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″