Students Celebrate Earth Day Learning About Panamanian Agriculture

By Amanda Moses

Earth Day was celebrated on April 22nd, and to commemorate the occasion, Garden Educator, Jacqui Roytman introduced students in PS 346 to Lucy Spence, an agricultural and sustainability expert.

Throughout the school year, Roytman has been instructing students, virtually, in Ms. Jessica Wortman’s fourth and fifth grade science classes about how and where various assortments of food are grown. Students have learned that while some of the produce they consume is cultivated locally, many fruits, vegetables, and grains have been transported across the United States, and there are several specialty items that must be imported from other countries.

Tropical environments like Latin America are known for their coffee and source of cacao.  Utilizing the internet platform Google Meet, Roytman connected students with invited Peace Corps member, Lucy Spence, to share her experiences living with the Ngabe community within Cerro Vaca in the Comarca Ngäbe Buglé in Panamá. Spence lived with the Ngäbe (the language spoken is Ngäbere) and learned how to harvest, farm, and cook specialty items such as coffee and cacao.

The Ngäbe travel up and down a mountain top to harvest and cultivate food, sometimes utilizing a horse or donkey to help transport sacks of corn, rice, and other items. Spence said that she helped harvest fruit that resembles small cherries from a coffee tree.  The harvested fruit is left in the sun for hours to dry and turn brown, extracting the bean.  This process takes a while since the beans need to be rotated allowing each side to dry evenly. Once the beans are dried, they are grounded into a powder. Spence shared photographs of how the coffee beans are grounded atop of a rock. Whenever the Ngäbe want to drink coffee, they brew the coffee bean powder in a bucket over a small fire, adding milk and sugar to their taste.

Christina, a fourth grader, was so intrigued by the process she asked Spence if they are able to grow coffee in New York. Spence said that coffee trees grow best in humid, tropical environments.

The next plant the Ngäbe grew is cacao, used to make chocolate. A cacao plant looks almost like an orange with a hard-shell. Many of Wortman’s students were surprised that this bright orange shell held the key ingredient to their favorite sugary snack.

After cutting the cacao down from a tree, it is cracked open to reveal a thick white gooey substance. Spence told the students that while this may not look like chocolate, it has a bitter yet delicious taste. The gooey center is placed in a pot and roasted, sugar and milk are added to sweeten it.

Mykel was taken aback by the cacao plant and asked why does the inside look like potato salad. Spence assured him that while it looks different than the chocolate we are used to, it does have a nice taste when eaten raw.

Amber, who is in fifth grade, wanted to know where the cacao seeds are located inside of the fruit and if it was anything like a tomato? Spence explained to the class that it is almost like a tomato, so you can remove a seed from the gooey substance and plant it to create a cacao tree.

Another student shared how her family grew similar plants in the Dominican Republic and recalled what it was like living on their farm when she visited.  Roytman was proud to see the students make connections from Panamanian culture to their own personal lives.

Spence also shared that she was set to live within Panamá for two years; however, the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic cut her visit short. It was after she arrived back in the United States that she began working with the Syracuse Refugee Agriculture Program, an upstate New York organization that teaches refugees how to farm, purchase land, and sell their harvested items in a market. Upon returning from Panamá, Spence wanted to make sure she took a job that had similar values of working with people and farming. 

For the past eight months, Spence works as the logistical person to facilitate grants to help refuges access land, classes, and other tools to utilize to grow food in the United States through the Syracuse Refugee Agriculture Program.

“Land is really hard to access here in the United States, especially up in central New York land is so expensive and so many people come from a place where they are used to farming and they had huge farms, and then they come into the US and they can’t even grow in their backyard or front yard or anything. So, we have partner farms in these community gardens where farmers enter our program, and as long as they are attending classes, we can provide transportation and everyone gets their own plot of land,” Spence said, sharing that the Syracuse Refugee Agriculture Program also helps to provide seeds, and the instruction is free of charge.  

The students learned that the organization Spence works with empowers refugees by providing the tools necessary to farm various fruits and vegetables, which they can choose to use for their family or sell at a local farmer’s market. Spence also shared that some of the refugees bring seeds from their country to grow here, such as mustard greens or African eggplants.

“Our mission is helping farmers to have access to land to increase their own self sufficiency in growing culturally appropriate crops,” Spence said, adding “The idea is we are here to help you find the resources to grow what you want.”

Both the fourth and fifth grade classes thoroughly enjoyed the lesson with Spence, learning both how farmers grow food in Panamá and refugees are given opportunities to harvest and sell plants in the New York.

Photos courtesy of Lucy Spence