After spending Monday compiling the data from our first week in the field, we hit the road on Tuesday and set out to another nearby coffee-yu region to continue interviewing farmers and taking soil samples. After our experiences the week before we felt much more prepared for field work and were able to increase both the efficiency and quality of our work. Team members conducting interviews were able to ask their questions more precisely, quickly, and effectively whereas team members in charge of soil analysis not only took samples but involved the farmers in some of the soil tests.
One of the most popular tests amongst the farmers was the pH test. As a color-based visual indicator of pH, soil acidity, and ultimate soil health, people of all ages and backgrounds could participate. Our team leader, Juana, came up with an excellent analogy for explaining the importance of pH. She would ask the farmers to imagine the best San Cocho in the world (a traditional Colombian soup that we often had for lunch that includes all three original staples of the region: yucca, corn, and potato). “If the San Cocho is too salty you won’t eat it no matter how good it is,” Juana explained. She went on to relate soil pH and level of acidity with a plant’s ability to utilize or “eat” nutrients in the soil. If the soil is too acidic, the plants will not “eat” the nutrients no matter how abundant they are. Farmers and their children enjoyed watching the colors of the pH kit dyes change before their eyes and then matching the color they saw with that on the pH value card.
It can be tantalizing to walk through fields of thousands of coffee trees. Thankfully, each farmer generously welcomed us into their home and gave us plenty of coffee and homemade treats. By the end of the day we had collected some of our best data and felt prepared and ready for our final day in the field.
On Thursday, our team visited the FCC’s organic compost and biofertilizer production plant. Surrounded by lush green hills on both sides, the cows that contribute their manure to the compost munch away contently on the pasture next to the production facility. Arlen, the plant manager (pictured below) runs a comprehensive operation consisting of many different stages of waste processing and fermentation.
The compost and biofertilizer spray are not only about meeting organic production standards. They are an important part of protecting farmers’ health. In Colombia, small producers often spray agrochemicals with no protective gear and suffer from the effects of exposure to the toxins. Some of the most dangerous chemicals that have been banned in the U.S. for health safety reasons can still be sold and used here. The commonly used word for pesticides in Spanish, veneno, literally translates as “poison.” Arlen spoke of some of the fatalities from agrochemical poisoning, which have included his lifelong friends and children.
To illustrate the safety of the biospray to some skeptics during one of his field visits, he challenged the farmer to drink his fertilizer or pesticide. The farmer obviously did not, but Arlen showed how safe the organic biospray was by drinking some of it in front of the farmer. While he is telling us this story, Arlen uncovers one of the barrels where the concoction is fermenting. He takes some of the juice and sips it before us to emphasize his point. We try to process what he had done. Did he just drink that?! He smiles and says, “The first time you drink this it will give you diarrhea, but after that it’s fine. It’s all natural. Safe.”
On our second day here in Popayán, we had an early start to meet some of the coffee farmers in the Morales municipality. Our adventure began at 7am when we set off to meet our first farmer, Hermes. He showed us around his own organic farm, as well as three other farms in the Asociación campesina en agricultura limpia Morales (ASOCALM). Of the four farms we visited, half were organic, but each farmer was dedicated to environmentally-friendly production.
At each of these farms, we asked questions regarding every aspect of production including size of the farms, inputs on the land, and difficulties they faced. Each of the farmers mentioned the hardships of climate change and the impacts the increased rain and temperatures have caused upon their production. From there, we traveled around their plots collecting and sampling soil. Some of our tests included pH, soil texture, and soil color. The soil samples were analyzed in-field to show the farmers a variety of tools they could use to better understand the health and requirements of their individual soils. We also took samples from these farms to be tested for biological activity once they have dried.
During our time in Morales, we were given a delicious lunch of San Cocho (yucca, corn, and potato) and even witnessed a few musical numbers from a local family of coffee farmers.