Day 3: Mist Netting and Sugar Cane
This morning we were able to go out bird-mist netting with Alegandra Martinez. The team involved with this project comes out at 5:00am and starts setting up the nets and then checks each net every half hour to see if there is a bird. We had nets in three different sections of the forest. One section was in an abandoned coffee field, another was in cocoa fields and the third was in Tika fields. I helped set up one of the nets, which is more difficult than it sounds. You cannot let the net touch the ground and it has been pulled tight once you put it up so that when the birds fly into the net it does not hurt them. In our nets we found two birds. When you remove a bird from a net it is a delicate process to untangle the bird and then you place it into a cloth bag to carry the bird back to the research table station.
Once you are back at the table you begin to identify the bird and see if it is a recapture or if it is a new capture. For the recaptures you still take measurements and input the data into the computer but the bird already has a tag on its leg so you just check to make sure it is still firmly attached before letting the bird go. For new captures you need to make sure that the tag you place on the bird is the right size and fit so as not to hamper any of the birds natural abilities. One interesting fact is that you cannot tag hummingbirds because they are so small and we cannot make the bands small enough yet. The age of the bird is estimated by feeling the skull of the bird. Birds are born without skulls and the bone and skull begins to form after hatching. This does not give you an exact measurement but it gives you a good indication of the age of the bird.
It is important in an ecosystem to know how bird populations are doing. This project was started in 2008 and they are trying to keep it going for 10 years so that they have reliable data. There are general trends at the moment but you do not want to assume anything for larger areas. Currently there is a thin line between farmers liking birds and hating them. Birds feed on the coffee borer beetle but then they also consume berries and other fruits. We need to learn more to explain the biodiversity that is possible within different systems.
After the eventful morning of bird-mist netting we headed over to a CATIE’s 450-hectare certified organic sugarcane farm. Since this is an organic sugarcane production most of the exports are to the US, Japan, Europe and the UK. Their hope is to incorporate everything back into the soil by producing their own fertilizer and minimizing the amount of external inputs. The entire production and processing is done on farm and they harvest year round. Each week 5 ½ plots are harvested and each plot is 5 hectares. The processing plant also does conventional sugar cane processing but the excess is not used on the farm so as to avoid any cross contamination.
All harvesting of sugarcane is done by hand and in organic production you cannot burn the sugar cane. It is a little more difficult to harvest organic sugarcane because you cannot burn it, as all of the vegetation needs to be removed prior to leaving the field. In conventional sugar cane production is about 100 – 120 tonnes/hectare and in organic it is about 70 – 80 tonnes/hectare. In every 1000 kg of raw sugarcane harvested it produces about 100 kg of sugar. The price difference between conventional and organic operations is that organic costs about 70% more to produce. There are 100 employees that harvest the sugarcane and they work 6 hours/day. CATIE’s sugarcane farm has an organic certification and fair trade certification, which requires the fair treatment of workers. They are also in the process of becoming Kosur certified as well as their carbon-neutral certification. On top of the minimum wage workers also receive social security money. There are many people who retire from this farm because of the job security and the social security.
Sugar cane is a perennial plant and after harvest a new shoot is produced. The field does not have to be replanted for a total of 5 cycles, which is about 7 years. After this time the soil is left to rest for 6 months and then a leguminous plant like soybeans is planted to aid in nitrogen fixation. The production area that is ideal for sugarcane is between the elevation of 300 – 1000 meters and since Turrialba is within this range and the difference between the night and day temperature ideal for sugarcane production.
In terms of spraying and fertilization, the sugar cane gets sprayed with 4400 litres of fertilizer every four weeks with a foliar treatment that is made on farm. The fermentation of this process is through microorganisms and bio-fermentation with fungi. Leaf litter from the forest is mixed with the fungus in the fermentation containers. After the foliar application is applied the crop is hand mulched with the decomposed fertilizer that is also produced on site. The fertilizer that is produced on site is from the waste from the processing plant and the temperature in the fertilizer can reach upwards of 60 degrees and about 3000 kg is applied per hectare every fourteen weeks. To aid in the production practices of sugarcane disease resistant varieties are used. One of the few external inputs that are brought in to this operation is phosphorus from mines in Chile and Columbia. In most conventional sugarcane productions there are anywhere from 120 – 250 kg of nitrogen per hectare and in this organic sugarcane production they apply approximately 50 kg of nitrogen per hectare.
One advantage that CATIE’s farm has over other farms is that they can sell direct to the buyer, which means they can bargain for better prices, during the rainy season because the markets are small and not full. This farm is also the only one in the area that was signed into the free trade agreement. Another interesting aspect of this farm is that there is 200 hectares of protected forest that they are compensated for in terms of environmental protection. A third interesting aspect of this farm is that they are very involved with training of other local farmers who want to be organic. There are two main training options; one is at CATIE and another is at the National Training Institute and this farm is very involved in them.
After sitting down to lunch at the CATIE Institute we loaded the buses and started the journey to EARTH University. Before we went to far down the road we stopped at the CATIE cocoa propagation station. On the cocoa tree right out front there were 3 different varieties grafted to the one tree. Cocoa is best grown in an agroforestry setting because it has the most diversity of birds, which aids in pollination. Cocoa also needs to be grown in shade and coffee provides 80% shade cover as well as good bird diversity. If you grow cocoa in full sunlight you may need to replant the trees sooner because you overwhelm the electron transport chain. The ideal temperature range for cocoa is between 21 and 30 degree, which is in the lowlands of Costa Rica and it also likes humid environments. Cocoa plants can be either propagated by seed or by grafting and they are extremely heterozygous. It takes 3 – 4 years for the plant to flower and it needs to be pollinated within 48 hours after flowering. The plant then matures at year 5 – 8 and yields after 8 years. There are also usually only 5% of flowers that become fertilized and from that 80% of the cocoa yield comes from only 20% of the crop. The cocoa reproduces from the branch instead of off a flower. Cocoa also has to be pollinated from a different tree.
Most cocoa is grown on small farms in Africa and has a poor reputation for child slavery. Cocoa is used mainly for producing edible chocolate and cosmetics. Another major producer is Ghana and there is concern that in 30 years there will not be any suitable areas for production due to climate change. The production in Costa Rica is small. The processing of cocoa has a significant price and the processing is done in four steps. The first is the fermentation of the bean, drying of the bean, roasting and then cooking of the bean. The processing of chocolate also determines the grade of the chocolate in terms of whether it is fine chocolate or not. Dark chocolate is the real deal according to John. There are many diseases that affect cocoa. Some of those diseases are black pod disease, witch’s broom disease, and frosty pod, some of which are extremely sensitive, and the movement of cocoa is heavily regulated to attempt to prevent the spread of this disease.
The three learning points for this day were number one was that increased diversity means increased birds and the fact that a cocoa plantation in an agroforestry system has more birds than a forest. The second learning point was that organic sugarcane is profitable and do-able, the fact that you can do the entire production process for that crop while still maintaining a farm and creating organic inputs. The third learning point is that there people take their education more seriously than we do so they can better their communities back home compared to us where take education for granted.