Field Scientist – Update

Levo Field Scientist Nate and MH4H Agronomist, Kely

This was a very good introductory week. I flew in on Thursday to Port au Prince and from there I flew to Pignon. Tim Brand, the Executive Director of Many Hands for Haiti (Many Hands, or MH4H), and Craig Gabhart, the co-director of the Many Hands for Haiti base in Pignon, picked me up at “the airport.” By airport, I mean they picked me up at a grass field that served as a landing strip for my four-seater bush plane.

Much work has been done since I was last here, in 2016.  I got a tour the facilities on campus which are very impressive. Many Hands is truly an impressive organization. More important than all the physical building that has been happening, they have many different concurrent projects, including a goat distribution project, a program supporting infants, and a school for children aged 1-4. They have focused on targeting the health of the children in their community in the vital first 1,000 days of life.

In preparation for my visit, the hydroponics were not in use upon arrival.  For the first few days we focused on cleaning them up and preparing them for planting. I worked with Kely, who is in charge of the hydroponic systems on campus, and Claudin, the head agronomist for Many Hands in Pignon, to get the old sealants removed and replaced and to clean out the system pipes. We got everything looking fresh and clean and anticipation was building to begin planting.

Logistical challenges getting supplies in has been a problem to date.  I found that the soil fertilizer that is available locally can be made to dissolve in water if we grind it down with a mortar and pestle first. So, I am going to use this local fertilizer in at least two of the systems to see if this fertilizer could be effective. If this test works, nearly eliminate the risk of running out of fertilizer and probably save money too. Currently, we have stocked up plenty of the supplementary fertilizers CaNO3 and MgSO4 so we will be able to move forward with planting.

On Saturday we planted tomato seedlings in two of the systems! I decided to use the two systems that have the most shade, because we will not have shade cloth available until next week. The 31 tomatoes that were planted have all survived the transplanting process and are currently in good health. We have begun taking data on air temperature, humidity, water temperature, and pH so that we can track how these variables correlate to plant health and growth. We also have decided to measure plant height every week as a proxy for plant health and we will record any nutrient deficiency symptoms, leaf loss, and budding. We should get a lot of interesting information from this data. I have been working to make small adjustments to the systems and have been demonstrating how to maintain the systems and take data for Kely.  He’s a natural scientist and very eager to learn.

When I have not been working on the systems, I have had some really interesting experiences! I climbed Mount Pignon on Saturday morning which was hard work but was worth it when we reached the top and could see as far as the Dominican Republic! The scenery is really beautiful here with the many palm trees and tropical weather. It has been in the mid-80s every day so far, which has been really nice. This is especially true because last time I was in Connecticut we had just experienced a pretty nasty blizzard. I also made a trip to the market to buy some food and supplies. I have been practicing my very beginner Haitian Creole with my friend Felix who is one of the security guards who I speak in Spanish with as he spent time working in the Dominican Republic. I also learned how to wash my laundry by hand as Haitians usually do thanks to two of the missionaries here: Liz and Regan. I have a lot of room for improvement in my technique, however. So far, this trip is really promising and I look forward to continuing to work with these hydroponic systems and to get the rest of the systems planted and operating at full strength.

A hydroponic system is a system used for growing crops that does not use soil, but instead uses solely water to deliver nutrients to plants. In our systems, plants are suspended in water which has essential nutrients dissolved in it. Hydroponic systems have the potential to provide significantly greater yields per area, more complete control over the nutrients plants are receiving, and much more efficient water use. The systems on this campus are here to provide crops for Many Hands as well as to test and work out the best techniques for growing crops hydroponically in the Haitian environment. Some challenges that we have encountered so far have been dealing with the intense sun and temperatures that are present much of the year in Haiti as well as logistical challenges surrounding finding fertilizer and system components in Haiti or shipping them from the United States.

In order to counteract the issues arising from excessive sun and heat exposure we are going to install shade cloth on top of our systems to cut back on the amount of sun that the systems are directly exposed to during the day. In addition, we are going to make sure that the water tanks are covered during the day in order to decrease the amount of water lost through evaporation and to keep the water temperature down. I have also begun to test the effectiveness of local fertilizers in our systems with preliminary success. We are hopeful that we will not have to continue to ship fertilizer in to Haiti which will greatly simplify our supply chain.

These systems have a great deal of potential for positive impact in this community. They can be used to grow crops in areas where soil is not reliable, they are able to decrease water demand and are more resistant to drought than traditional agriculture, and they require significantly less space than traditional agriculture. We are really excited to continue to improve them and increase their distribution.

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