UGA Costa Rica Blog

¡Pura vida!

LEM: Getting started is half the battle

This is Part Three of a three part series on Local Effective Microorganisms (LEM) by Laura Ney and Kishan Mahmud. You can read Part One here and Part Two here.

On Wednesday, we looked at how LEM is made. Now, it’s time to look at the next step of the process.

LEM-Part3After making the LEM we:

  • Planned and marked our plot layout
  • Planted our plots
  • Built shelters for the compost study
  • Learned how to isolate DNA
  • Plated samples of our 4 LEM barrels for bacterial and fungal colony counts
  • Brewed the LEM liquid phase
  • Sampled and collected over 100 gallons of swine effluent from the UGA swine unit
  • Designed and built CO2 respiration/ammonia volatilization chambers
  • Insulated our LEMs against U.S. winters
  • Designed and built an application system to apply our treatments
  • And took hundreds of base-line samples

After a long, very smelly day of mixing and applying our LEM, False-LEM and Swine Effluent treatments, on Thursday Dec 4th 2014, the project officially began!

Now the real work begins. We have gotten the project off of the ground. The next few years, both here and in Monteverde, we will be measuring microbial activity using home-made CO2 respiration and NH3 volatilization chambers. We will be extracting nematodes from soil samples and analyzing their numbers and community structure. We will extract DNA samples and determine the different types of bacteria that are present and surviving in the soils. We will perform many different chemical extractions in order to measure the available nutrients of the soils. And these are just some of the array of soil analyses that we will preform on our plots. We will also perform various crop analyses which include taking near infra red readings which compare chlorophyll levels (greenness) as well as measuring yield and nutrient content of harvested crops. And maybe at the end of it all, we will have a slightly better understanding of the mystery of nutrient cycling that is constantly going on beneath our feet.  We would love to share our findings and along the way, explain some of the science and mechanisms behind why we are doing what we are doing and how soil does what it does.

Making Local Effective Microorganisms (LEM)

This is Part Two of a three part series on Local Effective Microorganisms (LEM) by Laura Ney and Kishan Mahmud. You can read Part One here.

Before we can preform any kind of project studying LEM, we must have LEM. The fermentation process required for LEM to mature takes about a month, so making the LEM was one of the first things we did. In Costa Rica, we had been making LEM for over a year before I (Laura) had begun my project so we had the technique down. The ingredients that are required: semolina flour, molasses, charcoal, raw milk, yeast and of course, the leaf litter, were all things that were readily available on campus. We ordered the semolina through the same providers that we ordered our live-stock supplemental feed, we kept a constant stock of cattle molasses in a big 50 gallon barrel, we had sacks of charcoal from cleaning out the fireplace and raw milk is obviously not a problem when you milk your own cows. In the U.S. however, these simple items were not quite as easy to come by. We had to call multiple sources before we found reasonably priced 50 pound sacks of semolina flour, we cleaned Kroger out of their 4.5 pound bags of all natural charcoal and since selling raw milk in Georgia is illegal, we had to find a local, raw goat milk producer whose milk was sold under the clause that it was for pet consumption only. Not to mention having to find the 50 gallon, open topped, food-grade plastic barrels to store the LEM in.


Once we finally got all of our ingredients and barrels gathered together we had the task of mixing it all up. This was no small task since we were making four batches of this stuff. (We collected leaf litter from three different locations to see if there was a difference in microbial communities between the location plus we had to make one “False LEM”, which contains no leaf litter inoculant.) To make all four of these LEM batches, we hand-mixed 200 pounds of semolina flour, with over 50 pounds of crushed charcoal, three sacks of collected leaf litter and multiple gallons of goats milk and molasses. Once we were done, we shoveled them into their respective barrels, sealed the tops and just made it to our next class, looking and smelling like we’d escaped from a baked goods factory explosion.

Stay tuned for Part Three of our LEM series on Friday!

Ooh, That Smell: An Introduction to Local Effective Microorganisms (LEM)

What is that smell? If you have had the chance to visit UGACR, you may have noticed a peculiar smell coming from the sinks, the restrooms or even the stable. It’s not a bad smell, but it’s also not a smell many people are accustomed to. It is the smell of local effective microorganisms (LEM) or microorganismos de la montaña (MM) if you are in Costa Rica. LEM is a living solution of microorganisms used for a variety of purposes including cleaning out plumbing and reducing the foul odors and flies associated with livestock. The punch that it packs, especially when smelled in it’s concentrated form, is due, in part, to the fermentation process that is used to produce it. LEM is made by collecting leaf litter from the forest floor and then mixing the litter (and all of the microbes that come with it) into a barrel full of sugar, flour and charcoal which serve as food for those microbes. The microbes and their food are then sealed in an air-tight barrel and left to “brew” for at least one month. After the fermentation step is completed the mixture can be seeped like tea in sugar water and applied in liquid form.

Kishan Mahmud and myself (Laura Ney) will be researching the effects of LEM in agricultural production systems under the direction of Dr. Dory Franklin in UGA’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. We will be looking specifically at the effect of LEM on nutrient cycling and plant availability when applied to forages and legume crops in conjunction with an organic nutrient source. We have the exciting opportunity to conduct our research in two entirely different ecosystems and climate zones – in the temperate piedmont of Watkinsville, Georgia and in the subtropical mountainside of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Conducting our research requires adapting our designs, materials and methods to the two very different environments that we are working in. It also involves manual labor, engineering, chemistry, biology and lots of manure. When we talk about all of the chemistry and microbiology research that we are doing, you may  picture white coats, fancy machines and lab benches filled with chemicals and glassware. That is a pretty accurate description of our lab but in crop and soil science research there is a lot of dirty work to do before you put on that white coat. Over the course of the next week, we will be sharing some of the wide range of experiences that we have had thus far as we’ve begun our project, but first we’ll tell you a little about who we are.

Laura NeyLaura

I am a master’s student in UGA’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. I went to UGACR for the first time on a study abroad program as an undergraduate in 2009. I have gone back many times since then and spent a year working as a farm intern/naturalist after I graduated from the Horticulture department. I am passionate about sustainability and about the importance of understanding the incredible complexity of soil. I am thrilled to be able to continue my education in soil science while continuing my connection with the UGA Costa Rica campus.

Kishan MahmudKishan

I am a PhD student in UGA’s Department of Crop and Soil Science.  I have been studying Soil and Environmental Sciences for the last seven years in Bangladesh, where I am from. My current research is in Georgia, on the locally derived effective microorganisms. While Laura will be focusing on crop quality, nematode community structure and soil nutrients, my work will be focused on microbial activity, microbial community structure and ecosystem services.

Top 10 things not to miss

You’ve already read our top five things to do off the beaten path, so maybe you want to stick to some of the more traditional Costa Rican adventures. Here is what we suggest:

1. Visit the Monteverde Reserve140125_kdi_MilkMonteverde245_1

2. Ziplining

 3. Coffee Tour

4. Guided Hike


 5. Birding

6. Dance Class

Students enjoy the dance lessons even if they are beginners.

Students enjoy the dance lessons even if they are beginners.

7. Butterfly Garden

9. Eat at Lelo’s

8. Night Hike


10. Milking

Top Five things to do off the beaten path

Sure, there are many things to do when you come to Costa Rica. But visiting UGA Costa Rica offers a wide array of non-traditional tourist activities for you and your friends. This is our top five list of things to do off the beaten path. How many have you done?

1. Try the hot chocolate (Seriously, you don’t want to leave campus without trying it!)

Hot Chocolate

2. Swim at the suspension bridge


3. Help out on the farm


4. Go to a community dance

5. Attend a Zumba class at the community center


We always need more lettuce…

One of the most requested crops by the kitchen is lettuce. Between eating it every day for lunch and dinner, we seem to go through a lot of it. Here’s a video of the process of planting a bed of lettuce, from adding composted soil to transplanting lettuce plants from trays in the greenhouse into the ground.

Marlon works on the farm every day, but today Julia came to help out as well.

Things I wish I had packed


With the Fall semester wrapping up, we asked students at UGACR what they wished they had packed.

Here’s a list of the top items:

1. More warm clothes. It can get a little chilly in the mountains here, so in addition to bringing a rain jacket, bring at least one sweater or sweatshirt. A couple pairs of jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and sweatpants would not be out of line either.

2. Hiking backpack. Check your program itinerary to see what outside trips you might be taking. Students in the Fall Tropical Biology program stayed five days in San Gerardo, a hike-in research station. For such a trip, a backpack big enough to carry five days worth of clothes and toiletries would be easier to carry along the trail than a duffle bag. Of course, if you take a bus to the beach, that duffle bag will be just fine.

3. Travel-sized bottles. Speaking of those trips away from campus, bring travel-sized bottles to fill with shampoo, conditioner, or soap. They will be lighter and easier to pack.

4. Extra batteries. You know to bring a flashlight because walking around on unlit paths and trails is dangerous, but don’t forget to bring batteries for when the first batch runs out. Or better yet, invest in some rechargeable batteries.

5. Running shoes. Whether you want to go on a run or play a game of soccer, running shoes will make it a lot easier than hiking boots.

Much better than a final

Students studying Spanish 1001 had the chance to choose between taking a traditional final and working on a project together to demonstrate their new skills. They put together Por amor al dinero, a short story about love and money. Because, after all, language acquisition is about more than just taking tests.

Milking: From the stable to the kitchen


Today, we follow Evan and Trevor to the stable where our cows are milked and our pigs are kept. Although we have more than 20 cows on campus, only four to six are milked daily. During the times they do not have a calf, the others remain in our pastures.

Milking begins every morning at 6:20 and again in the afternoon at about 2:30. After the short trip to the kitchen, it is heated just long enough to come to a boil. The milk is used for our very popular hot chocolate every night as well as cream for coffee, baked goods, and even to make cheese.

Preserving history in San Luis


Ana Ligia López Jurado, Lindsay Stallcup, Dallas Fitzgibbon, and Samantha Peykoff stand in front of the beneficio, or coffee processing plant, in San Luis that Ramón Brenes built.

Yesterday, at a special community presentation about the history of San Luis, UGACR students Dallas Fiztgibbon and Samantha Peykoff debuted a 50-minute documentary they have worked on throughout the semester for Spanish 4090, a service-learning class.

Along with their professors, Ana Ligia López Jurado and Lindsay Stallcup, they conducted interviews about Ramon Brenes, an important figure in this town’s history because of his business acumen and character. Both his daughter, Mari Brenes Jiménez, and his grandson, Ramón “Mon” Brenes Morales, shared their memories with us and graciously invited us into their homes.

Special thanks also goes to many others who contributed to this project: Víctor Ramírez Badilla, Carlos Badilla Jiménez, Odilio Ramírez Rodríguez, Tina Brenes Jiménez, Danis Brenes Jiménez, Luis Venegas Pérez, Edwin Rojas Quesada, Orietta Gómez Chen, and Manfreed Venegas Brenes.

The student’s knowledge of Spanish was put to the test as they edited about 12 hours of interviews. In the end, they had a polished documentary to present to the people of San Luis and demonstrated how important it is to preserve history and our stories.

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