Monday, August 19, 2013

Organic Food the Natural way

We travelled this past week into the high green hills and valleys of Ecuador. Here many small property holders are living with the land as their only asset. These small independent farmers who are trying to make a living in the complex markets of today start out with a disadvantage. Many are farming as their fathers did. Imagine what a difference it makes to be part of a collective that provides low cost loans and training in new products and farming methods.

To get a sense of what these farmers are doing, we visited a number of small family farmers who have been trained and certified in organic farming methods. They sell their produce in large twice a week farmers markets in larger more prosperous towns. It is direct marketing from farmer to consumer! The organic portion of the market attracts many more customers, despite the fact that that the produce is a bit more expensive. Customers are attracted by the fresh, higher quality, tastier organic products. A small land holder can make a good living in this way.

There is growing interest in locating and preserving the seeds and knowledge the are part of the indigenous heritage of Ecuador... High in the mountains and valleys these treasures can still be found. Varieties from the coastal regions are more likely to have been lost due to more intensive farming methods on mono culture crops like bananas. The recovered crops are a genetic treasure with products that can be sold commercially and genetic information available for cross breeding to develop new varieties.

The cooperative groups provide a range of services, from sharing of seeds, collecting and sharing techniques, providing in depth training in new methods. A farmer can take a low interest Heifer project loan, spend it on tools, seeds, training, land... And then pay back the loan from their increased income. The interest collected serves as the basis for "passing on the gift" to other farmers.

The indigenous farmers made great use of companion planting.. The beneficial interaction between plants grown close together. They do not plant in uniform rows or clumps... But inter spaced crops were grown in natural communities as might be found in nature... The soil was always occupied (year round growing season here)... The soil is never bare, thus preventing drying. Plants are continually added and taken out when harvested. Some plants that we might call weeds are permitted to grow because of their contribution to the soil economy. Large "weeds" that steal the sunlight from crops are removed. This concept of growing plants in communities is called agroecology. Growing diverse crops is beneficial in the farmers market economy. For example 18 varieties of potatoes are grown for their diverse flavors and food qualities. Some plant varieties are included in the community for their ability to repel harmful insects or to attract beneficial ones.

The proof of this system and training is in the results. Training and cooperative support have led many farmers in this region to self sufficiency and economic success.

Neighboring farms plowed by a tractor, practicing monoculture agriculture with only one crop, are much more prone to insect invasions requiring pesticides, in need of soil enrichment with commercial fertilizers (unneeded with the plant communities and compost fertilization), and are subject to the drying of the soil since the dirt is not covered with the mixed plant community. The idea is to let nature do the work...adapt to the natural ways of plants and soil.

Some farmers add to the diversity by also growing animals... Guinea pigs, rabbits, cows, sheet... Selling the meat and using the "poop" in the compost. The ideas, the training, the seeds and animals, the funding, and the passing on of the gift are all part of the Heifer concept. The concept is flexible dependent on local conditions and resources... We saw a trout farm that made use of clear cold spring water to make ponds that support a restaurant and farmers market... More Heifer training and start up money at work,.