AEC in Panama!

Guest Blog by Jessica Harsh and Peyton Beattie
Photos provided by all study abroad participants

Farewell, Panama!

As our time in Panama comes to a close, we can't help but think about the great adventures we had during spring break. Our study abroad trip has allowed us to learn more than we had thought previously. Not only did we learn about our specific agricultural issues, but also about the culture of Panama.

Since we traveled across the country from Panama City to Boquete, we had the opportunity to discover the broader scope of Panamanian culture and agriculture. We will be able to apply this experience to our education and careers in the future. The country was beautiful from the oceans to the mountains. As a bonus, we even got to see and feed wild monkeys, which may be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Thank you for the wonderful hospitality of the Panamaians; it was truly a great experience. Adios, Panama! Hasta Luego!

Our Last Day

Today was our final day exploring Panama! Today’s tours included a horse farm, an orchid farm, and a vegetable garden. We started our day at the horse farm, Haras Cerro Punta. This farm was home 50+ racing horses. Many of the horses at the farm have won many of the big Panamanian racetrack titles. A number of the horses have even won titles at the U.S. Triple Crown. The horses are bred naturally, using parents that have both won titles to ensure winning lineage. Once the foals are born they stay with their mom for two years before they are moved to the yearling pasture to wait their time to be trained to race. While at the horse farm, we each had the opportunity to sit on a Percheron horse for a photo opt! It was super cool!

Next, we traveled farther up the mountain to the Finca Dracuala orchid farm. They grew approximately four to five varieties of orchids and approximately 1,000 different types of orchids. This orchid farm is known to have the second largest collection of orchids in the world. Their most popular type of orchid grown was the Phalaenopsis. The orchid farm grows these flowers primarily for collection purposes and as a tourist attraction. However, they do sell a few of the specialty orchids to others who have collections of their own.

After the orchid farm, Kevin took us to one of his favorite lunch places where we were served a delicious meal. Our lunch destination had an awesome lodge atmosphere where we were able to play a friendly games of checkers and ping pong while waiting for our food. The restaurant staff then took us on a tour of their vegetable garden. All of the vegetables grown in their garden are used for the meals they prepare in the kitchen. This restaurant was relatively ahead of the Panamanian culture as they used recycling bins similar to the U.S.

Tomorrow, we will be traveling back to the U.S. so we are taking in the last few hours of being in Panama!

Day 6

Today was a filled with two cool places! First, we stop at the Universidad de Panama, and we were able to experience what college is like here in Panama. When we arrived at the Universidad de Panama, we were greeted by the past dean and the new, incoming dean of the college. The university is an agricultural college offering degrees in agricultural economics, a degree similar to our FYCS degree, animal science, and plant sciences amongst other agricultural related degree options. We were able to see their working farms on campus, where they produce hay, rice, cattle, and pigs. The hay they produce is available for the local farmer to come and pick up out of the field. Due to the dry season Panama is currently in, the local farmers are thankful for the opportunity to get hay. The university’s working farm sectors sell the harvest to support their faculties wages. As a part of the curriculum, students take a practicum section for almost all courses, which students learn to harvest hay and rice, and work with cattle and pigs. The cost per semester to attend the Universidad de Panama is $27, and lunch is available to students in the cafeteria for $0.60 a meal.

For the second half of the day, we headed in to the mountains of Boquete for lunch, with our coffee tour to follow after lunch. The owner of the farm is from the U.S. who retired in the mountains of Panama on this coffee farm with no intentions of ever producing coffee. Once seeing the land, he immediately fell in love and bought it. After a couple of years of retirement, he decided he needed a hobby to pass the time, and his wife suggested he make use of the coffee farm they lived on. The coffee farm produces coffee for small companies rather than large corporations. They hand-pick they coffee cherries and dry the cherries on drying beds for anywhere from 20 to 40 days depending on the percentage of the humidity of the cherry. Drying beds are used as opposed to rinsing the cherries to be eco-friendly. The trees used on the farm are Arabica coffee trees, as compared to robusta trees. Once the cherries are dried, they have to remove the outer layer of the cherry that holds the beans in the cherry. The farm does roast some of their own in the small roaster they own. They roast occasional batches of the light roast, and roast many batches of medium and dark roast beans. A light roast is a roast that preserves the natural flavors of the coffee more so than the darker roasts.

Tomorrow is our free day, which a few of us are going deep-sea fishing and the others are going to check out the town of Boquete. We will pick the blog back up for Friday’s adventures!

Day 5

In true Panamanian culture, today did not go as planned. However, it was one of the more fascinating days! Rafael, who was our tour guide, showed us salt being harvested right off of the Pacific Ocean. Water in ponds fill up and, when it washes away, it leaves salt behind. They put the salt in piles and then come around in a truck and the workers shovel the salt into the truck. We were unable to see sugarcane production in Panama because they are at the peak of their harvesting season. To make up for that, Rafael was able to add in a tour of a shrimp farm that was not far from the Pacific Coast. Thousands of shrimp larvae are in large tanks where they are fed algae for 21 days. After the 21 days, they are moved to a different tank that allows them to grow for the next three months. Then, the shrimp are ready to be sold to local farmers.

After lunch we visited Silke, a German woman who is completing a project to help her village to become agriculturally sustainable on their own. Silke farms a large variety of trees, fruits, medicinal herbs, and animals. With the agricultural products that she grows, she invites the children enrolled in the school within walking distance of the farm to visit and learn about the different products she grows. These day-long programs for the children include education on trees and plants to grow in their village and how to prepare and cook those products. She teaches these children how to create a balanced meal with items that are growing in their village with the intentions the children will go home and share the knowledge with their families. After every program, the children leave with a small tree they are able to go home and plant with their families.

In addition to children’s programming, Silke does a lot of farmer programming too. She invites approximately 20 farmers to her farm about four to five times a year and teaches them what to grow and how to grow those trees and plants. She even teaches the farmers what plants and trees to grow in order to make the most efficient economical gain for their families. She allows these farmers to leave with a tree of their own as well. A number of months after the completion of the program, Silke visits these farmers to see how their trees are growing and provides feedback for them accordingly. A lot of Silke’s work in her village is similar to the work the Cooperative Extension System does back in the U.S., however, her projects are not governmentally funded. The projects are funded through a partnership Silke has with a German association.

We were excited to learn so much from Silke, and look forward to visiting the University of Panama tomorrow as well as coffee and chocolate!

Day 4

Today we started our agriculture tours! The agenda included a pineapple farm and an organic chicken farm. We said our farewells to Panama City and traveled west across Panama into the countryside where our first stop was at a pineapple farm. Paul was our tour guide, who was also the COO of the pineapple farm. The company was named La Dona of Panama Pineapples, and his entire family is involved in the business. La Donna Pineapples was founded by his mother, who had a vision for not only pineapples but Panamanian agriculture. She recognized a need for this certain variety of pineapples, took it upon herself to learn from people in Costa Rica who were already growing this variety, and began growing this variety. Since, his mother has changed the direction of the pineapple industry in Panama. In 2007 she was named agriculturalist of the year; she has been a pioneer for women in agriculture in the country.

La Dona Pineapples grows fruit for many different markets. Paul said they export a lot of the pineapples to other countries but do supply Panama with fruits they are not able to export. They have organic and conventionally grown pineapples to cater to the different demands of their international customers. They grow pineapples using a black plastic covering, similar to how we grow strawberries in Florida. They also grow pineapples conventionally that they are able to sell to the non-organic market. They grow pineapples primarily for export but what they are not able to export, they are able to sell at the local markets. In addition to pineapples, the business produces a small amount of star fruit and passion fruit, to name a few. Their next steps as a company is expand the agrotourism sector of the business. In addition to tourist, they are beginning to give tours to local and private schools. 

Next, we continued west to meet Jesus, who grows chickens organically. Jesus had a wealth of knowledge about chickens and agriculture. Chickens have been his passion since he was a small boy. Jesus has about five chicken houses where he rotates chickens through who are at various stages of production. Water is not easily accessible to his farm and house so he created a pump to get water from the creek to tanks. He showed us the engineering behind the water system for the chickens. The small creek at the bottom of his property was where he built a dam to collect rain water. He had to create underground pipelines to the tanks to get water to the chicken houses. He hand-cranks the water to the tanks using the pump. Jesus says the key to raising chickens is keeping everything sanitary. He provides them clean water in chicken waters that are sanitized every morning.

After our tours, we enjoyed the rest of the evening at the resort and got to touch the Pacific Ocean. Tomorrow, we will continue our tours and get to see commodities such as sugar cane, rice, and cashews. 

Day 3

The first thing on today’s agenda was to be immersed in true Panamanian culture! There was a cross-country bike race, that was not previously advertised, so our tour guide was unaware of it until the morning of the race. Therefore, we resorted to plans B through E before we landed back to plan A. It’s a fairly normal occurrence in the Panamanian culture to go-with-the-flow and not plan in advance for events; we experienced that in full effect! Our minor setback led us to see more of Panama, which we did not consider as a setback. It was just a new adventure. We drove to the town of Colon while we were inadvertently waiting for plan A, which is a town on the Caribbean side of Panama, about an hour and half outside of Panama City. Colon was a different type of town compared to Panama City because it represented a traditional Central American country rather than the sky scrapers in the City.

Once we finally resorted back to plan A, we arrived at a boat dock for our boat tour. The boat tour took us through the Panama Canal to this floating resort that served us a Panamanian lunch. After lunch, we were able to spend a few minutes in the hammocks, in true Panamanian fashion. Our boat driver picked us back up and took us to areas located off of the Panama Canal to experience some of the Panamanian wildlife. We were able to see three breeds of monkeys, two of which we were able to feed. One monkey preferred peanuts and the other preferred bananas. We also got to see turtles and one caiman crocodile. Even Albert was able to see one of his “relatives” on the trip!

In addition to seeing the wildlife, we learned more about the Panama ecosystem as a whole. The jungle in Panama is considered a dry forest and home to many plants and animals. One tree that can be found in Panama is the Teak tree; however, it is not native to the country. Teak wood found its way into Panama because the Panamanians saw economic value in the product. People who came to Panama and planted teak were encouraged by giving them visas. While this created a new commodity and industry, it quickly changed the ecosystem in Panama. Wherever the Teak trees were planted, nothing would grow around them and the animals did not know how to adapt to this new type of tree. After a few years of importing the trees and seeing their repercussions as an invasive species, Panamanians quit handing out visas for Teak trees.

Tomorrow we are excited to visit a pineapple and chicken farm, so stay tuned!

Day 2

Bienvenido al Canal de Panama (Welcome to the Panama Canal)!

Today’s Panamanian adventures included seeing the eighth wonder of the world, the Panama Canal! In, up, through, down, and out is the way to navigate the canal. Those are terms that you need to know to get through the locks of the canal. Locks are waterway systems that allow your vessel to reach sea level to connect to different bodies of water. Once you are allowed to enter the locks and the gates close, the sea level rises 40+ feet in less than ten minutes! The Panama Canal connects the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. We only did a partial transit tour of the Canal which gave us plenty of experience seeing the canal. Our start time to the day was also not definite until two days in advance because the canal tours, and the canal in general, are dependent upon the ocean tides.

Barbra was our tour guide for the day. She had plenty knowledge and wisdom about Panama to share with us during our four-hour tour of the Panama Canal. She shared all kinds of information about Panama and about our specific topics we are studying in the country. Her father spent his teenage and college years in the U.S. He attended U.C. Davis where he studied poultry science. Upon returning to Panama, he worked as a salesman. After being a salesman for a number of years, he decided to retire from that career to start a career that he studied for in college. He moved kilometers outside Panama City to start an organic poultry production facility. His farm is actually a stop on our itinerary for this week, we will keep you updated!

Barbara was kind enough to stay with us once we returned to Panama City and took us back into Casco. Casco was the same old town we visited yesterday. However, today, Barbara gave us the special tour by taking us to her favorite places. She started off by taking us to her favorite frozen yogurt shop, which was delightful after our long, hot day on the canal. Then, she took us through the market that has little booths run by locals where they sell the products made by their tribes. We were able to interact with the locals and even pick up some souvenirs along the way.

Tomorrow, we will learn more about the Panama Canal since we have the background knowledge and were able to experience it for ourselves today.

Our First Day

Hola de Panama!

Day one’s adventure included leaving Gainesville bright and early to make it Orlando for our flight, which left at !0:30 a.m. After a three and a half hour flight we arrived in Panama City, Panama in the early afternoon. Once Kevin, our in-country tour guide, picked us up from the airport, we experienced Panamanian rush-hour traffic. Gainesville’s rush hour has nothing on Panama City’s rush hour! Through the rush hour traffic, Kevin started introducing the Panamanian culture with a lot of fast facts. We learned that the Panamanians do not plan their roads ahead of time. Rather, they build them and realize they are not conducive then try to fix them, which can be the cause of the hours of traffic! Also, there is a lot of American influence in Panama City.

Upon arrival at the hotel, we found out quickly the pool was top-notch. Albert even got to hang out on the pool bring for a few minutes! Come to find out, the hotel has a Canal balcony view as well.  After getting settled in, we took off to explore the City. Kevin showed us his office, and began our walking tour of Panama City. Throughout the walking tour, Kevin continued to share fun facts, and showed us the many town squares in the city. In this part of the city, a James Bond movie was filmed, and the French Embassy is by, what was, the filming location. In these town squares and on the streets there are cats everywhere. Kevin said there is one cat guy and two cat ladies in Panama City. In addition, if you try to send a piece of mail to someone in Panama City, they will never receive it; they do not have a postal system in Panama. So, no post cards from the U.S.A. for this trip, please!

Aesthetically, a lot of the buildings in the City resemble French architecture, similar to the architecture in New Orleans. Panama City seems to also resemble a metropolitan area in Florida. Not only did we see similarity in architecture and city structure, but the place we had dinner had so much of an American influence, the restaurant played 80s and 90s songs that were familiar to us. The restaurant was a brewery much the same as ones you would find in Gainesville. The price of the food was also similar to the U.S.A., and we even got to pay with U.S. dollars. The currency in Panama is the U.S. dollar. With these similarities, a big difference in the restaurant was the service. Panamanian service is much more laid back as compared to the promptness of service Americans expect at a restaurant in the States.

 We had a great first day, and looking forward to traveling the Panama Canal partially tomorrow. 

Students arriving in Belize on the 2018 study abroad
Students waiting to take off in the airport for their AEC study abroad