By Alex Johannes
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign hosts the coldest winds of winter. As a freshman studying Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications a study abroad trip to Panama seemed ideal. Panama is warm and sunny with no varying seasons. This was a good place to leave the snow, icy and cold winds behind and learn more about global agriculture.
Parts of this trip look like a tropical vacation but it was a live classroom of sorts. We would meet as a group to discuss our experiences during the trip each day. An 8-week class had led up to the trip where students were introduced to the many facets of agriculture that would be experienced on the trip. The class allowed us to become familiar with the country, fellow travelers, and develop questions for our guides and others as we were visiting the many sites.
Traveling out of the country was new to me, as were riding Amtrak to Chicago and flying out of O’Hara International. I experienced horses, natives, monkeys, Brahman cattle, and so many other “first” things.
Thirteen classmates and two chaperones visited many agricultural regions during the trip. We arrived in Panama City from Chicago for a connecting flight to David. From David, we travelled by tour bus to Boquete, Cerro Punta, las Lajas, Penonomé and Panama City. We visited many agricultural regions in stages. We often went from remote areas to sweeping civilization. At Boquete we stayed in a vertical hotel with the owner residing in the ground level apartment with three floors of hotel above. This hotel with bare-boned concrete floors and walls provided varying room accommodations from queen size beds to bunk beds and had the most astonishing rooftop view of the town and mountains. In Las Lajas, a small beach resort was our home base where we could relax on the beach each evening after our local travel. In both Penonomé and Panama City we stayed in very nice hotels that overlooked the cities.
We travelled to some amazing places to learn about the agriculture industry in Panama including a renowned racehorse farm, a plant conservatory featuring beautiful orchids, water pipeline hiking trails, coffee farm, two beef cattle farms, a dairy farm, a local sustainable farm, a Panamanian agriculture high school and college, an organic poultry farm, a pineapple farm and processing plant, the Panama Canal and a 3-D fabrication lab. One of the largest shopping malls in the world was visited in Panama City.
We also visited a summer program for local school children and spent the day making crafts, playing games and music with students. A visit to an indigenous tribe, the Ngäbe-Buglé tribe was educational watching the natives make dye and rope. The tribe served a traditional lunch we enjoyed with them.
One of the most remarkable experiences that I had on the trip was the tour of the coffee farm, Finca Dos Jefes in Boquete. I interact with this industry on a daily basis as I enjoy my daily coffee but didn’t know much about this industry. Visiting the farm showed me how coffee is grown, harvested and prepared for export. Coffee grows on shrubs or small tree resembling plants and produce cherries that house the coffee bean. When the cherries ripen into a dark red color, they are hand-picked by farm workers. The cherries are then laid out on tables to dry in the sun. The problem with the sun drying outdoors during Panama’s wet season is any unexpected rainfall. This sends workers scrambling to tarp cover the cherries to prevent them from getting wet. The tables are covered at night to keep the dew off the cherries which would delay the drying process and must be uncovered each morning. When the cherries are dry and sun-ripened, the cherry husk is removed to reveal the unroasted coffee bean. These beans are later bagged unroasted and readied for export. The beans are exported unroasted because companies such as Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts roast their own to keep the consistency in their flavors. If all the coffee beans were produced and roasted there, all coffee would taste the same!
Our guide prepared a taste testing session for us. We were given coffee cherries in their different stages of production. We tried Cascara tea, a popular Panamanian tea that is brewed with the husks of the cherry. It has a very sweet and fruity taste. We were able to sample the medium and dark roast coffees of Finca Dos Jefes that they sell.
One of the biggest differences between Panama and the United States is the means of sanitation.
Coming into Chicago via Amtrak I saw mounds upon mounds of trash on streets and near the railroad tracks. In Panama it was rare to see litter along streets, even in the largest of cities.
However, we could flush paper down the toilets in the U.S. and have it gone immediately. In Panama it was common for the toilet paper waste to be placed in trash cans where it was not removed except every few days.
From the agriculture perspective, Panama’s means of biosecurity was different from here in the United States. We were not required to wear any different clothing when visiting the farms. As a precaution our instructor had advised us to bring different shoes to wear while we were visiting the farms. The shoe change helps to avoid bring anything harmful back to our farms here in the U.S. In the United States, you are usually required to change shoes, clothes, and/or shower when you enter or leave any type of farm to prevent the spread of disease of parasites. However, we did have to clean our shoes upon entering the Pineapple processing plant.
I learned so much on this trip that it is hard to put it all on paper. I know having this experience makes me want to go on another short-term study abroad through the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois. I am thankful that I am a part of such a stellar program that offers these experiences. This is a trip of a lifetime that has given me an agricultural and world culture education experience to share along with many memories.
Alex Johannes is the daughter of Gary and Sharon Johannes of rural Nashville. Alex was a 2019 graduate of Nashville Community High School and is currently enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, majoring in Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications.