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Meet Conrad Wright: Bringing a Unique Blend of Business and Agriculture to El Sauce

Conrad Wright is one of Enlace Project's newest staff members, joining the team from Colorado, through Enlace Project's connection with Peace Corps. Prior to his enrollment in the Peace Corps, Conrad had traveled to South-Eastern Asia and Africa to volunteer and work on various projects, including starting a non-governmental organization that operates in Uganda and Tanzania. He has a bachelor's degree in International Business Administration from Fort Lewis College. Conrad's service in El Sauce began in May 2013.

What do you do here in El Sauce as a Peace Corps Volunteer?

Well, I am a small business development volunteer and I have two primary jobs. One of my jobs is working in local schools helping teachers with a small business class. The business course is part of a new nationwide initiative aimed at spurring long-term economic growth by giving students the tools to start their own business. My second job is with Enlace Project. I am working here sort of as an auxiliary support person filling in wherever I’m needed but I do have the freedom to start my own projects too.

What is some of the independent work that you are doing as a part of your service?

I am working on a cross-sectoral project with the Manuel López coffee cooperative. I met the group of farmers through Enlace Project and had the opportunity to tour some of their farms. They had mentioned to me that their crop yield is lower than average output. I offered to share with them what I know about organic land management, because of my interest in permaculture and my experience working on organic farms back home. So, for example I am planning demonstrations on biochar, bio-insecticide production, large-scale compost management and field application, compost tea production and pruning techniques.

Can you explain in more detail about the process of producing biochar and bio-insecticide?

The procedure of producing biochar is pretty simple. It is an anaerobic chemical reaction known as pyrolysis. Essentially what this means is that in order to create biochar you have to use an oxygen-free zone so the bio-material you are using carbonizes. The great thing is that you can use corn stalks, used corn cobs and waste wood, and other similar materials that are abundant on farms.

The reason why biochar is so effective as a soil amendment is that it increases surface area in the soil for microbes, bacteria and fungi to live. So, by adding biochar to the soil you dramatically increase soil life which is largely reasonable for converting organic matter in the soil into nutrients for the plants. There are a variety of other benefits like GHG sequestration and increased water retention, to name a few.

In the process of pyrolysis you get other useful byproducts such as synthetic gas and what has been termed “bio-petroleum.” So, I built a device known as a “modified biocrude gasifier” to both produce biochar and to capture these other useful products. The biocrude can be processed into both a fuel that can be used in small engines like a generator and also insecticides that can be applied to the plants.

How does this help the farmers?

Well, the farmers will be able to use the biochar in field application to improve crop yield. Then they can use a dilute of the biocrude to fend off the pests that may be feeding on the coffee trees. Or they can process the biocrude into a bio-fuel to run their generator up there to produce valuable energy.

How much did it cost to make this biocrude gasifier?

I spent about $120 USD to pay for material, labor and transport for the gasifier, but you could do it for much cheaper. You could build one for next to nothing if you could source your materials from leftover construction projects or the garbage dump. But for this project, I bought almost all of the material new.

Can you explain how this project fits into the idea of sustainability?

Resulting biochar material from one of the initial tests.

In terms of the farmers, the aspect of sustainability relates in a multifunctional way to their whole system of production and, by extension, their way of life. First of all they are closing the system loop by converting a waste resource into valuable products. It also allows them to source their inputs for crop production locally. In a financial sense, the project could potentially save them money in the long run or generate money (from cost-reduction) depending on how you look at it from not having to buy organic insecticide and organic fertilizers. Additionally, it would save lost income from a pest infestation or if they are really ambitious they could use the project as an income generating activity. For a more global sense the project fits sustainability criteria by GHG sequestration and a reduced demand on petroleum products.

What’s the next step?

I have to put together a series of participative lectures and demonstrations to facilitate the “knowledge transfer” of this whole process and show them how all this stuff works and what to do with it. So, I am hoping that sometime in December I can have them down here at the office for a day to show them what I have been up to.

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