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College Employees – Spring Break in Puerto Rico

Susquehanna University is on the leading edge with the school’s most recent study abroad program.

A generous donation from a Susquehanna alum was earmarked to send a small group of faculty and staff on a seven-day trip to Puerto Rico during 2016’s spring break. The gift was designated to pay the expenses for ten employees so they could experience an immersion into a different culture, specifically outside of the United States. The experience is designed to give the participants the same cultural experience students receive on a three week GO Short program and was coordinated by Spanish Studies Abroad.

The program was open to all faculty and staff at Susquehanna University. Any interested employee was required to submit an essay describing how the trip would benefit both the employee and the university. The selection process was completed; the people were required to attend evening “prep” classes scheduled prior to the trip. These classes provided instruction in packing, practicing of common Spanish phrases and addressed health, safety and food concerns.

After the group arrived in San Juan, they traveled to Ponce to spend a half day with a K-12 charter school. A trip to an organic farm in the central mountain rainforest provided a look how a farm can be self-sustaining while providing ecological benefits to the local watershed. A service learning trip to La Perla allowed the travelers to paint and clean up a city playground. Later in the week, the group met the island’s most popular artist and sculptor, learned about fishing from a local fisherman and experienced the lights of a bioluminescent bay. Other cultural experiences included decorating masks used in religious ceremonies, learning about the island’s military fortifications and discussions about the Spanish influence on the inhabitants. Throughout the entire trip, the group had an embedded, native Puerto Rican tour guide who thoroughly explained the cultural components.

Upon their return to the United States, the group met for reflective classes. These classes assisted the participants to “unpack” the many cultural workings they experienced. Associate Registrar Monica Leitzel explained to the class how the trip has helped her “…connect with our students as they prepare to go abroad for a semester.” She added, “I feel that I can relate to our students on a different level.”

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Organic Farming – Branching out in the Rain-forest

Farming in America presents enough challenges, so imagine the unique difficulties having your farm located in a rainforest in Puerto Rico. Every morning Jorge and Denise Pérez face various challenges on their organic farm located high in the Cordillera Central (Central Mountains) of Puerto Rico.

The Pérez family began their farm a few years ago after procuring a hilly tract of land near the municipality of Utuado, situated in the central-western mountain region of Puerto Rico. They decided to create an organic farm and eschew the use of pesticides and fertilizers. They also avoid the usage of most gasoline powered farming equipment. Both Jorge and Denise have a desire to have a minimal environmental impact on the land, spawned out of their love of nature.

Jorge is a native Puerto Rican and grew up in the Utuado area. He was raised in an area where the local Grande de Arecibo River had been compromised by surrounding farms and other businesses for decades. These farms permitted massive amounts of sediment and pesticides to pollute their drinking source. Local businesses also contributed to the water problem by allowing various chemicals to flow freely into the watershed.

The Grande de Arecibo River starts high in the mountains of Puerto Rico and has four reservoirs located along its length. These dams allow various water authorities to use the water for distribution throughout local municipalities. After the Vivi reservoir in the Utuado area was deemed contaminated with pollutants and filled with sediment, the local population could no longer use the water for drinking and restrictions were put into place. It took a large amount of tax money to drain and clean the bottom of the river. The local population had to become part of the solution so they could help in preventing further pollution to their drinking water source. Jorge did not want his family to experience the environmental tragedy he saw growing up around Utuado.

Denise came to Puerto Rico from Canada to study ecological biology in the rainforest. She immediately fell in love with the country and quickly knew she would not return to Canada. After meeting Jorge and falling in love, they married and started a new family. Eventually they settled down on a tract of land only a few miles from Jorge’s homestead.

After purchasing their land, they surveyed the parcel and decided on a strategy to best utilize the entire piece of land, while leveraging ecological benefits as well. Afterwards, the Pérezes began the task of clearing out a few acres of the rain forest while leaving the fruit bearing trees in place. Any semi-flat area was designated as the place where leafy vegetables would be planted. Any hillsides that were cleared were planted with a special Puerto Rican grass. This native grass ultimately provides two benefits to the environment. The grass will hold the soil firmly in place during the rainy season and it also filters the water by removing any chemicals from the water. Any cleared land area that had a modest level of incline would have fruit or nut bearing trees planted on the slopes.

The Pérezes decided to grow a vast variety of native and non-native plants which included vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs and spices. They began growing the plants they wanted to personally consume but soon they expanded their farm to include a broader variety of plants. They conducted extensive research concerning non-native plants and found other plants, like kale, which would thrive in a rainforest farm. Soon they were growing a broad variety of consumable fruits and large leaf vegetables. In order to sustain their crop, the couple refused to grow hybrid plants which do not contain seeds which can reproduce. Avoiding hybrid seeds and plants allowed them to control their own seed inventory and eliminate any dependency on seed companies such as Monsanto.

Jorge applied his carpentry skills to transform the property’s cabin like structure into the new family homestead. With the assistance of his father and brothers, he more than doubled the square footage of the original building by adding bedrooms and a family sized bathroom. He added plumbing to the house and updated the kitchen with modern fixtures and appliances. Lastly, he refinished the main living space while preserving the original beams and unique woodworking. After the home was complete, Jorge built a garage for the storage of farming equipment. Soon after Jorge and Denise finished their construction projects, their first child was born.

After a few growing seasons, the Pérezes realized the benefits of rotating the types of plants being grown around the various cleared sections of the farm. One of the benefits of rotating plantings allows the composting of weeds and plants in any unused sections. The composting allows nutrients and minerals to return into the soil. A successful organic farm is highly dependent on the proper maintenance of the soil via composting since synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are not used. After composting has completed in a section of land, the Pérezes will allow the soil in a section to “rest” from producing plants. Resting a section of land prevents nutrients and minerals from being drawn out by plants and allows for replenishment of missing elements. Some of the growing seasons are as short as four weeks, mainly for broad leaf plants. Short growing seasons facilitates the rotating of crops among different plots.

An organic farmer leads a very busy life. The Pérezes are both involved in the work on their farm and they employ two part-time locals during busy times. Most days the Pérezes start their work before daylight and continue until dusk performing farming tasks. The most time consuming tasks include planting, weeding, watering, harvesting and trimming back the ever expanding rainforest plants. A sizeable buffer between the farmland and the rainforest is required to keep snakes, like the boa constrictor, from infiltrating into the groundworks of buildings. The only gasoline powered tool in use on the farm is used to maintain this buffer. This multipurpose tool uses different attachments (a string trimmer or a saw blade) depending on what type of plant is being cut back. The Pérezes also have several dogs which help in keeping snakes away from their home. Jorge also spends many hours performing maintenance on the farm’s water management system.

Water management is an important component of maintaining an organic farm in a rainforest. During the rainy season, it is important for water to run off from the land while not removing fertile soil from the fields. Eliminating standing water is needed to prevent insects from breeding in these pools. During the dry season, maintaining adequate watering is required, even on a farm in a rainforest. Jorge fabricated an extensive water collection system during the construction on his home and garage. His system captures all of the water from the buildings’ spouting into three 1,000 liter holding tanks. A connected pump and pressure tank allow water to be pumped to elevations 100 feet above the water tanks. The farm has a framework of buried PVC pipe which provides water to each section of the farmland. Each section has an above ground water faucet and facilitates the use of sprinklers as needed. Gravity is used to water sections of the farm situated below the level of the water tanks.

The Pérezes have expanded their organic farm outreach to include the farmers market in San Juan. Each Saturday, Denise will load up harvested crops and transport them to market. On her return trip from San Juan, she makes regular deliveries to restaurants, food stands and will barter with other farmers located close to their farm. On a typical day, she will bring home coffee, meats and other items after trading products. They estimate they raise about 25 percent of the food products they consume on a yearly basis. Jorge is also skilled at creating elaborate wood burning crafts which Denise sells at market. In 2016, they began hosting tours, in conjunction with a local company, to boost awareness of the organic farm industry.

If you want to want to understand how an organic farm operates in the Puerto Rico rainforest, stop by the Pérez’s farm and plan on spending several hours working alongside of Jorge and Denise. They always welcome any donated labor.