to get across a drainage ditch.

The pineapples packed inside the wagons.

The exterior view of the wagons with the first layer of pineapples supported upside down so others can rest on top without damaging the crowns.

The wagons are brought to the plant for packing and picked up by a crane.

The wagons are dumped into a chlorine water bath and moved towards the packing plant.

Here a worker finds a ripe pineapple and uses the ubiquitous machete to cut it up into pieces for sampling.

This was the best fruit of the whole trip!

The plant is following the same composting regime as Alvero is on his organic farm and the plant has noticed better production on the areas where this compost is applied.

one year ago…”Storm Day 3″

February 24, 2008 – San Jose Farmer’s Market and Poas Volcano

Since most farms/factories are closed on Sunday, today was a less intense learning day.  The Farmer’s Market was open, so we spent the morning there.

It seemed like it was about 10-12 blocks long – full of strange fruits and vegetables, noisy vendors, and people hawking lottery tickets like ticket scalpers.

Linda tries some coconut milk straight out of the container.

This vendor has a big block of ice and shaves off shreds and dumps in some fruit juice for a real icee.

A vendor who specializes in root crops.

The green, spiny fruits are guanabanana – commonly used for flavoring in desserts and in juice.

The watermelon from this booth was just fantastic.

Ticos have different understanding about egg handling.  The eggs here and in the grocery stores were unrefrigerated and sold in two dozen quantities.

These boys at the meat booth were happy to show how strong they are!

You could get fresh fish at the market.

Or even fresher fish as this vendor was selling aquarium fish nearby the fish vendor.

I couldn’t pass this vendor truck up. I’m hoping it was a problem in translation…

Next was the long and winding drive up to the Poas Volcano.  We never saw the volcano as it was shrouded in fog and clouds, but we could smell it, so we know it was really there.

Even though it was disappointing not to see the volcano, we were able to enjoy the trail through a cloud forest at the top of the mountain.

Look for Linda at the base of this massive tree fern!

This would make a heck of a floral filler for a Paul Bunyan-esque bouquet!

This plant that looks like giant rhubarb leaves is called Poor Man’s Umbrella.

Here’s a flower from some jungle flower.

one year ago…”Storm Day 2″

February 23, 2008 – InBIO Park/Group

Today we visited InBIO park, kind of a rainforest research theme park in San Jose. Lots of different concepts going on, and I’m not sure it all works together, but it is certainly worth a try.

Here are some beetles. They even had samples of the pupae you could look at in jars. A part of the park’s mission is to catalog all the species in Costa Rica. They have scientists collecting plants and insects throughout Costa Rica and keep one sample here and move another sample to their partners in the U.S. including the Missouri Botanical Gardens. The taxonomists here identify on average of four new species each week!

Here is a bird I’ve only seen in my Peterson Field Guide to Birds, the Anhinga. This bird sulks under the surface of the water with only its elongated neck and head out of the water, looking much like a cobra sticking out of the water.

A handsome iguana.

Our friend the sloth comes down the tree about once a week. We were lucky enough to spot it while it was descending. As our interpreter so kindly put it the day before, the sloth is coming down to “dump” – a once a week excursion.

Here is Felipe, one of the arrangers/hosts of the trip and a professor at the University of Costa Rica. The 22 members along on this trip were a diverse lot. Included were large corn/soybean farmers, extension professors and scientists, small farmers, and a famous state horticulturist and entomologist (if you listen to Iowa Public Radio call-in shows). It was kind of like summer camp all over again – with a lot of together time in the air, on the bus, eating meals, and touring farms. The group jelled well and really seemed to enjoy each other’s company.

one year ago…”Day 1 Storm of the Century (so far)

February 22, 2008 – Organic Farm Tour/Wal-Mart Brokers

Our first tour was to an organic farm.  The farm was located up in the mountains outside of San Jose, the capital city.

The man in the white hat is the farm operator and the woman is the daughter of one of the professors at the University of Costa Rica who came along as the interpreter.  Here Alvaro discusses his composting/soil fertility system.

There is a commercial potato farm across the road from Alvaro’s farm that struggles with pest and disease problems, requiring many applications of fungicides and insecticides.  Alvaro’s potatoes do not suffer the same problems and his explanation is the soil characteristics and the potato variety.

Here is an intercropping of carrots and radishes in one of his diversified beds.

Farming on a slope in a place that receives 120 inches of rain a year requires some ingenuity.  He digs these holes throughout his farm along natural drainages.  They receive water during rains and if the erosion starts moving soil, the holes catch the soil so it doesn’t leave his farm

Alvaro had many scarecrows to try to frighten off birds.  Here’s one that give the illusion of movement.

Here’s one wearing a cap from Iowa State! That should be good enough to scare any pest away!

Alvaro also uses vermiculture to help break down organic materials and improve his soil.  He piles up weeds and wast organic matter in the field and seeds them with the vermicomposting worms to break down the piles faster.  Here we are admiring a sample of the worms and the powerful castings.

Alvaro is very much an innovator. Here is a drainage that comes from his pig pen to an inlet pipe.  The interpreter used a kind word to describe the animal manure.  She said “the dump from the animal.”  Alvaro has recently been convinced that his system would not work nearly an well without animals as part of his system.

The dump goes to what he calls his artificial intestine, a makeshift methane digester.  He made this system for less than $100.  The slurry goes into the digester, there’s a relief valve for the methane and a water lock for the liquids leaving the bladder.  He pipes the methane to a stove that he uses to dry things in a nearby shed.  He hopes to someday build his house here and use the methane for the cookstove in his house.  Again, a really neat low-tech solution to making nearly free energy from a waste product in most modern non-integrated production systems.

Finally, he didn’t let us go without providing the 22 of us with lunch!

The second half of the day we visited a fruit broker that was recently purchased by Wal-Mart.  We visited the warehouse where the farmers dropped off the products and they were routed to trucks.  We were not allowed to take photos, had to take off all our jewelry, including rings, earrings, and the like.  The warehouse was essentially a building with loading docks on both sides full of crates of products in the middle.  They were happy to take many pictures of us (although we were forbidden to do likewise).

The owners were very proud that Wal-Mart purchased them, but their formula for offering farmers credit to expand, offering growing assistance, and cornering their market sounded a lot like business from colonial days on forward – get farmers in debt, become the primary source of information, and control access to markets.  The farmers in this system even have to buy and package the products.  So, if you are a potato farmer, you have to bring all the potatoes already weighed, cleaned, and bagged in the retail containers/bags and purchase all the packing materials and handling equipment.  The morning and afternoon could not have demonstrated a bigger contrast in growing and distribution systems.  Interestingly, the organic farm was the most popular visit for most of the trip participants.

one year ago…”Thingamajig Thursday #62

February 21, 2008 – Arrival in Costa Rica

After a 10 day absence we are back! We’ve been in Costa Rica and just returned.

As I get time, I will have about 10 days worth of photos from an agricultural tour of Costa Rica. We were invited to trek to Costa Rica by a group at Iowa State that is the beneficiary of a global agriculture grant. About 22 of us went down to Costa Rica and this summer about 15 or so Ticos (Costa Ricans) will come to Iowa to do likewise. Our hosts were from the University of Costa Rica and they arranged the itinerary that included a variety of farms and lodging as you’ll see in the next few entries. It was a rare chance to get an inside view of tropical agriculture, with great variety – from a small organic farmer high up in the mountains, to a fruit broker recently purchased by Wal-Mart.

In our introduction to Costa Rica we learned some interesting facts. Costa Ricans have a slightly longer life expectancy than the U.S., a nearly equal literacy rate to the U.S., but only 10% of U.S. income. The country has a much higher standard of living than its Central American neighbors and when we asked the presenter why he thought the reason that Costa Rica was so much better off than its neighbors, he said in part, it is because in 1948 Costa Rica abolished the military. In so many cases, Ticos saw Central American countries using military force most often against their own citizens, with frequent civil wars, military coups, and the like. They reasoned that the country was so small, if a big country really wanted to invade, their military would not be able to stop an invasion any way. So, they funneled all the military spending into education, health care, and other services and the result is a country that many immigrants from other countries flock to for work and a chance at a better life.

one year ago…”Last Snowbanks?

February 20, 2008 – Attic Progress

A bit of a milestone has passed in the attic.  All of the beadboard is up on the walls and most of the fixtures are up. We just have the trim, painting the floor, the built-in bookshelves and closet and storage doors to build/do.

This is the view to the south out the new dormer.  Although the attic update pictures are legion on this blog, here is the same view before dormer and here is the view of the roughed in the roughed in dormer.

one year ago…”A Dark Side of Rural America”

February 19, 2008 – Things Are Better for Our Kids!

As parents, we’d like our kids to have it as good or better than we did as kids.  While going through some old photos, we ran across this photo of the champions of the Danny Hauer Tournament Feb 15, 1973. So this week is the 35th anniversary of that team!

Everybody in my family seems to think that #22 isn’t exactly stylin’!  Hey, I’m not the only one who is wearing black socks, but I am perhaps most ready to fjord across a stream without getting my shorts wet!

Here’s a photo of the offspring of #22 35 years later.  I think most people would agree, Emma has it going on much more so than her father, at least on the basketball court!

one year ago…”I’m Melting”

February 18, 2008 – Same Story, Different Day

Still no snow plow.  The snow stopped and the sun came out, but the wind is howling again!

This morning a pickup truck and blade tried to punch through, but gave up in front of our place.  The plow came and punched a path later in the afternoon, but with the 7 ft high banks down the road and this wind, it just filled right back up.  At this rate, the kids will be going to school in July!  There’s a reason people live, I’m just not sure why today!  Maybe in April we’ll have an answer.

one year ago…”A Day of Thought and Beauty”

February 17, 2008 – This is Getting Redundant!

OK, I know you are getting sick of snow pictures, but its only fair to share some of the winter pain with all of you, if even vicariously.

The storm was much less than advertised.  The forecasters predicted 1/3 to a 1/2 inch of ice, followed by 8 inches of snow, topped off with 50 mph winds just for kicks.  The warnings included stocking up on batteries and blankets, battery powered radios to cope with the predicted power outages.  I’m a bit gunshy after lat year’s ice storm/blizzard sequence, so was relieved when we only got a coating of ice, 4 inches of snow and 40 mph winds.  Nonetheless everything is shut down until the snow plows come.

one year ago…”Change is Hard”

February 16, 2008 – Thinking Ahead to Spring…

After a few years of planting “safe” trees, this year it time to go out on a limb in a manner of speaking and try some more unusual varieties.  It was prudent to start with native trees for the bulk of the planting, but now it’s time to experiment a bit a push the growing zones a bit.  All the following photos and descriptions are from Oikos Tree Crops in Michigan (I like to get trees from north of me, to help with hardiness, although I know that most of Michigan is a zone warmer than here due in part to the Great Lakes).  I ordered four of each to start.

New northern pecan selection created by using wild tree germplasm from across the U.S. Selections were based on the early ripening characteristics, so all seedlings would fill nuts every year in southern Michigan. Special thanks to the Northern Nut Growers Association, and some of our more nutty customers, we were able to obtain seed from Minnesota to northern Illinois. Some of this strain has its origin near the ancient portages on numerous Midwestern rivers and streams. It took about 25 years to evaluate this strain completely. In the last 10 years of nut production, there was only one year that the nuts didn’t fill. That was the same year the Concord grapes didn’t reach their normal sugar count and we had a frost at the farm on the eve of July 1. Besides that one extreme, we always have trees producing in our hedgerow. Starting in early October, the nuts will begin filling and be completely out of the shuck throughout the month of October and early November. Although many of the original seed trees have perished on the Mississippi flood plain, we are fortunate to grow and offer these as progenitors of a new generation of the most northern hardy pecan. Height to 60 ft. with equal width. Hardiness -35 °F.


Next to the English walnut, heartnut is the easiest of the walnuts to use for nut production and edibility. The flavor is very mild, similar to cashews. Clusters of nuts are produced in profusion near the ends of the branches. The nuts are fairly easy to crack and come out in halves and wholes. The trees are easy to grow as a yard tree and will develop a wide spreading crown with horizontal branching. Young trees can bear nuts when only 4-6 ft. tall. A few insects attack the tree, but resistant to all fungal diseases that attack butternut or black walnut. Hardiness -25

The American persimmon is one of the most luscious and sweet fruits containing up to 30% sugar. ‘If not ripe,’ said Captain John Smith of Jamestown, ‘it will draw a man’s mouth awrie with much torment.’ ( Hmm – Similar to eating my grandmother’s corn relish.) And that’s the real challenge of growing persimmons north of their native range. Unripe fruit will make it difficult to use them for anything except frozen golf fruit balls and possibly feeding a few birds and deer. As the fruit ripens the astringency decreases and the sweetness increases. Trees can grow throughout the north even in Minnesota or Maine but in short season areas the fruits will not be edible to humans. Contrary to folklore, frost has little to do with ripening. Having a long warm fall something like an Indian summer really does wonders for edibility. About 25 years ago, we began surrounding our property line with American persimmons from different northern seed sources. Today we have many trees producing a wide variety of shapes and sizes of fruit. Ripening occurs from mid-September through late November. After the leaves fall, the fruit hangs on throughout the fall and winter. All types of wildlife consume this high-energy fruit either in the tree or on the ground. A favorite of deer, persimmons are a strong attractant and will bring them in quantity to your property. Deer rarely browse seedling trees since the foliage is poisonous to them. Persimmon is in the ebony family and the wood is very valuable for special uses like golf club heads. Dark heartwood. Persimmons will grow in a variety of soils, including clay, sand or wet muck. Tolerant to shade and competition from grass or other trees. Trees begin producing at 6-8 years of age. Dioecious-male and female flowers on separate plants. A seedling population will contain a 50-50 mix. There is no way to know ahead of time what sex the tree is until it flowers. Space 10-30 ft. Height to 50 ft.-30 F hardiness for our strains.

The largest native fruit – up to one pound – with a rich, custard-strawberry, banana flavor. Purple orchid flowers in early May. Best growth in a rich, moist high-organic soil, although tolerant to sand and clay. Grows extremely well throughout North America from Florida to Maine to Nebraska. Some commercial growers are found in California too. Two are required for fruit set. They need each other’s pollen to produce. It takes 4-8 years before fruiting begins. Slow-growing at first, established plants average 1-2 feet growth. The Louisiana Indians wove the inner bark into fiber cloth. The fruits can be made into jam or custard and mixed to make cookies and cakes. The fruits can be eaten fresh after they become soft and fully ripened in September and October. The seeds are lima bean shape and contain alkaloids that are not ingested by birds or mammals. Raccoons and possums are frequent visitors to the groves we visit in the wild. Deer never eat the foliage of the plant. A pyramidal tree to 20 feet. Plant 10-15 feet apart for a dense grove or 20 by 20 for an orchard. Great understory tree with oak, hickory and maple.

one year ago…”The Cast”