Wednesday, 28 April 2010

visit to Bocas del Toro

Just returned from a brief trip across the border to Panama and the lovely Bocas islands. We stayed with a friend who has a 100 acre farm there growing cacao, coconuts, bamboo, platanos, pineapples, greens and all sorts of new and wonderful things. What a project! Very inspiring.
The terribly sad part is that her partner just died suddenly and now the future of the farm is at this point uncertain. We would love to help out and bring this dream of Jim's to full fruition. Hopefully we can.

The produce from the farm is sold at the very young Farmers' market in Bocas Island. Very small as yet, and not well supported by the local population. The trouble is that Panama isn't a very agricultural nation. While there are miles and miles of cattle ranches, the people growing vegetables are few and far between: it's shocking to see how poor the selection and quality of fresh fruits and veggies is on the mainland, never mind the islands. Much of the 'fresh' stuff is imported. We have two great farming friends there: Up In The Hill Organic Farm and High Hopes South, they take their produce to market, but what they produce can never pull in the crowds like the onions - carrots - broccoli - garlic crowd can, and that stuff just doesn't grow on lowland tropical areas. For the market to survive change needs to happen - firstly the market must go from twice a month to weekly, and secondly a cold crops veggie vendor must appear, only then will the locals take the market seriously. There are talks afoot with an organic farmer in Boquete, but that's 4 hours away. We are about 4 hours away too, it seems unlikely any of our farmers would sell there.

So what to do? It seems to me a mammoth task of educating the populace to eat locally and healthily - very hard to do in a tourist town where most restaurants serve up hamburgers and fries with an iceberg lettuce side salad.

What does sell at the market is cacao in all forms: raw beans, roasted nibs, ground, sweetened, even turned into jam! Chocolate truffles and brownies are winners too, along with dried fruit and candied ginger. Almost all of these goodies go to tourists. Great, but a passing trade and not one that sustains in the long term. Platanos, pipa water, chaya and katuk are sold beside the fruits our friends have in season - but to make it work these have to become local staples.

It's a lot of work and requires commitment and strength from the growers, but it's a worthy path to tread. I hope somehow we can help.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

the water costs hidden in everyday things

Found an interesting article, very interesting article, on the bbc today: a report detailing how much water is used to produce various everyday items. Putting the link to the article here, but as a teaser;
  • 70 liters of water needed to produce 1 apple
  • 30 liters needed to produce enough tealeaves for a cup of tea
  • a staggering 140 liters to produce one cup of coffee
  • 440 liters to produce one loaf of bread!
  • 3,875 liters of water go into making a beef steak.
The quantities given are for "embedded" water - all the water needed to grow, harvest, prepare, ship and sell the product. The article comes from a report warning about western nations buying water 'rich' items from developing countries, such as Kenya which uses precious water resources to grow flowers for the European market.

Very interesting article, well worth reading, then pondering, then acting upon.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

visit to the hen lady's farm

 Noity is the hen lady at the Farmers' Market. As plump and as lively as any mother hen she is a fixture of the market, selling out of her wonderful free range organic eggs an hour into market. She sells chickens too, and pork in the winter months. We are stall neighbours and it's a joy to talk with her and see her interact with her clients, her husband Timo and her other stall neighbour, the cheese man Miguel. I wouldn't miss the feria just for a chance to see Noity.

She's had a typical and yet not so typical life for a Talamancan campesino. Her father came from Panama and somehow secured some land which he still, well into his nineties, farms. Noity met Timo when he came to cut trees for her father, she had her first child with him when she was 15, he was 35. They moved to Timo's family land and slowly she has built up her own poulty business. Timo still cuts trees, specializing in difficult terrain, he has a team of two magnificent oxen he uses to haul lumber. They grow plantains and keep a small herd of beef cattle. Noity runs the chicken business herself, telling me it's "women's work".

They live in a small, basic, typical campesino house. Spotlessly clean, efficient and bare. There's no electricity and her cell phone won't work at the house. They bathe in a well carved out by a year round spring and cook staples over an open fire. Noity has a propane stovetop too for quick things. She has a milkcow which provides enough milk for the family each day and she makes a little cheese. She boils the milk to pasteurize it so it won't spoil so quickly in a house without refrigeration. They eat around 4pm and talk until dark - here never later than 6:30, then go to bed. Noity doesn't use lamps or candles, she says there's too much of a breeze at the house. Life takes place on the covered deck which extends to the kitchen, there are two old chairs with cushions, the children make do with wooden seats and sleep with their mattresses on the floor. Noity and Timo's room is tiny, just enough room for a bed, a plastic set of drawers and cartons and cartons of eggs.
In the kitchen, and the outside pila (a concrete sink with side areas for washing clothes or children), water is always running. It's a widely held belief that taps should not be turned off and that water is inexhaustible. A friend of ours installed a water system for a local indigenous village, he returned after two weeks to find that all the faucets had been removed so the water could constantly run. While this might be shocking to those of us who grew up or live in an increasingly water conscious world, it remains here almost a status symbol to have running water constantly. When Noity saw my raised eyebrows and asked she laughed at my reply and answered, but love, it rains here, there's plenty of water. She's right of course. There is here, right now.

She was so happy to show me her chickens. There are two areas kept far apart on the farm. The broilers are in a large open shed, 250 of them in each of two enclosures. She buys the chicks at 2 days old, they are ready for the table at 6 weeks, indeed if they get any older they can't walk: bred to have large breasts they get too heavy if they get too big. The broilers are also bred to have few feathers - they're not pretty birds, but Noity's seem happy enough for the few weeks of their lives with plenty of air, natural light, clean space, food and water. She feeds them corn and herbs with weekly meals of garlic and onion for parasite control. The killing shed is close by. Noity kills 80 chickens a week, her method is to hold the bird in a cut off 2 liter soda bottle, the neck of which has been removed. The chicken's head pokes through the opening and is quickly removed with a pair of shears. This method is taught in the local high school's animal program. It's highly efficient and quick. The feathers and heads are cooked up and fed to the pigs. The rest is sold with the bird. Noity charges 2,400 colones per kilo, that's about $5.40 at today's exchange rate. We're not sure if the corn she feeds is organic (she gets it from various sources), but it's certainly the best tasting chicken around here.

The layers live in a pretty hen house atop a hill close to her home. There's about 200 of them, all look like rhode island reds, but I'm not sure. Noity buys these as chicks too. They start laying at 17 weeks and she'll keep them as layers for 2 years then fatten them up and sell them live to locals for the soup pot. The chickens are free range, but are kept in the hen house until mid morning to ensure all eggs are laid where they can be found. Wandering around the farm with her clucking as softly and contentedly as any hen I fell in love with this way of life all over again. So beautiful, so peaceful. So simple.

And yet it's not really. Noity has weight issues and complains of symptoms that sound like early onset diabetes. She has had a recurring problem with ulcers on one leg and complains of stomach pains often. Sometimes she spends nights in the clinic with stomach issues. When I ask her how she's been in the week she explains it through food: lovely, I could eat everything, fried egg, fried plantain, pork, coffee. . . Salad isn't a regular feature of her diet. When she invited us to sit for a snack she handed us large glasses of dark liquid. I thought it was tamarind juice, it wasn't till my first sip I realized it was coke. I haven't had coke in years. We unwrapped plastic packets of cookies. Seems so incongruous, and yet it's only that way because of my ideals and my expectations. She was giving us what we as foreigners had brought her culture.

Noity drives a big black pick-up truck. Timo can't drive, nor can he read or work with numbers, Noity does all that. Both use their hands to speak, the many stories they tell are full of noises and gestures taking the listener right into the situation, they are great storytellers and funny with it. The plantains they grow are organic, some they bring to market, but most they sell to a local co-operative. We were surprised to see the fruits covered with the blue plastic bags the plantations use. Normally those bags are impregnated with pesticides. Seemingly however they are also sold 'clean' and are used to cover the fruit to keep the black bees away. The bees eat the immature fruit leaving marks on the surface of the peel. We have been talking to her about stopping the use of the bags - the gringos she sells to have bad associations with the bags, and the locals don't care about the peel. Noity has always looked surprised by our suggestion - she doesn't understand. We tell her the bags are very bad, they end up in the waterways and ocean and are responsible for the deaths of many turtles and sea birds. She says her bags never get into the ocean, she always burns them.

Noity stands spanning the chasm between two worlds. Whether she can bridge the gap might be the most important question of the decade.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

salad bowl, the sequel

A long time ago -or at least 18 months ago - I had the idea to grow salad greens for the market. The fresh, beautiful, flower scented salad greens I would buy in Calafornian Farmers' Markets would sustain me all the week, and I was sure we could provide the same pretty bowls of colour and taste down here.

It has been a slow process. With no lettuce and few local options it has been a treasure hunt finding suitable greens. In this last year of trial and error we have found that here in a year round growing cycle, some of our greens are annuals: the cranberry hibiscus dies after flowering in December, the wandering jew goes dormant through December and January, the Malabar spinach gives up in February and March. Our salad mixes change weekly as we watch for flowers on the hibiscus and fret over the gingers. It has been more a year of research and development than one of production.

However it has worked and now we are slowly but steadily increasing our options and our knowledge. We found winged bean seeds in Panama and moringa growing at Punta Mona, a dark purple wandering jew is thriving on the deck off the kitchen and a news article in the national paper turned us on to two local, near forgotten edibles: the zorillo and chinquispil. Slowly it's coming together. the new plants and varieties we've gathered are not at full production yet. It's not like buying a seed packet and sowing them, instead we are given or find one plant or a couple of seeds and have to grow it out ourselves in the nursery until it is ready to produce: all our salad greens are second generation plants each with their own history and path to us. If I count what we have, including those in the nursery the list is impressive:
cranberry hibiscus
malabar spinach
okinawa spinach
red spinach
winged bean
gotu kola
bolivian culantro
vietnamese cilantro
wandering jew
purple wandering jew
orchid tree
gnetum gnetum
garlic vine

In another year we should have a really beautiful salad bowl, full of superfoods, brimming with flowers (pansy, ginger, hibiscus, orchid tree, morninga. . .) and just delicious.

pineapples planted!

After what seems a year of thinking about it, we've finally planted pineapples. Not that it's very difficult, it's just that it took time going back and forth and round and round discussing which to plant, where to plant and finally how to plant. In the end it took someone calling the farm and saying they had 300 suckers for sale. And so 3 days later we have a pineapple patch.

Pineapples reproduce in one of two ways - through seeds (rare these days, but possible through cross-pollination of different varieties), or through suckers. The suckers come three ways - the crown of the pineapple, from the base of the fruit and from the base of the plant itself. The basal suckers are the fastest producers, and can fruit in as little as 9 months, the suckers which grow from under the fruit take about a year to produce, and the crown takes around two years to give fruit. I always plant the crowns, usually as a hedge line or an unobtrusive part of a landscape, but the farmer is only interested in growing the basal suckers - sure, it's quicker.

We have planted the 300 on 'sun dog hill', a south-ish facing slope by the house. 300 plants don't take up much room: pineapples are planted closely together to provide support for each other. Their roots provide anchoring and stability, so there's no real competition for soil nutrients among the plants. The pineapple feeds like other bromeliads: obtaining its nutrients through the pools which form at the base of the leaves.

Now that we've started, the idea is to plant another 300 in 2 or 3 months time so that we can stagger the harvest somewhat (300 pineapples is a lot for one breakfast!).

Sunday, 4 April 2010

self efficiency

Does that make sense? I've been pondering this morning whether my ideal is self sufficiency or independent efficiency. Self sufficiency is to have enough, to have enough in oneself, or by oneself. This is of course the truth, the big picture, we are all of us enough in ourselves, without the need for outer confirmation or reward or justification. At least that's what I feel in my calmest, brightest, shiniest moments. Applying the big picture to my lifestyle 'choices' I find I am deficient, I cannot be totally self sufficient. We have a truck, we use electricity, we buy vegetables that don't grow here, we don't raise our own meat or dairy. I can make as much of our basics as possible: yoghurt, cheese, oil, bread - but none of the ingredients come from our farm.

So instead I'm thinking this morning of second generation homesteading.

Efficiency is another thing - it is more efficient for me to go to the store and buy oil, but that just isn't the same is it? I find myself equating efficiency with simplicity: the simpler I can make my kitchen and my plantings, pickings and workings, the more efficient and streamlined I feel, the smoother my days run. Efficiency only seems to come with experience, simplicity too. The more time and attention I spend in a task the more I see how to simplify it in the future. It's a question of maturity I guess, I'm slowly drifting from the ideal of pure self sufficiency into a more community based thinking: happy to buy from other local farmers that which I can't make or grow myself, it seems more sustainable.

Sustainable - now there's another word.