Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wednesday morning at five o'clock

As the sun hinted it might soon peek out above the mountains that surround the valley here, several of us woke up this morning to go for a run through the streets and hills of Santa Maria. Running at dawn is a daily ritual for me when I'm doing fieldwork here, and while I usually enjoy some quiet introspection, I also enjoy it when volunteers join me for some exercise and conversation before breakfast. It's a great way to start the day - we arrive back energized and in time to clean up for breakfast at six, and then it's off to the lab and field!

Today was the third day working in the field with volunteers from Ernst & Young (EY). Coming from all over the U.S. and El Salvador, this group has energetically been continuing the work we started last week with the Fenway High School group. In addition to helping set up insect traps, pollinating coffee flowers by hand, observing & recording the frequency and type of pollinator visits to coffee plants, and assessing ground cover vegetation (as a proxy indicator for farmer practices such as herbicide use), the EY team has also been engaging in some great discussions with CoopeTarrazĂș about management issues. This morning they got a chance to check out commercial hives belonging to a local beekeeper (and coffee farmer – see below); donning bee suits, the intrepid volunteers were treated to an up-close and personal introduction to the busy bees in their honeycombed home.
I continue to be impressed by how engaged the farmers here are in the research we’re doing. Today I had some really interesting conversations with Francisco Alessandro Urena, a farmer who is participating in our study. Francisco is deeply interested in increasing sustainability on his farm – as a coffee farmer and beekeeper he is committed to finding ways of balancing coffee production and conservation. We discussed the current pollinator services investigation at length; during our conversation he enthusiastically noted that recent studies have suggested that bee-assisted pollination can increase coffee yields from 5 to 20%. This level of engagement and interest on the part of participating farmers is really a dream come true for an agroecologist – for me personally, it serves as an inspiration to work even harder to come up with useful information that will help further our understanding of ecological applications as well as help farmers who are continually grappling with issues of sustainability. As bees & their relatives are some of the most sensitive insects to pesticide poisoning, Francisco (and others like him in CoopeTarrazĂș) is trying to find ways of managing his farm in ways that will allow him to minimize his reliance upon chemicals. This is also an issue in avocado production (which he grows in addition to coffee), where several pests attack the fruits and render them too damaged to send to market. Biological control agents such as lacewings are in abundance in the area, and they do a terrific job controlling the pests – unless their populations get knocked down by excessive pesticide spraying. As you might imagine, attaining an environmentally sustainable balance between pest control and profits is a complex challenge – exacerbated by the fact that farmer practices on one farm may have a real impact on neighboring farms. For this reason, it is great working with a cooperative of community-minded farmers at coordinating a regional response to such challenges.

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