©Jesse Festa/ TNC

By Maryuri Sánchez (TNS) and Horacio Rodríguez (TNC)

Eliana Urbina, Carlos López, Franklin Brenes and Maximiliano González are some of the young extension agents from Nicaragua that are promoting innovation in rural development and local conservation projects, helping us develop healthy agricultural systems in the country. These local technicians show us that we can’t keep repeating the same mistake: entering communities as the “experts” who bring knowledge and a vision for how the landscape should work. The real experts are the farmers, those who live and understand the impacts that their communities face daily.

In the agricultural sector, the flow of information, technology and knowledge from research and academic institutions toward landholders saw an upswing toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the notion of rural extension emerged in the United States. Later, starting in the 1950s, the concept of agricultural extension spread to Latin America and the Caribbean, and gained momentum with the Green Revolution. Since then, the idea of agricultural extension has evolved from a top-down, linear transfer of technology toward a broader perspective, based on innovation systems or networks. In these models, the producers’ wisdom is recognized, and innovation is fostered through a genuine flow of knowledge in multiple directions among all the actors in the agri-food chain (from farmer to farmer, from researcher to producer, from producer to researcher, from producer to extension agent, from extension agent to wholesaler, etc.).

(From left to right, Horacio Rodriguez (TNC), Maximiliano González, Maryuri Sánchez, Eliana Urbina, Franklin Brenes and Carlos López)  ©Jesse Festa / TNC

Within ResCA Nicaragua– a project funded by the United States Department of State, TNC and AgroLAC 2025 – an alliance has been formed that will test these innovative territorial systems this year. Led by TechnoServe (TNS), a global NGO with 30 years of experience in the Nicaraguan ranching sector and Grupo LALA, one of the largest dairy companies in the region, a pilot model will be carried out over the next 18 months. Through this project, a sound healthy agricultural systems strategy is being executed by local rural extension agents rooted in the communities and with extensive networks of producers who can be the drivers of this change. The target: cattle ranching, which is the primary economic source for these local communities and cooperatives. Today, these producers are facing more challenges than just a daunting economy, and to no surprise the challenges are in the climate.

Nicaraguan ranching has its peaks. During the wet season (May – September) the milk production spikes as the landscape turns a lush green. In the departments of Boaco and Matagalpa, local producers fill pichingas (40L) with their cow’s milk which are then transported to the local collection centers and cooperatives. However, in the dry season (October – April) – the picture changes drastically. Production decreases significantly as starved cows no longer have green pastures to roam. Most ranchers sell their cattle for very low prices or are forced to purchase external feed to sustain their cattle during the scarce period. This affects the accumulated earnings through the year and continues a vicious poverty cycle. And with an ever-changing climate, ranchers become extremely vulnerable as the length of the dry period extends longer due to climate change and hits at unexpected times, while the wet season ends before normal. Suppliers, such as LALA, are forced to look elsewhere outside of Nicaragua and the Boaco/Matagalpa region.

We’re confident that ResCA Nicaragua is the initiative that could change all of this. By utilizing silvopastoral systems (a ranching system that involves three forage levels – grasses, bushes, and trees), these ranchers can co-design these silvopastoral systems and test them out across model farms. Fellow producers will learn from their neighbors at these model farms about what practices are working and what is not, so they can adapt and implement on their own farms. This project will present to the producers the different alternatives that are viable based on the micro-climate of their region while also providing guidance for how to adapt to the needs of their farms and the resources they have available.

Cattle graze on fresh grass in the afternoon with lush forested hills in the background in Boaco, Boaco Nicaragua @JesseFesta/TNC

In the four intervention regions of ResCA Nicaragua, TNS’ local rural extension agents come from agricultural, forestry, veterinarian and rural development backgrounds. They are young and emerging professionals, having studied their craft at the most recognized institutions in Nicaragua and yet more importantly, they are from the communities and know the local realities that these ranchers are facing. They are recognized throughout these towns as neighbors, sons of producers, colleagues at the cooperative, and they are all passionate to help bring about change in this pilot project knowing that the impacts could be felt across the national ranching sector.

One aspect that is often neglected, is that, no matter how many trainings or workshops and how much technology transfer is tied to agricultural innovation and extension systems, the final decisions are always in the hands of the producers. These decisions are grounded in the producers’ belief systems and the resources (financial, technical and human) available to them. Therefore, when designing an intervention strategy in the rural sector, it’s essential that the producers can formulate their own approach to the original problem to solve, and that they actively participate during the process. This is based on a methodology that is designed to build upon the producer’s expertise and generate an environment of knowledge exchange to create a horizontal teaching-learning process.

Lastly, it is the ranchers who make the strategic decisions by adapting their ancestral knowledge to the latest technology and aligning it with their cultural standards and development vision. In the field, as academic experts with little field experience, it is remarkable to see this transformation before our eyes. Yet, this is only possible because ResCA Nicaragua is rooted firmly in these local communities with community extension agents who understand this approach, have the trust built with these producers and bring an enormous amount of passion to implement these changes at scale.