Former MESA Host Explores Organic Agriculture in Ecuador

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Lowell Rheinheimer, Farm Resources Manager at Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative, recently took a trip to Ecuador to meet his old Stewards, and explore sustainable agriculture development.

Submitted by Lowell Rheinheimer, Farm Resources Manager at Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative
During my recent trip to Ecuador I had the opportunity to explore the development of organic agriculture in the country, visit several exciting organic agriculture projects, reunite with two former MESA stewards, and befriend several warm and determined farm families.  Ecuador is a fascinating country on the western edge of South America a little bigger than Nevada with three distinctively different climate zones:  a productive Pacific coastal plain, a volcanic mountain range, central highlands, and an Amazonian rainforest.

Over the past two years, through a combination of grassroots farmer desire and supportive governmental and educational policy, organic agriculture has surprisingly appeared on the scene in Ecuador in a very strong way.  And though they probably wouldn’t take credit for having such an impact, I suspect that seven years of bringing young farmers to the US to learn organic agriculture through the MESA has contributed to this development. Several CROPP members have hosted MESA stewards in recent years.

Ecuador is the first country in the world to adopt language in their constitution that recognizes and protects “the rights of nature” and promotes food sovereignty.  The constitution prohibits the introduction of genetically modified organisms into the country and states that Ecuador will introduce organic and ecological technologies for sustainable agricultural production, adopt policies to increase resources for farmers and protect the national economy from food import dependency. Clearly, despite all its problems – over-population, wealth disparity, pollution – this is a country that is trying to do the right things for the environment and its people.

My principal contacts in Ecuador were two serious and energetic former MESA stewards, Yadira Bedon H. and Maria Rosa Yumblas, who formed a small non-governmental organization they call Huayra Causay (“The Winds of Life” in Quechua, the most widely spoken language of the indigenous peoples of the Andes) in 2006 to support and promote their vision of ecological farming practices and community development in Ecuador.

  • Their four objectives of Huayra Causay are:
  • To screen, prepare (English language training and workshops on sustainable agriculture) and support (with scholarships) poor young Ecuadorian farmers who want to participate in international sustainable agriculture training through MESA.
  • To promote international cultural exchanges in Ecuador and volunteer work in Ecuador by North Americans and Europeans.
  • To initiate and implement organic agriculture projects in Ecuador.  (Returning MESA stewards are required to conduct such projects in return for the support they receive in international training.)
  • To conduct educational courses in organic agriculture within Ecuador.  (As I was leaving, Maria Rosa told me that she had just been asked to conduct a four-day training for 46 agricultural engineers in one province the following week.)

Yadira and Maria Rosa pointed me to three projects they thought would be interesting to visit.  Through miscommunication, I missed the first project in Riobamba but had very enjoyable visits with the other two as I will describe below.

I also missed the famous rural development cooperative founded by Father Antonio Polo in the high and rural Salinas de Guaranda – population 3000 – where they make very successful cheeses from milk hauled in to the plant on llamas because I was too impatient to ask for directions.  I’m still kicking myself over that one.  There’s a well-made video including a discussion by Father Polo at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wwdv8GtUwoE.  Unfortunately the narrative is in Spanish but the video is beautiful nonetheless.  Contact me if you’d like a translation and I’ll see what I can do.  Basically, Father Polo spearheaded an effort to establish processing facilities and marketing channels for raw materials grown by the poor farmers in the region:  milk, wool, sugar cane.  They now make cheese, yarn, and candy plus toys, soccer balls and other handcrafts.  Father Polo says the benefit hasn’t been so much the amount of money they now make as it has been the improvement of the quality of life, the dignity and the control community members have over their own destiny.

After visiting the natural hot springs in Banos – I went in, very hot – and the lovely village of Alausi just off the Panamerican Highway, my friend Terry and I took in the old colonial city of Cuenca then headed for Loja in the extreme south of the country.  There we met with a young farmer-student named Angel Guaman who took us to three sites including his mother and uncle’s five year project to establish an organic mixed crop and cattle producing farmstead on 10 acres of land long held by the family in the dry scrub land near Zapotillo on the Peru border that is newly served by an irrigation canal.

The first was an evening encounter with four professors and a translator from the National University of Loja led by Dr. Noe Bravo Vivar.  They explained their very close relationship with cattle farmers in the region who want to learn about organic agriculture and the support they have from the government to promote organic agriculture.  Two of the professors were veterinarians and all of them were anxious to find ways to improve cattle health and productivity through organic methods.  We talked about the need for high-quality forages and balanced rations and the special challenges of tropical climates.  They were eager to hear about the history and workings of CROPP Cooperative.  Dr. Noe asked how we could follow up with this initial exchange and we came up with the idea of organizing a follow-up visit by interested farmers from our cooperative to share their experiences in a formal technical exchange and to meet with the farmers on their farms.  (See sidebar for more on this idea.)

The second site Angel took us to was the Centro Binacional de Formacion Technica in Zapotepamba led by Robert Guerrero Rodriquez.  After years of border wars between Ecuador and Peru the two governments decided it would be better to work together on projects to improve the quality of life for the people both countries, especially the rural poor in the border region.  One of these projects was the creation of this residential organic farming educational project with two campuses, the one we visited in Ecuador and one in Peru.

It’s hard to describe my surprise upon seeing and hearing about what they do in Zapotepamba.  The Center provides a 24 month training program conducted in collaboration with the National University of Loja as part of an agricultural engineering degree devoted 100% to organic production methods.  Its 70 students not only learn organic farming concepts from a staff of agronomists, veterinarians and engineers but also learn hands-on, practical production of fruits and vegetables, dairy cattle and milk, pigs, tilapia, eggs, cuy (guinea pigs – a popular delicacy in Ecuador), and silkworms.  Some students learn dairy and meat processing.  The farmland that the Centro is located on was purchased for $5mm and the government has invested another $3mm in classrooms, irrigation, processing and production facilities, etc.

Finally we visited the small landholding being developed as a productive organic farmstead by Angel’s visionary mother, Gladis.  Now served by the newly built irrigation canal above them, Gladis and her brother are able to grow virtually anything they want:  fruits, vegetables, poultry, etc.  As usual, wealth disparity stares one in the face here as in all of Ecuador.  Almost all the land served by the canal is owned by a single landowner who grows conventional rice complete with chemical sprays and, for the first time, mosquitoes from the standing water.  The vast majority of rural people live on marginal land.

We also had the pleasure of meeting Angel’s extended family who live high in the mountains above the village of Pindal where is grandparents spent their whole lives doing subsistence farming on less than 10 acres of steep but productive volcanic soils.

Pindal itself is devoted wholly to corn as demonstrated by the 20 foot tall statue of a yellow corn ear in the central plaza just opposite the church.

Corn is grown on every conceivable piece of land for miles around no matter how steep.  Monoculture corn, planted by hand directly into the volcanic soil year after year with no plowing, fertilized with urea supplied on credit by the seed companies, cultivated and harvested by hand.  Thousands of people make their living growing corn and have gotten away with it because of the natural fertility of these soils.  But depletion has begun and human illness is showing up.  Angel and I projected that either things are going to have to change or this region is destined to become a desert.  An unbelievable scene.

Finally we traveled to the coast to enjoy the ocean and then visited Veronica Chang, one of my former MESA stewards from when I was farming before joining CROPP, on her family’s fruit and cattle farm inland an hour from the coast.  The next day we traveled on to what was probably the highlight of the trip:  a visit with young organic cattle farmer Fernando Mendoza to learn about Asociacion de Ganaderos Convento (ASOGAN – Convento Cattlemen Association) that Fernando currently serves as president.

Fernando and ASOGAN’s creative and intelligent founder, Yosi Zambrano Giler, secured government assistance to form their association and establish an office in nearby Convento.  Their mission is to improve the productivity of their farms and improve the standard of living for the 56 farmer-members (“socios” or associates).  These farmers determined early on that they wanted to devote themselves exclusively to organic methods even though there is no premium market for their meat and milk and little prospect for such a market developing in a poor country like Ecuador.  Their eventual aim is to develop a milk processing facility and collectively market their milk.  They, too, were excited by the prospect of a technical-cultural exchange visit from experienced organic farmers from the US.

The farmers in this region raise cattle for meat and milk exclusively on year-round pastures of native grasses on fairly large tracts of deep, rich, often steep volcanic soils high in the hills well up from the coast but before the real mountains begin.  Fernando’s farm has been in his family for hundreds of years.  His father, Wellington Mendoza, owns around 1000 acres of which about half is still dense, tropical rainforest of which they are very proud and determined to protect.  But dairy production – about 15 pounds per day – is very small for a variety of reasons.  The genetics of their animals is one reason but their total reliance on native grasses that get pretty scarce during the dry season is a major factor.  These soils are never turned, no improved varieties are planted, no crops are rotated, no soil amendments are used, no irrigation is practiced, no stored feed is prepared, and no supplemental grain is provided.

Wellington and three of his eight children – Fernando, his sister Sandra (a lawyer who helped translate and arranged our visit), and his brother Javier (a student at the University) – took us through the countryside by pickup to visit their birthplace (an extremely primitive shack on stilts) on the family’s second farm, several other farmer-associates, and an impressive waterfall that carried but a trickle since November is at the end of the long dry season.  By Christmas it promises to become a raging torrent.

Near the end of the trip, I caught up with Guillermo Albuja who had served as a farm steward through the MESA program on one of CROPP’s member’s farm in 2006 until a minor injury sent him my way for three months while I served as the Mideast regional coordinator.  Guillermo hopes to study organic dairy nutrition at the University of Alberta next year but meanwhile works with the Ministry of Agriculture in a new program that has trained 270 young people in organic farming techniques and deployed them throughout the country.  His focus is on organic banana and cacao production.

What struck me most on this trip were the common challenges that face organic farmers throughout the world – maintaining soil fertility, providing good animal nutrition, gaining access to markets – and the insight and warmth of rural people.  Although the context of their challenges are very different from those we know, the content is remarkably similar.  And the open hospitality we experienced was reassuring in this age of widespread conflict and acrimony.

 

Technical/cultural tour to Ecuador.

Would you be interested in joining a 10-day technical/cultural tour to Ecuador to visit the projects discussed in this article later this winter?   Yadira and Maria Rosa have offered to organize the logistics of such a trip including arranging hotels and providing a translator.  We anticipate everyone flying to Guayaquil on their own and then traveling together by chartered bus to ASOGAN in Convento, up to see the cooperative at Salinas de Guaranda, pass within 5 kilometers from the glacier on Chimborazo on the scenic Arenal with its wild native vicunas, llamas and alpacas, check out Julio and Fernanda’s organic farming project in Riobamba, visit the historic colonial city of Cuenca, and return to Guayaquil.  An extension to visit the National University in Loja and the Bi-national Center in Zapotepamba would be offered for those who could stay longer than 10 days.

Food and lodging is very cheap in Ecuador and the country adopted the US dollar as its currency in 2000.  A satisfying “almuerzo” (lunch) costs around $2.25 and we rarely spent more than $20 a night for satisfactory lodging.  Unless we chose to upgrade accommodations, $50 per day plus travel costs should be adequate.  I promised everyone in Ecuador that I would offer this opportunity to our members and see if anyone was interested.  Please contact MESA at 888-834-7461 if you have any questions or an interest in participating.  We anticipate that a small group of around 10 people would be manageable and cost effective.

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