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In Upping Yields on Nicaraguan Farms, Israelis Make Gains in Diplomatic Field

The newly built pens for calves on the Enriquez family farm here are an unusual but clear sign of the budding friendship emerging between this impoverished Central American nation and Israel. With help from Israeli foreign aid worker and advisor Chaim Blustein, the farm has begun to pen calves, bringing mortality rates down from 33 percent to 2 percent while boosting the farm’s milk output. Two hours away at a charity-run training farm for orphans, Israeli agronomist Meir Shany has helped dramatically boost squash exports.

Both men are experienced employees of MASHAV, an education cooperation program run by the Israeli government. Blustein and Shany work with a Michigan State University program funded by the United States Agency for International Development to assist Nicaragua’s farmers in bringing agricultural practices into the modern era. In the second-poorest country in the Americas, one of the world’s least developed nations, many farmers still rely on ox carts and manual labor for the bulk of their agricultural work, holding yields down.

“We are talking about agricultural methods from the beginning of the last century,” Shany noted. He cites shallow field tilling, a resistance to using fertilizers and a shortage of trained agronomists are factors in the poor performance by local farmers.

The agronomists’ efforts to update these methods are doing more than just changing husbandry techniques and raising vegetable outputs. They also represent a modest step in bringing Nicaragua closer to Israel.

Those shortcomings are clearest in the long-neglected dairy sector, where Blustein is hoping to improve things. Despite Nicaragua’s low milk consumption, which is to some degree a result of the limited availability of electricity and refrigeration, milk must be imported. The Enriquez farm is symptomatic of the challenges facing dairy farmers.

Milking is still done by hand and cows get most nutrition from pasture, resulting in erratic nourishment and output. Most dairy farms with easy access to refrigeration facilities are in hot, lowland areas inhospitable to pure-bred dairy cows, so the burden of production falls on breeds mixed with non-dairy brahmas. The Enriquez farm raises its cows for both milk and meat.

“Here, there is not a milk-drinking culture,” Blustein said. “There are not well-trained people in the fields.”

The stalls for calves may be the clearest example of the frustrations Blustein faces. On the day of his visit, he arrived to find the concentrated feed in troughs covered by a layer of freshly cut grass, a no-no in his eyes. Painstakingly, he attempted to explain to the farmhands, none with more than an elementary education, why the grass did more damage than good.

Encouraged by the reduction in calf mortality, the farm is considering buying mechanical milking machines to handle the increased production from its 376 cows, which currently produce about 6 liters of milk per cow per day. But not all of Blustein’s suggestions are being taken to heart. Calves are released into the fields after six months — 18 earlier than the Israeli would like — and weight controls remain rudimentary so cows that do not develop at the right rate are not given the nutritional boost from commercial feeds they should get.

Blustein is optimistic the farm will regularly produce over 8 liters of milk per cow per day, a boost for the farm but still a far cry from the 20 liters a day cows in the highlands of neighboring dairy exporter Costa Rica produce, and a pittance compared to the 38 liters that is the industry standard in Israel.

Shany seen similar improvements. At the Verbo Christian Mission Farm outside of Managua, the orphaned farmhands hope to begin planting in their first greenhouse this month and expect to rake in another bumper crop of butternut squash for export.

At Shany’s suggestion, the farm has begun using drip irrigation, mulch and deep plowing techniques. As a result, its nutrient-rich soil has suddenly seen its productivity boom even as pesticide use has declined.

By plowing fields under using deep plowing methods, “the plants fertilize the soil and that is something that local farmers do not understand and is one of the basic things that we teach,” Shany said while watching the plows dig into the soil.

The 1979 Sandinista Revolution put Nicaragua at the center of the Cold War, with the leftist government building cozy relations with many Arab countries and recognizing the “State of Palestine,” which maintains a fully accredited embassy here. As the Sandinista regime approached its fall in 1990, it awarded passports to an undetermined number of PLO cadres.

While Palestine still has an embassy in Managua, a series of U.S.-oriented administrations has also reopened diplomatic relations with Israel, allowing Blustein, 57, and Shany, 52, to become the first Israeli officials to be stationed in Nicaragua since 1979.

Though neither agricultural engineer feels they are opening new diplomatic opportunities for Israel, they are aware of the politics and say their reception has been positive.

Shany sees promoting Israeli-made agricultural supplies, like greenhouse systems, as part of his job and trade is indeed increasing, although “Nicaragua is not in a very good economic situation,” as the Costa Rica-based Israeli ambassador to Nicaragua, Alexander Ben-Zvi, is quick to point out.

Both Shany and Blustein have been in Nicaragua for over a year and expect to stay at least until the end of this year, though the length of their stay depends, in part, on continued U.S. financing.

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