Part Two in a series of three installments of field notes (Check out Part One) from the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Education Coordinator, Leah Joyner. Tapped for her expertise in agritourism and farm tour development, Leah was asked to participate in a volunteer agritourism assignment to Colombia through the Farmer2Farmer program. To connect with the work Leah does at CFSA, check out the Eastern Triangle Farm Tour, Sept. 17-18! The tour features 25 farms in the Triangle area, so get your car pass, choose some farms to visit, and get to know your local farmers!
June 1st, 2016
En route to San Juan de Arama we stopped at an open air cafe for breakfast. Our group included myself, Dr. Jonathon Day, Professor Constanza, Jorge the Farmer2Farmer Colombia coordinator, Monica our translator, and our talented hired driver (I’ve never seen a mini-van cover the terrain we managed during this trip). We picked up fresh fruit from the adjacent market to enjoy with our tinto as it poured down outside. Our hosts had warned that this was the rainy season, but luckily this was one of the few stormy days we experienced. We were served plates of scrambled eggs with tomato and green onion, which like most Colombian meals, were accompanied by sides of rice and fried plantains. We arrived to San Juan De Arama just as the farmers were gathering at the community center which serves as a library with limited public computer access, a gathering space, and classroom for programs such as the local tourism education institution.
On the road beside the community center sits a collection of rusted cars, left in place from a bombing several years past. As we walked through the wreckage our translator told us about a three day period in which Professor Constanza was trapped in a hotel with no food and water while the town she was visiting came under guerilla siege. Although that story took place in a different town, bombings were widespread across the country for many years.
The people of San Juan left these bombed cars in the town center as a reminder of the violence that once tore through their community.
The walls of the library were lined with a series of placards depicting a timeline of the history of Colombia. The first placard renders the history of La Violencia, or the period of Civil war from 1946 to 1964 that resulted in over 200,000 deaths. Next, the period of the Guerilla Paramilitary forces, starting with the formation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 1964 (FARC). The third placard depicted the reign of narco-terrorism during which drug cartels exerted violent control over much of the country. This period seems to have garnered the most attention from the international media, so I wasn’t surprised when several Colombians asked me “when you think of Colombia, do you think of Pablo Escobar?” Unfortunately, the recent release of the hit Netflix show ‘Narcos’ following the rise and fall of the drug kingpin surely hasn’t helped erase that stigma. That said, in my opinions, the legacy of Escobar is one of least interesting aspects of Colombian culture. There is so much more history in arts, music, food, geography, and agriculture that sadly may be too often overshadowed by the fame of the Narcos. The final placard was a true testimony to the heart of the Colombian people: the promise of peace. This placard was printed with a hopeful sense, as if to say – ‘We believe that the present, and the immediate future will bring peace. It must. Some are optimistic (thus the plans for tourism), while others have had their hopes dashed too many times to believe that this time could bring a true period of peace. They are skeptical, and for good reason. Most of the people we met had a personal story to tell of a family member having been kidnapped, or having to flee the countryside for fear of such an event. Most adults can recount an instance when they witnessed bloodshed first hand, having survived a bombing, a shooting, or a siege. And yet, even before the peace treaty was drafted (and signed following my return), they had printed and hung this placard – looking forward to the period of peace that they believe will come.
Meeting in the library in San Juan De Arama.
After our hosts had guided me through the timeline lining the walls, we spent the rest of the afternoon in the library with the farmers, representatives from the Mayor’s office, the National Park Service, and the local tourism operators sharing with each other the vision for tourism for the region. I hosted a presentation giving an introduction to agritourism, and sharing best practices from some of the farmers I’ve been fortunate to work with at CFSA. We talked about biosecurity, and I showed images from Turtle Mist Farm where Bob & Ginger Sykes set the bar high (you can visit learn all about their practices during the Eastern Triangle Farm Tour). I showed examples from sustainable agriculture leaders like Chapel Hill Creamery, Vollmer Farm, & several other farms that open up their gates during CFSA’s farm tours. We talked about ideas for product development, marketing, safety, and liability.
We broke for lunch and a short walk through the town center to a nearby cafe. They served us a mushroom soup, and pork (of course with a side of rice and fried plantains!). During lunch we sat with a wonderful family of two sweet boys their mother & aunt and uncle. They told us about their visions for tourism and the community and shared their excitement for us to visit them later in the week. Lunch was followed with more meetings in the afternoon, and we ended the day with a cup of sweet tinto at the open-air bakery at the hotel where we were staying.
Enjoying an afternoon cup of tinto in San Juan de Arama.
Later that evening, outside of the cafe as lively music from the discoteca next door poured out into the night our translator Monica recounted stories of her fascinating life’s journey to me. She told me of her childhood growing up on her father’s farm, moving to Bogota as a teen, travelling the world and studying in London, and eventually returning to Colombia. Many of the people we met joked that she has taught half of Villavo to speak English, and everywhere we went people knew her, showering her with hugs and practicing their english with her. She was an incredible spirit, and by the end of the journey I would consider her a kindred spirit and hopefully life long friend. Mi hermana – or my sister as she would call me for the rest of the trip.
June 2, 2016 – San Juan de Arama
We were picked up at the hotel around sunrise by a group from the Mayor’s office & the Meta department of tourism. When offered the choice between an open air or enclosed land cruiser I of course went for the rugged open air ride. We were in for a bumpy, breezy, dusty day, and I loved every minute of it.
Our driver for the day picking us up in San Juan de Arama.
First stop: an orange farm named Le Boquerón. They walked us through their citrus groves and we tasted bananas, tangerines, valencia oranges, and lemons as the farmers shared the challenges they face with pest control and climate, and the pressure they receive from their corporate clients to to use chemical pesticides. The farm is looking into, and hopes to one day become certified organic. To do this they would have to discontinue the application of chemicals, but given current pest pressure the farmers felt that they had no other choice given the quick results that chemical sprays yield. They are members of the orange growers association which is very young but growing with the support of the local government. These farmers have a great desire for tourism, and sought input for product development. If they attract visitors, what activities can they offer them?
Touring the avocado groves at Le Boquerón.
There was discussion of a harvest festival as good starting point to attract visitors. These festivals can be successful, but all too often I’ve seen such events grow to such a large scale that the producers themselves start to miss out on the benefits unless the event is actually held at the farm. I suggested starting smaller, offering experiences like make your own fruit juices, or offering classes on making and jarring your own marmalades. It seems that many of the farmers who host visitors during CFSA’s regional farm tours have had success with crafting these on-farm learning experiences, especially when visitors are willing to pay a premium for knowledge & instruction, later heading home with a delicious product in hand. These hands-on experiences with food and farms create memories, and each time that visitor opens a jar of fruit preserves they may recall the experience they had on this farm, leading to repeat purchasing or a positive impact on consumption habits.
Next, we travelled to a fish farm. Here they raised fish similar to tilapia and dairy cattle. We toured a small portion of the fish production area and the processing area where fish are processed and packed on ice for pick up. This farmer had attended our presentation the day before, and was especially interested in the portion concerning biosecurity. Recently, several of his ponds had become infected with a virus brought onto the farm by a visitor who had previously been to an infected farm. Visitors who frequently visit, or work at other farms should be considered high risk visitors due to the chance for them to carry infected material from farm to farm. Following this event, this farmer decided to clear out the ponds that contained the infected fish & restock them designating them solely for tourism use in the future. This strategy establishes a control area where visitors can enjoy fishing on the farm, while protecting the more crucial production areas. At the conclusion of each farm visit we gathered in the shade, shared a cup of tinto, & discussed strategies specific to each site’s tourism goals. This farmer expressed an interest in offering tutorials on milking cows and making cheese, so we discussed the possibility of implementing a similar strategy for this dairy herd. Designating a small portion of the herd that he will allow to interact with visitors, will facilitate hands on learning and provide diverse income opportunities, all while protecting his financial investments in the production portion of his herd.
Next stop: Las Reservas – a reservation of twenty hectares of beautiful, pristine wildlife reserve. To reach the reserve we crossed over the river on a hand made wooden bridge, held together with metal cord. All part of the experience, right? The owner of the reserve, Ferney, and his family live on and manage the land offering a unique ecotourism experience to visitors eager to learn about stewardship. Ferney was injured in a shooting several years ago, so his son Johann takes on much of the responsibility of creating trails and guiding visitors through the reserve.
Ferney’s family treated us to lunch & some lively music.
After a hearty lunch of (you guessed it) grilled meat, rice, and fried plantains we embarked on our hike to the highest point of the reserve. The trail was challenging, but oh so worth it. As we walked through the jungle the tops of the trees swayed as the chimpanzees jumped from limb to limb. Johann stopped along the way to identify rare plant life & relay stories of the indigenous people of the region. The reserve shares a border with the Sierra De La Macarena National park, and we were headed to a vista with a breathtaking view of Indio Acostado – the laying indian (if you’ve ever been to the NC Mountains, think Grandfather Mountain profile). As we hiked through the foot of the Andes Mountains we stopped and looked behind us at the expansive lands of the National Park below. Devastatingly large chunks of the lush landscape had been slashed and burned for illegal animal agriculture.
Seen from the altitude of the trail, large portions of the Sierra de La Macarena National Park have been destroyed for illegal agriculture.
Our group was accompanied by two park rangers, who pointed out the destruction while lamenting their limited ability to enforce the regulations that ban agriculture inside park borders. In light of the challenges for enforcement, the rangers are partnering with reserves like Ferney’s to identify areas where visitors can enjoy the scenery of the Sierra De La Macarena, while allowing for restoration of the fragile landscapes within the park’s borders. As we reached the peak of the reserve we were treated to a magnificent view of the canyon below – the Guejar river twisting and turning beneath us, above the Indian laying asleep. Swathes of hawks flew overhead through the open canyon, and Johann related indigenous folklore of the native’s calling on the Hawks to guard the Indian so that he should never rise from his slumber.
Johann telling the story of Indio Acostado.
We departed from the reserve at dusk, making ease of crossing over a flooded trail in our land cruizer and enjoying the night breeze while the park rangers shared their passion for the mission of conservation. The Colombian National Park Service is a relatively young organization, and these rangers had dedicated their careers to persevering beautiful open spaces and the fragile ecosystems that comprise the park system. Back at the hotel the owner of the establishment offered us a local delicacy, fresh pieces of queso stuffed with guava paste & wrapped in palm fronds. We walked next door to his family’s cafe for a quick jamón y queso sandwich (and maybe a cerveza or two, come on it was a LONG hike…). I was invited to watch the Colombia vs. US soccer game, but after our day of exploration it was all I could do to keep my eyelids open, and of course the next day would begin at sunrise again. Time for a cold shower (hot water and wifi not included) and a short night’s sleep before our excursion was to pick back up bright and early.
June 3rd, 2016
Today’s adventure began at Peñas Blancas – The White Clifs, a village of about 200 people. In anticipation of our visit a group of enterprising friends and family had blazed a trail through the jungle leading from the village down to the River Guejar.
The view of the cliff’s was absolutely surreal. The jungle was mysterious and full of fungi, fruit, wildlife, and some pretty intense insect life. Our guides had painted signs to label the plant life and to warn of peligro (yes, I did learn that word before the trip). Comes in handy when the sign could loosely be translated as “danger, you might fall off of this cliff into the river where a pop singer drowned last month.’’ This sign was a close second to my favorite, which read simply, ‘silencio’. Obediently, the group fell into silence as we clenched a rope stretched taut between trees to steady ourselves as we went down the muddy sloped trail. Our descent complete, we learned that our silence was necessary to keep the giant aggressive wasps nesting nearby from being alerted of our presence. A little too tracker jacker for my taste (shoutout to my fellow hunger games fans). Sometimes it’s best to follow directions first, ask questions later…
The White Cliffs towering above the rocky banks of the Guejar River.
The end of the trail opened up to a stunning view of the White Cliffs jutting up and out of the banks of the Guejar. Sitting by the water we shared mangoes and talked with our hosts about their goals for tourism. They expressed a desire to attract responsible tourists who would respect the villagers and enjoy the trails and beach. It would be an incredible adventure for the right visitor. After our final meeting to discuss options for marketing and product development we set off for our next stop.
We arrived to Yoli’s farm greeted by another plank and cord bridge to cross – at this point I was getting a little more accustomed to these swinging bridges.
The entrance to Finca de La Esperanza, Yoli’s farm.
Yoli, the farm owner had been preparing lunch for us all day and as we walked through the tall grasses of her expertly maintained fields we started to smell the cassava, hen, and plantain soup cooking over the fire. Yoli is an expert cook, and supplements the farm’s income by cooking and catering for community events. After lunch, and several cups of tinto, we headed off for our pasture walk. At Finca de la Esperanza they are implementing a pasture management system that keeps the grasses tall and the animals healthy year-round. They grow three types of grasses, and let the land rest for two months between uses. They are also practicing some silvopasture and hope to utilize agritourism as a tool to showcase their reclamation of the land and sustainable agriculture practices. They are partnering with university contacts to continue the reforestation of the portion of their land that they’ve placed into a reserve. Yoli is practiced in herbal remedies and only uses medications for animals when needed. She has also developed a medicinal remedy to ease the swelling for the occasional bout of mastitis dairy cows are prone to, and she offers workshops to neighboring farmers who want to learn more about medicinal herbs. They practice strict cleanliness standards in their dairy and have been visited by many scholars, institutions, and other farmers. They keep a registration log of all visitors who come to the farm for biosecurity reasons. Yoli also belongs to an association of women in the region who specialize in cheese-making.
Yoli guiding our group through the lush pastures at Fina de la Esperanza.
As Yoli walked us through her fields and explained how many experts have come to learn from her systems of pasture management she mentioned that we were the first group of tourists she’d ever welcomed. On this point, I had to disagree. In my perspective, those experts and students are her target audience. Yoli’s specialized, advanced knowledge is exactly what comprises the unique visitor appeal at this farm. The farm itself is fourteen acres, with eight in cultivation and the rest in a natural preserve. Their goal is to showcase that you do not have to have large farm in order to produce a quality product and support a sustainable business model. Her husband is certified in Artificial Insemination & the farm is in the process of going through several other government certification programs for safe handling and cleanliness. This expertise sets their farm apart, establishing them as a model operation.
The sun setting over the Andes mountains painted the sky a vibrant set of colors as we prepared to set off. Yoli’s husband arrived on his motorized scooter having picked up their young daughter from school. They sent us off with a tray of fresh cake and fruit smoothies, and as we ate dinner in the back of the land cruiser on the way back into San Juan De Arama I was taken with the sheer beauty of the region and the great untapped potential for tourism in this remarkable valley.
June 4, 2016
Another 5am wake up call this morning! We loaded up in our vehicles and made our way to a nearby dairy farm to catch their morning milking. This farm has an agreement with a large company and adheres to the food safety protocols set by the company. They raise mostly cebu cows, a breed valued for it’s dual purpose in both beef and milk production. Beef and veal (you’ll find this referred to as baby beef on most menus in the region), are popular in local cuisine.
Early morning milking.
In the high season the farm, 50 hectares in total produces anywhere from 100 to 200 gallons of milk per day. Because of the warm and wet climate grasses grow year round, so the farmers need only feed the animals grass and mineral salts. The tourism idea for these farmers would tie well into a regional cheese trail, and the farmers have already discussed developing a thesaurus of types to familiarize visitors with the terminology often used on dairy farms. Morning milking is busy work, and these farmers only had about thirty minutes to spare for our visit, so off to the next stop!
We arrived at La Manguita just as the milk truck was arriving for the daily pick ups. As some members of the family loaded up the morning milk onto the delivery truck we met the owner and his brother. This farm is highly diversified, producing large amounts of commercial citrus, selling milk and beef, and raising animals and vegetables for their own production. The most striking part of this visit was the farmers explanation behind his choice to only use chemical fertilizers and products on food that is to be shipped off the farm. For the food the family produces for their own consumption they grow organically with only inputs from the farm itself.
Cucumbers grow in the family garden at La Manguita.
This is an interesting tourism opportunity – the chance to show visitors from cities like Bogota the practices that are used on commercially produced food that is shipped into the city to be sold at low costs through middle men. We discussed the huge opportunity to show the differences in the food they choose to feed their families, and that can be purchased directly from the farmers vs. what goes into food when corporations set the growing practices. This farmer shared his personal opinion that often wealthier people in colombia suffer cancers because they are buying the prettiest, most uniform and expensive [chemically treated] fruits that are being sold in high end markets. He felt that eating ‘ugly produce’ as the less wealthy do includes the foods which have not been sprayed, but compensate for their lack in visual appeal through taste and health benefits. An interesting and timely comment considering the national movement towards ‘ugly food’ in the U.S. For tourism development at this farm we discussed the opportunity to offer taste tests to visitors. Let them sample both the conventional and organic foods grown on this farm, and really see the difference.
This farmer has also noticed how the spreading of chemicals reduces plant resiliency, causing crops to ‘become addicted’ to the sprays. He is finding it harder and harder to procure seeds that are not provided by giant seed companies, and as he makes this comment we learn that one of the next Farmer2Farmer missions for the region will focus on seed saving and resiliency. This farmer, along with his brother and son walked us through their home garden and explained how they use techniques like applying chili oil to plants to keep pests away. This farm was only about 10 minutes from San Juan De Arama, and not equipped to offer overnight accommodations. During our final meeting we discussed the opportunity to partner with the local hotel owner and offer an agritourism package experience in which visitors could stay at the hotel, and as a part of their package they may choose the farm breakfast as an add-on experience, where they could come to the farm and participate in morning milking, harvest vegetables from the garden, and gather eggs. After their taste tests of the organic vs. conventional products they could sit together with the farmer and his family and enjoy a local and organic breakfast produced and cooked right there on the farm.
Next, we made a quick visit to the farm of the family we’d shared lunch with on our first day. This family was so warm and welcoming, and the farm was well versed in tourism, accommodating several hundred visitors each year during the high season. They offer riverside swimming, although we couldn’t partake in this activity because our visit was during the rainy season making the river too dangerous for swimming. We did enjoy a thrilling ride on the ‘tarabita’ a wooden cart suspended on a cord spanning across the roaring river, and I was treated to my first horseback riding experience. Of all the places to learn to ride, I’d have to say along the banks of the Guejar river has got be be pretty high up there if you get to choose.
Horseback riding & the ‘Tarabita’ ride at la Finca Reserva.
Our final stop was a visit to the president of the cattle growers association of San Juan. At this farm they are working to build a central hub and office for the association. The group holds an annual event to celebrate ‘Earth Day. Interestingly, the Piedmont Farm Tour was also set to coincide with Earth Day by the founding members of CFSA. It seems, great minds think alike. The farmers at this stop have a peaceful view of the sleeping Indian, and both are specialists in genetic development through the Univerisidad de los llanos. At this farm they use clockwork pasture rotation to ensure healthy pasture management, and through their system they are able to glean 54-88 liters of milk per day from only 10 cows. Here, they breed first for resilience and second for productivity. Think back to the dairy farm I mentioned where they were raising primarily cebu cows for productivity. In contract, at this farm we learned how the wild nature of the cebu can be a challenge for raising the animals so they have bred a cross between a cebu with several other more traditionally calmer species. This allows their breeds to retain the larger necks that help with weather resistance and long ears to regulate temperature while preserving productivity and manageable temperaments. At the conclusion of this meeting Yoli arrived again with lunch for all and we sat in the shade of the citrus trees sipping her yucca soup and discussing goals for the final plan we were to synthesize based on all we’d learned on the trip. We went around the circle as each farmer and community member expressed their visions, underlining the desire to continue to work collaboratively, involving members across all sectors of the supply chain to develop a cohesive direction for sustainable tourism development within the region. Dr. Day and I had a lot to think over as we travelled back to Villavicencio to work on our final plan. We said our goodbyes, and packed up for the city. We would be back in three days to present the results of our recommendations.