The seasons are changing. The mild winter has long since passed and the fickle months of spring—one day boiling hot, the next crisp and chilly—are now on the wane. Here in the southern hemisphere, what comes next is a brutally hot summer. For those plants and crops already in the ground and well established, the summer months are like a hedonistic binge of photosynthesis, so long as the rains keep up, rushing in to break the tension of the heat just before things start to wither and die. Sugar cane sprints towards the sky, mandioca persists in its slow yet steady trajectory, and tobacco makes the most of those beautifully sticky, broad leaves.
Late November through March are typically months of rest for Paraguayan farmers. They have already put in the hard work of clearing land, preparing fields, and sowing crops. As the average temperature slowly rises, peaking sometimes at the unbearable, unworkable highs of 110°F or more, the only thing to do is wait out the heat in the shade with ice-cold tereré (an herbal tea) and chilled watermelon—never together, of course, for Paraguayans believe wholeheartedly that the combined refreshment leaves one liable to explode.
Needless to say, this is not an ideal time to start a garden (in my case, an herb garden). Almost anything that is planted now needs a media sombra (a half-shade structure), ample watering, and almost continual vigilance. But clearly, even after spending more than a year in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer, I still find the need to push the envelope. Maybe this heralds to my inherent propensity to rebel against authority that my mother always scolded me for, or maybe I just want to spice up my food a bit. Either way, the takeaway lesson from this horticultural experiment is that the sun is no force to be ignored. I stand humbly corrected.
A few weeks ago, I began digging a bed along the side of my little brick house for an herb and flower garden. The moment my spade hit the soil, however, challenges seemed to emerge. The soil is unusually porous and sandy, the sun/shade ratio caused by my tin roof is far from ideal, and the chickens—those darned chickens! It soon became evident that this small, simple project would require a fence if it were to succeed (if for no other reason than keeping out lots of curious chickens). So I cleared the small parcel, double-dug and formed the bed, built the fence (this alone was a week-long effort that involved bringing bamboo from 5 kilometers away via ox cart), and constructed a gate.
After a few weeks, the garden was ready. I transplanted some basil and cilantro that I grew from seed, as well as a hot pepper plant and a few sunflowers. Everything, save for the hot pepper and basil, proceeded to promptly die. The other herbs I planted—thyme, lavender, rosemary, chives, spearmint, parsley, and more—have yet to germinate in their containers (it’s been over a week already) and I am beginning to lose faith. I have tried using some wonderful compost from a pile that has been going since I arrived here in Guido Almada, but so far, to no avail.
Watering is a constant concern. Considering that I travel to other volunteer communities and the capital of Asunción as part of my work, getting a reliable neighbor to take up the extra work in my absence is a must. Unfortunately, despite my lavish offerings of compensation to neighborhood kids (money, food, and candy), this has proven difficult as well. I am not sure if this speaks more strongly to the neighborhood children’s adversity for watering my garden or to the unfortunate quality of my food. Regardless, I now have a garden with almost nothing growing in it. The stubborn part of me wants to keep pushing and see if I can trick some of these seeds into bloom. The rational part of me knows that this is an endeavor that is best served by waiting for the cooler autumn months. Perhaps I should take the Paraguayan high road and just sit under a mango tree sipping some tereré in the meantime. —Mario Machado
Of the many projects that comprise the Peace Corps volunteer’s agriculture extension handbook, one of the strangest and trickiest to sell is lombricultura (worm composting in English). On the surface this might seem like a bit of an esoteric endeavor, seeing as the worms need to be of a particular species and the conditions under which they must be kept tend to be rather specific, but the reality is that lombricultura is perfectly suited to helping poor, rural farmers get a quick and lasting boost in production.
The concept is as follows: Certain species of worms (in this case, California red worms) can live entirely within organic material. While other species require soils containing varying quantities of organic material, the good old California red is snug as a bug (or a worm) in a bed of 100 percent organic matter. This means that its digested product—worm excrement, or as it is more scientifically called, worm castings—is itself entirely composed of organic matter. This creates a sort of supercharged compost that can be used in a household garden or, if the operation is big enough, with field crops.
Worm compost has several advantages over regular compost. While both are wonderful and can complement each other greatly, worm castings package the nutrients in a way that is more readily available to plants. The process of worm composting can also be faster than regular composting (this, of course, depends on your methodology and zeal for both).
So the question becomes, how do you sell this type of project to rural, impoverished Paraguayan farmers? In a country where governmental health agents have been warning for years against the harms of intestinal worms, the first challenge is to convince my Paraguayan neighbors to distinguish between parasitic worms and earthworms.
Luckily for me, I have several neighbors who have taken to the concept like fish to water. In particular, Don Garcia, with whom I have been working for quite some time, is enthusiastic about raising worms. We have begun constructing a worm box, a long trough made of recycled brick, concrete, and wood protected by a fence to keep out pests. Soon, a thatch roof will guard it from the sun and excess rain. Upon seeing the care and effort he was putting into this worm project, I joked that his worms were going to have the nicest hotel in all of Paraguay, to which he responded with his typical hearty and soul-lifting laugh.
The worm-farming project won’t change Don Garcia’s life. It won’t help him escape from poverty, something that seems to have a particularly strong grip on him and his family. Still, it will help him improve his daily situation. From helping boost the production of his garden, to helping him increase his livestock quality (worms can also be used as a protein-rich animal feed), to increasing household income (through marketable garden produce and direct selling of worms for fishing bait, a common pastime in my community), this project will help Don Garcia prepare for the future.
The other day he said to me, “People have been asking me ‘Why are you doing this, why do you want worms?’ and I tell them, I am not doing this for me now, I am doing this while I am young so that when I am old I will be able to receive the benefits.” As always I am astounded at his wisdom and perspective, which is rare among Paraguayan campesinos. And so, with that in mind, I continue to plunge knee-deep into smelly worm castings as we endeavor to make his humble vision a reality. —Mario Machado