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TROPICAL HYDROPONICS page 2, BELIZE, CENTRAL AMERICA

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This is a photo of a hydroponics Pilot Project for tomatoes on a year round growing basis in Western Belize, of Central America.

I started with 60 tomato plants and 8 different varieties. By March 28th, 2008, we had squeezed 137 bagged tomato plants into this same space. A lot of new seeds were mailed to me by volunteers of the Belize Development Trust, our NGO of internet volunteers, who read the Belize Culture Listserve. To subscribe, send a message to: bz-culture-request@psg.com and in the body of the message insert the word subscribe
There can be no signature files, or the autoresponder will kick you out. We talk about anything that interests subscribers on Belizean subjects. Politics, scandals, tropical vegetable growing ( a new thing in the country ) and so on.

Our best tomato is the Israeli POLINA, which runs at 6 oz. and 3 1/4 inches in diameter. We are testing now about another 8 varieties of donated seeds, trying to find one that will give us a one pound tomato. I'm an amateur and learning by trial and error and whenever I need help ask for it on the belize culture listserve. The local government Central Farm Research Station are using us to test numerous varieties of lettuce and tomatoes. In lettuce we have recommended ICE, Pok Choi ( Chinese Lettuce ) and Tropical Emperor, all leaf lettuces that grow well here in Tropical Belize.

This is our Page 1 on hydroponics in Tropical Belize. CLICK HERE!

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CENTRAL FARM VEGETABLE NEWS!
by Ray Auxillou, April 1st, 2008

Central Farm Research Station head, Manuel Trujillo, asked the BELIZE DEVELOPMENT TRUST ( NGO ) to confirm by independent experiments the selection of Jupiter and Tropical Emperor lettuce, as viable commercial lettuce varieties for planting in tropical Belize. The Belize Development Trust a group of internet volunteers worldwide, communicating on the Belize Culture Listserve since 1992, currently runs a lettuce and tomato, organic hydroponic, research project at Falconview Backpackers Adventure Hostel in Hillview, Santa Elena Town in Western Belize, for the selection of commercially viable varieties that might work in Belize. Seeds from other lands do not always work in a different climate and environment.

Of the two types, the JUPITER and the TROPICAL EMPEROR seeds provided by Central Farm to the BDT project, only the Tropical Emperor seed has been confirmed and recommended in Belize. The JUPITER seed was rejected as it grows in a twisted fashion, trying to make a ball head lettuce, but never quite develops. It does provide a leaf lettuce, but is not as good in appearance as the leaf lettuce that the Tropical Emperor seed grows.

So far over the last 16 months, confirmed commercial varieties of lettuce are ICE lettuce, Tropical Emperor, and two types of Chinese Lettuce called Pok Choi and Jon Choi. The two first types have the traditional serrated corrugated leaves most Westerners are familiar with in lettuce. The Chinese Lettuce grows well, but is a smooth, broad leaf lettuce that does not quite look the same, but works as well. The Chinese lettuce fails during dry season summer heat, when temperatures go over 90 F. The customer taste in appearance of course will decide on which is most profitable. More than 14 varieties of different leaf lettuce seeds have been tried in the last sixteen months by the Organic Hydroponic vegetable project of the Belize Development Trust, at FALCONVIEW ADVENTURE BACKPACKERS HOSTEL on the side of Green Parrot Valley in Western Belize. Lettuce grown via hydroponics is now a year round business, available week by week vegetable production, in tropical Belize.

150 tomato plants at different ages and varieties
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Testing varieities in cooperation with Government Agriculture Dept.

GROWING SHADED TOMATOES IN TROPICAL BELIZE AS A COMMERCIAL CROP
By Ray Auxillou, April 27th, 2008

The only factor controlling the growing of tomatoes in tropical Belize is temperature. During April, May, June and July, the temperatures tend to get too high. This can give problems with seed germination. Also the variety type has to be changed for the warmer months. In 2008, a number of tomato variety experiments were ongoing by the Belize Development Trust shaded commercial greenhouse pilot project in Hillview, Santa Elena Town, Cayo District. For the early part of the year, the POLINA Israeli variety was the best tomato and grows around 6 ounces in weight and around 2 inches in diameter to 3 inches in diameter. Trials of other varieties that might be larger fruit are ongoing. The goal is to reach a 1 pound tomato suitable for mass production in Belize.
So far experiments have been encouraging by growing tomatoes in various containers. The best of which are the black plastic grow bags, holding about 6 to 8 lbs of humus soil each. The only outlet for these is AGRO PRO Seed Store in Santa Elena town that we know of. They cost .35 cents each. One tomato plant seedling is planted to each bag. Tomatoes like close proximity and so far the experimental pilot project has been successful in growing 150 tomato plants in a 13 ft x 19 ft space. As the year progresses we expect to try and squeeze up to 200 tomato bags and vines in the same space. Staggered in vine length. The grow bags are raised off the ground on wood planks placed on cement blocks.
For minimal commercial purposes 1000 plants are considered to be optimal. An area about 13 feet x 100 feet.
Tomatoes come in two types. They come in the vine and the bush. The vine type are called indeterminate and the bush type are called determinate. Commercial shaded operations require the indeterminate vine type of tomato.
Pruning is essential with vine produced tomatoes. You cut off the leaves below the flowers, or between the flowers, as the vine extends, so that photo synthesis of the sugar needed for the fruit is not wasted on lower leaves that will die anyway. This concentrates nutrition into the tomato growth.
When packing humus into a black plastic growing bag, we also pack a lot of nutrition, in the form of a lower layer of liquid compost tea, made from compost soaked in a bucket of water. A second layer in the bag is wood ashes, a third layer in the same bag of humus soil is one teaspoonful of chicken manure and near the top of the bag we pack a soup spoon of gypsum, or dolomite lime, whichever is available. The whole bag is continuously mixed with the hands and fingers as you pot the bag in preparation for the transplant.
When tomatoes are first germinated in a seedling tray, or egg carton, they should be allowed to grow until they reach four leaves. This is about 2 inches high. Then transplant to the grow bags. Once in the grow bag we need to apply extra liquid nitrogen to build strong roots, strong stem and good sized leaves. When the plant reaches around 2 feet in height, you should switch to adding liquid phosphorous. These nutrient feeds are on sale at AGRO PRO feed store in Santa Elena Town, known as bottles of Tomato STARTER and Tomato BOOSTER. The nutrient mix contains a bit more needed ingredients than this. Plant roots are squirted once a day, or twice if you feel it is needed. Our own experiments have tripled tomato production by using Tomato BOOSTER.
There is no known variety of tomato yet tested for local hot season summer production in Belize. Though the very small Cherry Tomato does quite well. Planting for summer production will probably start with transplants into grow bags around March. It takes about 2 weeks to grow from seed to transplant size and takes another couple of months to grow to eating size production. Tomatoes after reaching full size and are still green in color, take another 2 1/2 weeks to redden. For the rest of the year, the only successful tomato is the POLINA seed available at Agro Jiron in San Ignacio by the bandstand. By August, 2008, current experiments should produce a better and bigger tomato variety to choose from.
Tomatoes come in two types. Those that are HYBRIDS and can be grown once only successfully and those that are HEIRLOOM, which are tried and tested varieties over many decades of production. Hybrids are a mix of two parents and in the second generation tend to revert back to one of the parent types. HEIRLOOMS you can re-use the seeds to produce more tomatoes of the same size and type.
Retail prices tend to fluctuate on availability and go between $1 a pound to $4 a pound. Wholesale grower prices are usually half of that in bulk production quantities. Local sales are done by the pigtail bucket weight. Most people can supplement their table food and make extra money growing tomatoes in their backyard.
There are difficulties in getting agriculture watering equipment for commercial tomato operations in Belize. No wholesalers are importing the wide variety of irrigation equipment needed. Such as misters and fogger type heads with 360 degree patterns of cooling water spray. Most hardware stores only carry lawn sprinklers which are totally inadequate. Nor do we find drip feeding, root feeder stakes and the black thin irrigation hose and fittings to plug into overhead water and nutrient supply lines. There are no small 12 volt, water pumps available in Belize, for filling 50 gallon reservoirs of nutrients either, to be gravity fed to grow bags. You can find some rolls of collapsible and flexible field type irrigation plastic hoses that are used for growing farm soil based onion growing, with pre-made drip holes about 18 inch apart. These are available at Agro Jiron in San Ignacio. These are not suitable for shaded tomato commercial operations. The lack of suitable irrigation equipment supplies is a serious situation in Belize for further development of vegetable growing. The weight of imported supplies are usually too much for parcel post and too little for the costs of importation using Customs Brokers and the port entry point system, for the individual farmer. Overhead importation costs can run upward from $300 and more, for a small individual shipment. We need importers of commercial vegetable growing irrigation systems of all sizes.
So far, there has been no marketing endeavor seeking an export market or processed product in tomatoes, or other vegetables that we know of, other than habenero peppers. The civil service and politicians talk a lot, but nobody has produced any markets, or feasibility studies for the vegetable industry for exports yet. Most farmers have no internet service, this type of telecommunications only serves towns with population concentrations.

The first 60 experimental tomato plants
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PILOT PROJECT HYDROPONIC TOMATOES

VARIETY RESEARCH PROJECT

We are currently undergoing trials of different varieties of tomatoes, to see which can be most productive in Belize on a Commercial greenhouse setting, on a year round basis. We have and continue to do trials for the Belize Government, Agriculture Department Research Station from Central Farm. We also have received many seeds from volunteers of the Belize Development Trust, an internet based NGO. We are currently trying to find a productive 1 lb tomato that will grow well in Belize.

Research results so far: The first batch of tomatoes didn't produce well. We also tried a number of different containers. The 5 gallon plastic pails didn't work well. The chlorax bottles work fine and we have tried different sizes of black plastic bags. We like the 6 pound soil plastic bag the best and it is available locally. Currently we are still hand feeding nutrient we mix from water soluble fertilizer and occasionally add compost tea we make ourselves. We use humus for the medium in the containers to root and hold the stems of the plants and are using plastic string to suspend the plants. Watering is done by hose. Feeding is done morning and evening. We would like drip feeders, but cannot find any to buy in the country of Belize, nor the plastic watering hoses needed for drip feeding lines, and a mainline. We are still puzzling that one out. One of our biggest surprises was that once the early plants started to flower, we were not getting much of the flowers to form tomatoes. Listserve members suggested to change to lower nitrogen and higher phosphorus and we located a water soluble 5 lb bag of 15 48-?, which seems to have cured that. We are now getting more flowers turning into tomatoes. We learn as we go along by trial and error. The results of temperate zone plants in tropical weather are unpredictable, due to temperatures mostly, particularly at night, due to seasonal patterns.

PILOT PROJECT TOMATO SHADED GREENHOUSE

IN BELIZE
by Ray Auxillou, April 2008

( funded by volunteers of the Belize Development Trust NGO )

Research staff: Ray Auxillou

Contributing Volunteers: Brian Keating, Sharon Auxillou Urscheller, Wendy Auxillou, Bob Brotherton, Lynn Jackson, Gale, Jane Beard, Lans Sluder, Taiwanese Vegetable Mission of Governments Central Farm, Manuel Trujillo-Central Farm research head.

WHAT WE KNOW FROM THE FOURTH EDITION OF THE BELIZEAN VEGETABLE FARMERS BIBLE published by the Belize Development Trust.

Vegetable research in tropical Belize has identified a number of parameters in vegetable growing; from temperature, soil adaptation requirements, seasons, nutrient mixing applications, germination problems and alternative methods, better seed varieties, compost tea making and applications, soil ph testing, best shading and roofing and many other variables found in the FOURTH EDITION of the Belizean Vegetable Farmers Bible. Available for reference at the two public libraries in the Cayo, Western Twin Towns of Belize. A half dozen copies are on sale at AGRO PRO feed store in Santa Elena Town at $70 Bz each.

As of March, 2008 we have now identified a number of necessary knowledge items from two years of past experiments, to effect a new project for the first PILOT PROJECT of a tomato shaded greenhouse. This project is intended to lead into a commercial 1000 plant shaded greenhouse. From there you could go to a 10,000 plant shaded greenhouse with not much trouble.

The MILPA farmer grows in soil to two rainy season restrictions a year. The commercial shaded greenhouse system has a steady production on a weekly planting, year round basis. Vegetable production is continuous in a shaded greenhouse. Through the controlled application of water and nutrient feeds constantly producing harvests of crops are experienced.

The first shaded green house measuring 6 ft X 14 ft, growing 60 plants at one time was successful, using the most basic, hand fed, hydroponic system. This first shaded greenhouse continues to produce vegetable salad crops for the "Falconview Tourist Backpackers Adventure Hostel". Harvesting is done twice weekly. Planting about once a week.

The second PILOT PROJECT intended to be a lead experiment into an eventual commercial sized operation shaded greenhouse, is intended to test the problems and varieties available for commercial production of tomatoes on a year round production basis, using the same basic hand fed method as the first shaded greenhouse project. The size is 13 ft x 19ft and it holds 200 tomato vine plants.

Many varieties of tomatoes are being grown and tested. The best so far, has been the 2 inch x 3 inch, ( 6 oz) POLINA Israeli hybrid, available from Agro Jiron feed store, in San Ignacio Town. New varieties are now being grown, and hoped to be larger and better tomatoes. The experiments are geared to attempts, to produce a 14 oz tomato, for commercial production on a year round basis.

The first shaded greenhouse experiment identified so far, as the best leaf lettuce varieties; the ICE lettuce, the Chinese Lettuce of Pok Choi and Jon Choi and Tropical Emperor hybrid at this time. Many varieties of lettuce were tested. More than a dozen.

Seeds brought into Belize do not necessarily work well under local tropical environmental conditions. The beautiful Mexican BALL HEAD lettuce seeds for instance, were a failure in Belize.

What has been found is that soil has to be loose, very easily drained and so coarse. Most of the time you have to mix it up yourself. In a greenhouse project we use either plastic grow bags of different sizes, plastic buckets and chlorax pots. Cost and availability being the deciding factors.

In the Tomato Shaded Greenhouse project, we have identified humus, the very thin 1 inch layer of top soil available in lowland wild jungle as the best contained supporting material for vegetables in bags or pots. We had hoped to get coconut fiber from Central Farm, but I was informed in the last visit, the project was too labor intensive. They do not have the time.

The soil is prepared by soaking the bottom third of the soil in compost tea, to make available micro nutrients.

The top third of a container of this humus is mixed with GYPSUM, a calcium additive that helps vegetable plants to get started and develop strong root growth. DOLOMITE LIME would be better, but we cannot get the producer, Belize Minerals of Punta Gorda, to ship it to the Cayo West area, from Southern Belize. Dolomite Lime is different from GYPSUM because it includes Magnesium Sulfate and most vegetables need 2% of this mineral added for good production. Gypsum is available for sale locally and is reputed to release the nutrients from local black clay.

We have experimented with different containers and found that the large plastic grow bags from AGRO PRO, Santa Elena Town work the best. They hold about six pounds of soil. They have different sizes we tried. No other local feed stores carry suitable grow bags. We tried two tomato plants, planted into a five gallon plastic bucket, but it is difficult to stop the soil from compacting, reducing aeration to the roots. Our best choice is a large black plastic grow bag, which have many holes in the sides and bottom for drainage.

Currently we are harvesting POLINA tomatoes. We have just transplanted a number of large tomato varieties, such as BEEFMASTER, BURGER, CREOLE, using whatever is available through the generosity of volunteers in the USA and the UK. We prefer HEIRLOOM varieties, which are adaptable and reproducible, from our own seeds. The HYBRID varieties are one crop types and revert back to the genes of one or the other of the two parents from their seeds.

We learned a lot. Originally our tomato vine plantings ( indeterminate types ) were based on 60 plants. It quickly became clear, that doing continuous shaded greenhouse production, that if we widened our bench on which the grow bags sit, we could double and triple our number of plants in the same space. This is due to the fact that vines are continuously running, growing out. The leaves required at the top of the vine, after pruning, for photo synthesis move up steadily. This allows a next set of bagged tomato plants to be grown next to them, as the leaves of the next plant are at a different height and can catch the sunlight required. We are currently potting and transplanting more plants to see how many we can get into the space.

QUESTIONS: The experiment in this pilot project raises some questions requiring more testing.

We want to know how many tomatoes we can expect from a vine before it will top out and stop growing? We are guessing at four?

We need to go to a drip feeding system to each grow bag. We did collect a courtesy sample from the Taiwanese Vegetable Mission of an old drip feeding system they had chopped up with their roto-tiller as they changed to a different watering system in soil row based crops. We require about 200 plastic stakes as drip feeders, the connecting .050 black plastic branch feeder hose and the plastic T fitting, to plug into an overhead inch black supply hose for water and nutrient by gravity feed. The feeder lines slide over the drip stakes, that are pushed into the soil of the grow bag. Research from Guatemala; producers of irrigation supplies enquiries, by e-mail, receive no replies. These people are very rude. The phone system from Belize by BTL to Guatemala is prohibitively expensive. The difficulties of ordering from hydroponic suppliers in the USA, are expensive because the orders are too big to come by ordinary mail, yet too small to be shipped down by ship and run through customs with the additional costs of having to go to the coast and waste a day or two, plus the cost of freight forwarders and customs brokers. The shipment is too small for the mandatory costs. There are no importers bringing in bulk irrigation supplies yet, though there is a modest demand at this time locally, which will grow. We need a roll ( $42 usa ) of the .050 black feeder hose and matching 200 plastic drip feeding stakes, plus T fitting to insert into the overhead water line, from the hydroponics supplier ( HYDRO GARDENS ) in Colorado Springs. We would also need the slightly larger black plastic hose ( inch ) for running the overhead gravity feed water system. This is not too much, as we probably only need a 150 feet of the latter, but 600 feet of the thinner spaghetti type feeder hose for the drip feeder stakes. At the moment the overhead drip gravity feeding system is of necessity on hold. Though hand applications of water and nutrient is labor intensive as our experiments grow bigger with many more plants. The reason for black hose, is algae buildup in clear hoses when sunlight hits the lines.

WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED! We have learned that shaded greenhouse operations can be operated successfully on a continuous production basis. There is one catch to this and that is there are two seasons for shaded greenhouse vegetables. Unlike the soil based MILPA farmer whose two seasons are based on the seasonal two rains. The shaded greenhouse operation seasons are based on TEMPERATURE of the outside night time air. The FOURTH EDITION of the Belizean Vegetable Farmers Bible, published in January, 2008 gives a list of vegetables that are temperature sensitive. These group vegetables, into those that are productive during the colder months of the year and those that are productive during the hotter summer months of the year. See the Fourth Edition of the BIBLE on vegetable growing for a list of which vegetables work best at which season.

PLANTINGS: Vegetables that require colder night time temperatures can start to be planted in September, weekly through February. Those that are hotter temperature summer vegetables can be planted in February and grown through to approximately September. For example: Tomatoes are a colder night time temperature requiring crop. Sweet Bell Peppers and most peppers are summer crops and go dormant during cold months. Some vegetables can be grown year round. Lettuce can for example!

GERMINATION PROBLEMS: If you can get the seeds to germinate, then you can grow the vegetable. Though fruit performance will increase if it is in the right season. Winter vegetable seeds do not germinate well from April through August.

We are ready to go commercial almost, with lettuce shaded greenhouses and are waiting to solve vacuum bag packing experiments. We plan to do an experiment on this with ebb and flow methods, growing lettuce, using a pump and two reservoirs. We are waiting on the needed equipment and there is no hurry due to lack of land. At the moment we also lack the land for expansion. So, that particular lettuce producing, commercial shaded greenhouse is currently on hold. We do have a bid in though, for a nearby piece of land, which is currently in probate.

I think we are going to be ready to go commercial size on the tomato production with a 1000 plants, once we settle on the best variety to grow and if we can successfully acquire some land to build on. These tomato experiments are ongoing, for the next three months. Decision time is probably going to be around June? We also lack the drip feeder stakes, the hoses and fittings.

We are currently collecting SWEET BELL PEPPER seed varieties and will start very small scale tests in growing in pots, within the next few weeks. We are only interested in large 4 inch sweet bell pepper seeds. The commercial shaded greenhouse requirements would face the same problems of lack of pumps, reservoirs, drip feeding stakes and irrigation hoses. Which we cannot seem to find to buy locally.



FROM THE REACTIONS OF THE PRIVATE SECTOR AND THE GOVERNMENT POLICY MAKERS, OUR VEGETABLE GROWING PROJECT AFTER 15 MONTHS OF PERFORMANCE HAS ACCELERATED DEVELOPMENT IN VEGETABLE PRODUCTION. THIS BELIZE DEVELOPMENT TRUST PROJECT IS BY ITSELF, A SUCCESS ALREADY FOR CREATING AN ATMOSPHERE OF INITIATIVE BY OTHER PEOPLE. Accelerating development was the goal and that has worked.

Want to get in touch? You can send me e-mail at:

hillviewhacienda@yahoo.com