Jun 13, 2013
Guatemalan valley visit unveils unique watering system

The Valley of Almolonga in Guatemala is staggeringly gorgeous. Especially to a vegetable grower: an irregular checkerboard of small fields, all verdantly green, framed on both sides by the steep, mist-whispered mountains as the valley runs off through the volcanic ridges.

My brother and I were gaga-eyed as soon as we rounded the mountain road into the valley. We saw immaculately cultivated fields with healthy crops in perfect spacing. We passed people on the street with small, 1-horsepower Honda engines hanging from their shoulders, larger 6-horsepower pumps hanging from their backs, or backpack sprayers. We wondered what the secret was to this lush vegetable paradise. For these two vegetable growers, the entire valley was a beautiful and ingenious puzzle that was fun to solve through observation, hypothesis and conversations with growers.

Paths were as wide as a foot – a human foot. The edges of the fields were planted in edge crops, mostly leeks and some chard. On the embankments grew mint and rue, and in the irrigation ditches watercress was growing. These were not volunteers; all herbs showed signs of being harvested.

The irrigation was astounding. The Maya Highlands around Almolonga were parched brown at the time, it being the end of the six-month dry season, but the valley has a lot of water because the water table is very close to the surface. There are shallow wells throughout the valley, with either hand or gas pumps that are used to fill the irrigation ditches and underground cisterns and provide pressure to irrigation systems if the growers have installed them.

Field sizes varied, but they averaged 50 feet by 50 feet. All fields had an irrigation ditch on at least two sides. The ditches ranged from mere impressions in the ground to rock-lined streams a foot wide and 3 feet deep, with watercress growing in them. Scattered throughout the ditches like pearls on a necklace were small concrete pools. There was a pool about every three fields. Some were concrete bowls holding only 25 gallons, others were larger cisterns. We were confused – they seemed too small to be water reservoirs. We approached an old woman watering a field of onions with a wand. At the other end of her hose was a small gas motor and an underground cistern. The woman told us that the small pools were wash basins for the produce. So they too practice hydrocooling in the field.

Some fields had white polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, pipe sticking up out of the ground every 25 feet. Each pipe had a valve on the end. We saw people with wands watering – the end of their hose connected to one of the PVC spigots. We surmise that they pressurize the whole line of spigots with a gas pump and connect their watering hose to progressing spigots as they move down the field watering.

We tried to approach several people we saw working in the fields from afar, but we could not find our way to them without walking through fields of closely spaced plants – something no grower would do. Finally, we reached a man on his hands and knees in a freshly tilled field of fine tilth. We had many questions for him. The foremost was how to explain the fields of direct-seeded crops such as radish and carrot – the spacing in the rows was absolutely perfect, there was not a plant missing nor a clump to be seen anywhere. And even more, each row was staggered with the one before it – the whole field looked like a mathematician’s crystalline structure.

As we approached Pedro, we could see that he was planting. Two-thirds of the 50 foot by 30 foot field had small divots placed every 2 inches. In his hand, Pedro held a foot-long curved piece of rebar ground to a point at one end, with a wooden handle at the other end – his planting tool. He was putting two spinach seeds in each hole. This is why the direct-seeded crops had perfect stands and perfect spacing. The answer dawned on us with horror at the labor involved, and admiration for the man who performed it.

Pedro was older than 55, maybe much older. Guatemalans have a way of looking far younger than they are. He had deep wrinkles in his brown skin. Like all Guatemalans, we towered over him. He was friendly and willing to take a break and talk, especially when I gave him some of the Waltham squash and Easter Egg radish seeds I had brought over to trade.

How did he water this dusty, dry field once he had planted it, and how were the other fields kept so lush when it had not rained for months? There were ditches on two opposite sides of the field – but the shallow channels had only a scant few inches of water in them. How was the water applied on the field?

We posed this question to Pedro and he pointed to his pala – a small shovel the size and shape of those we use to clean out fireplaces. But this one was light, made of wood and with a very long handle.

We looked at each other. How do you water with a shovel? In his rubber boots, he stepped into the ditch and started scooping water from the ditch onto the field with quick heaves of his entire body. The arc of silver water flashed through the air and landed on the bare ground – a growing dark patch where the water quenched the soil.

We reacted with horror, thinking of the hours it must take this man to water just one of his small fields – we who with a flick of the valve and an electric bill can water a quarter of an acre at a time with our drip system.

Our horror turned to admiration and astonishment when Pedro told us that is took him but 15 minutes to water this entire field.

“It’s good” he said, “This way, I don’t have to bother with an engine and pump and gas and oil, and I don’t have to lug around the engine.”

I have to wonder if his way isn’t better than mine – tangled drip lines, leaks, electric bills and removing it all to weed only to replace it later.

We asked Pedro about equipment – a walk-behind tractor would fit in perfectly in these small fields and narrow paths.
“No,” he said, “No one has one in the whole valley” – too much money.

As we found out for most of Guatemala, though the machine would pay for itself immediately, there was no way to save up for or borrow the sum needed to buy it. This is essentially the story of the country – substituting a staggering amount of manual labor for relatively simple labor-saving and value-adding machines that they cannot get.

Our visit to this beautiful Guatemalan valley was inspiring and instructive. Young famers in the United States have so many challenges. Visiting this valley makes it look to me that we have it easy enough. We can scrape together the money to buy rudimentary equipment, we have quality infrastructure already built, and we can get financing for labor-saving equipment. Seeing all of the hand labor in Guatemala shows that it’s all relative – Pedro has it hard, but he has a smile on his face. He works slowly and surely every day, and he does not wear his body out trying frantically to get things done.

If he can get by with all of the challenges of living in Guatemala and enjoy himself doing it, then surely I can smile as I turn on the drip, fire up the tractor and head out for another hectic 12-hour day in paradise.

VGN Correspondent Sam Hitchcock Tilton grows vegetables in Rhine Center, Wis.

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