Iowa Farmers in Panama

Last week, Justin and I had a wonderful opportunity to go to Panama for a week long trip that included relaxation, education, and fun.  The Iowa Farm Bureau has an incredible County Recognition Program, where they reward county presidents for maintaining an active board.  Every year, if a county participates in enough activities (contacting legislators, public relations, education, rural vitality, etc.) the county president is rewarded with the President’s Incentive Trip.  Previous years have included visits to California, Ireland, or Canada.  This year was Panama.  And this year was the first time I was eligible as the president of our county’s Farm Bureau board.  The trip is a group trip, involving all of the Iowa county presdents who qualified, their guests, members of the state board of directors, and Farm Bureau and travel staff.  Around 150 people in all. 

Beautiful sunrise view over the Chagres River from the Gamboa Ranforest Resort.

Our first day was a day of travel, three separate flights that took all day after accounting for layovers.  We arrived at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort very late on Monday night.  Gamboa is in the canal zone of Panama, right where the Chagres River connects with and fills the canal.   When we left Iowa, it was about 10 degrees outside, when we got to Panama, it was 80 degrees.  Paradise! 

Our room was nice and welcoming, with it’s own patio.  In the morning we were blown away by the beautiful view of the Chaigres river, tropcal trees, and the sounds of exotic birds.  We were treated to a buffet style breakfast with fresh pineapple and other fresh fruits.  During breakfast, we heard from a gentleman involved in the Panamanian poultry business.  Their agicultural industry is much much smaller than the U.S., but is growin rapidly.  They still rely heavily on imports of feed and food, but are working to lessen their dependance.  One interesting fact about Panama is that all of their electricity comes from hydroeletricity, and their utilities are low cost as a result. 

A yellow face monkey.

Our group then broke into smaller groups for elective tours.  Justin and I chose to go on a boat tour of the canal and an aerial tram tour through the rainforest.  We got to see a crocodile, a sloth, and two different kinds of monkeys on the boat tour, as well as the ships traveling through the canal.  The tram tour took us through the trees, where we spotted and iguana and learned about the Embera indians.  We walked to the top of a lookout tower where we had an amazing view of the forest, the river, and the canal. 

In talking to the residents of Panama, we learned that  they have a very postive outlook for the future.  The talk about things in terms of “since Noriega was thrown out.”  Meaning, the country has made huge progress in stablizing their economy, politics, and society since then.  The city of Panama has hundreds of high rise buildings and many are under construction.  They have a strong banking system, and call themselve the Switzerland of the Americas.  It was very apparent to me that they are a society that is appreciatve and benefitting well from democracy and capitalism.   They have two national languages, Spanish and English.   Spanish is much more popular, although we were able to find many bilingual individuals.  The dollar is widely accepted, and their currency is directly tied to it. 

A gigantic ship, carrying cars, in the Panama canal.

On the second day, we took a trip to view the locks on the canal.  We ate breakfast overlooking the locks, and watched the ships as they navigated through them.  We listened to US trade representatives, as well as speakers from the Panama Canal Authority.  Ships pay to go through the canal based on how much they can carry.  For example, a huge panamax vessel will pay approximately $200,000 to travel through the canal.  25% of the world’s trade goes through the canal, from cars, to household goods, to commodities. 

We spent the afternoon on a large, 300 person capacity boat traveling through the canal.  We had lunch on board, and went through 3 sets of locks on our way to the Pacific ocean.  We crossed the only place in the Americas where the continental divide is disrupted.  We shared our spot in the locks with a huge boat carrying some 5000 cars.  I’m not sure my pictures will demostrate the size of the ship.  We felt like a tiny little bug in the lock with that huge thing!  All of the ships in the canal must allow a captain from the canal authority on board while they are in the canal.  The captain takes control of the ship, and the crew must listen to his orders. All of the vessels on the canal must also move through the locks on their own power.  The larger ships are tethered to locomotives on shore, which work together to keep the ships from touching the sides of the canal.  The largest ships through the canal only have about 2 ft of clearance on either side of them!  That day was absolutely fascinating!

At least a few dozen ships waiting for their turn to go through the canal.

After we came through the canal, we were in the Pacific Ocean, right by the city of Panama.  We docked and had a nice meal with our district director, Carlton, as well as other couples from our same district.  After supper, we arrived at a new resort, the Intercontinintal Playa Bonita, in Panama.  It was an absolutely gorgeous new facility, with restaurants, pools, and a beach.  We could hear and see the ocean from our room. 

Learning about Panama's orange industry.

The next day included a tour of an orange nursery, orange farm, and orange juice processing facility.  The owner of the nursery explained how they raise the orange trees using grafting.  Right now there is a lot of demand for small trees that are easier to apply pesiticdes to and can be easily harvested from.  Panama only produces oranges for orange juice, as their soils and climate are not fit for growing navel oranges.  The oranges on the trees at the farm were not the oranges you eat, they were green, due to a harmless fungus.  All of the oranges were harvested by hand at this particular farm.  The juice processing facility was not something you’d ever find in the states.  Basically it was a machine shed containing equipment for squeezing the oranges.  The oranges entered the building, were sorted by hand, washed in a big automated machine, then transported to another machine that took the rind off and squeezed the juice.  The juice was stored in large bulk tanks, just like you would find in a dairy.  This facility produced a pure , unconcentrated, unpastuerized juice called Panama’s Best.  The operators were both from the states, with amazing stories to tell of how they ended up in rural Panama.  One came there while he was in the military and then decided not to leave.  The other was working for Coca-Cola and was sent to Panama for a work related job, fell in love with the country, and decided to stay.  It was just really incredible to hear their tales of how they got started basically by the seat of their pants. 

Justin may kill me for posting this picture....look at those white legs!

On our final full day in Panama, Justin and I decided to just relax at the resort.  We took a dip in the ocean, as well as the pools, picked up some seashells for the kids, and basically lounged around.  We even picked up a litttle sun tan. 🙂  Towards the end of the day Justin started feeling sick, though.  I blamed it on all the seafood he had been eating (yuck!!).  He opted to stay in the room and rest, while I headed down to the farewell celebration that was planned for the evening.  We had stellar entertainment that night.  Dancers and singers dressed in traditional outfits.  I couldn’t tell you a thing about why they dressed or did what they did, but it was very fun to watch and hear!  The whole group really got into it, dancing with the dancers and having a great time.  The evening was then wrapped up with a small fireworks display on the beach. 

We headed out early that morning to catch our flight, and many in our group were dropping like flies with some sort of intestinal illness.  A few had to seek medical attention, thankfully, Justin was able to make it home without much trouble.  Apparently, when they say, “don’t drink the water,” they mean it!  We don’t really know what caused it, but at least it stayed away until the end of the trip, and thank goodness for immodium! 

All in all it was a great trip with great people.  I am so thankful for the farm bureau, and all the individuals who work to make it the incredible grassroots organization that it is.  They all made this trip possible, and I can’t express my appreciation enough.  Many of the best people I know I met though Farm Bureau.  Indivuals much like Justin and I, family farmers working to make a living our of their livlihood on the land.  I don’t think I’d want to take a trip like this without them!

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wayne on February 19, 2011 at 3:06 am

    Panama looks like a beautiful country. Justin or Ralph may have told you that our cousin, David Nieman, met his future wife there years ago. Also, I thought about you and your trip to Panama while reading the paper (Dallas Morning News) this morning. There was an insightful letter to the editor describing why Panama and Columbia are not yet ready to be given the privileges associated with being named as “free trade states”. You might remember that President Obama and Trade Secretary Ron Kirk recommended some countries like South Korea and some others to be treated as “free trade states”, but specifically named Panama and Columbia as not being ready yet because of their governmental policies, i.e., they do not yet fulfill the responsibilities or demonstrate accountabilities for respecting the rights of their trade partners. In particular the leaders of both countries still want to use information from our CIA to illegally suppress their opposition parties. Things have improved since the days of Manuel Noriega, indeed, but not enough to satisfy those who treasure demoracy and free markets. Perhaps, in due time, though. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your blog again! Great job.

    • Wayne, I did not know that about David. Interesting insight on the trade issues. It is usually pretty easy to negotiate the trade side of those agreements, it’s always the politics that stand in the way. From what I saw, they are making a lot of progress, and soon, hopefully, an agreement can be reached.

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