Late March 2009, the first Sustainability Spring Break Study Abroad Trip, sponsored by the UIUC College of ACES, launched what will now be an annual event hosted by Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, a diversified organic coffee plantation, near the town of Mococa. There we learn first-hand about sustainability, and conduct research projects that will help the owners of FAF realize their vision of a truly sustainable farm. To sign up for 2010, click HERE.
Below are the blog entries I posted during the week of the 2009 trip.
March 20-21, 2009
Finally the day arrives.
Over the course of the last three to four months a lot of planning has gone into this Sustainability Study Abroad Spring Break trip. Even though we conceived of the idea on fairly short notice, things came together with incredible smoothness. That is until this week. Monday morning I received an email from one of the students. In a somewhat panicky tone she informed us that she had not yet received her passport and visa from the Brazilian Consulate in Chicago. “Help!” Calls and emails started flying and it was soon determined that the Counsulate had put the visa in the mail on March 6th. The vital document was lost somewhere within the black hole of the United State Postal Service. A “Plan B” was derived whereby an emergency passport would be obtained, and because of a crucial phone call made by Marcos to a contact at the Brazian Consulate, a key person there would personally process the new visa. Of course both matters had to be dealt with in person by the student at the appropriate Chicago offices. Classes, labs and mid-terms in Urbana complicated things more. This could be done, but everything had to go perfectly. Well, it did. Thursday, the process for the emergency passport was begun. That document was picked up Friday morning and taken directly to the Brazilian Consulate. Our contact there came through as promised. Tragedy averted.
Early Friday afternoon, right after I received a phone call from a very relieved student, Abe and I met at Union Station, as planned, had a light lunch, before hopping the blue line to O’Hare. We checked out luggage, got our boarding passes and spent the rest of a very pleasant afternoon hanging out in the United Executive Lounge (Concorse B). We sat in comfortable chairs, read, ate free food and waited for the students to arrive. We had told them to be at Terminal 1 no later than 7:00 pm. A little after 6:00 we got a call that the first group was arriving. We packed up and headed down to meet them. As they started to try to check in a major problem erupted. United did not have authority from TAM to issue the tickets.
Now this is very confusing and I don’t intend to go into too much detail, but I hope you get a sense of the incredibly contorted system we (actually, Abe and a wonderfully helpful United Airline ticket agent named Mrs. G. L. Jackson) had to deal with. We purchased the tickets from TAM airlines through a reputable travel agent. TAM had purchased the tickets initially, and long ago from United at a low price in order to resell them for a profit. That they did and at a great savings to us ($500 per ticket). Once TAM sold the tickets to us through the travel agent, they should have release authority for the tickets back to United. This they had not done. Now I don’t know how Abe and I got our tickets earlier that day, but we did. Slowly, pain-stakingly, Abe, with charm and patient persistence, helped United discover the source of the problem. Eventually though it became too late to solve the problem. Graciously, United agreed to issue the tickets and solve the problem the next day. We all made it through security and to the gate with time to spare, but it was nerve-racking.
The plane left on time, they served a tasty dinner and turned out the lights. Most of us slept much of the night. We woke to a light breakfast and a perfect landing in Sao Paulo. The site of Sao Paulo incidently, was mind-boggling — skyscrapers as far as the eye could see. We knew this was a huge city, but the site of its hugeness was awesome. None of our cell phones work.
The rest of the day went smoothly, though it took almost five hours of driving to get from Sao Paulo to FAF. On the way we ate lunch at Frango Assado, which someone said means “chicken bacon.” I don’t know. The food was good and it was good to be not moving or waiting to move. Anyway, we are here and everyone seems to getting along great and having a wonderful time. Marcos and Silvia hosted a make-your-own-pizza party and lots of their friends, all interesting, all pleasant, came and shared in the festivities.
The accomodations are wonderful in their simplicity. So far, so good.
For more pictures, click HERE.
March 22, 2009 — Meet the Farm
Last night’s tropical rain drenched everything. This morning dawned clear and bright. I slept like a rock and was awakened by what sounded like a chattering monkey family outside my window. I got mixed opinions as to whether it was indeed a monkey family. Could have been a bird family. By the time I was up and showered I was a little too late for yoga. Most of the students went. I plan to try again tomorrow. Igor from Germany is here and seems to know a heck of a lot about yoga. He is offering sessions every morning and evening all week.
After a light breakfast, Daniel (Owner’s son) took all of us for a massive walk visiting various parts of the farm on the way to the highest point for miles. From there the view was 360 degrees of emerald landscape, a patchwork of farms and forests, pastures and villages. The trail fluttered continuously with butterflies, everyone of them different and beautiful. We ate ripe, red coffee berries right off the tree — sweet at first, then bitter. We also saw year-old eucalyptus groves. They grow it for sale to paper mills, firewood and lumber. We also saw tall horse grass that looks like sugar cane, and sugar cane that we got to taste. The weather was warm and muggy. We got really thirsty and hoofed it back to the house.
Lunch here is the big meal of the day, and after the walk we were all hungry. Lunch: rice and beans, cooked squash they called “shu-shu”, cooked green papaya, several salads, all good, all from the farm. Every meal includes fresh-squeezed fruit juices, and always dessert and coffee after. Lots of food, and everything I’ve tasted so far has been wonderful. The students haven’t loved everything they’ve been served, but some of them are asking for recipes. After lunch, Rico Mentenegro, an Arborist from The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation talked to us about the work of the foundation. Their goal: to plant three fruit trees for every one human on the planet. That’s a lot of fruit.
We had free-time the remainder of the day until 7:00 (dinner). Several of the students went swimming in the pond. I stayed behind and worked on my part of the presentation for this evening. After dinner, we talked about setting up a research project, and various sampling methods. The assignment for the week is for each student to come up with a research proposal that describes a problem directly related to the sustainability of the farm — ecological, social or economic. Marcos and Silvia gave their vision for the farm and the paradigm they use to pursue this vision. They’ve been through so much trial and error to get where they are now. They’ve made great progress, but are increasingly aware of how far they have to go. Basic questions that concern them — water: what is the state of their water? Do they have enough from the natural springs to sustain the farm? Are they over using? Is there a way to manage them more sustainably? Soil: Is it improving under the organic systems? What are the differences between the active and passive organic? Which benefits the soil more? Is there a place for cover crops? The labor force is also a big issue. They’ve really changed their relationship with the farm’s workers, actually making some of them partners in the farm. They’ve also tried to be self-sufficient in terms of growing as much of the food as they can on the farm to provide for the needs of the workers. Silvia is wondering if they are really eating that food or buying most of their food from the grocery store.
We will continue to learn more details about the farm, but it’s clear they have restructured everything to increase the number of income streams, reduce the labor expense and improve their relationship with the workers. Both Silvia and Marcos are very smart people and they have poured their hearts, souls and strength into making the farm succeed.
After our meeting, we drank lemongrass tea and headed for our rooms. Abe and I took a side-trip to the drying pavement to look at the stars. Tried to find the Southern Cross, but nothing seemed obvious. We’ll find it another night. The students have really bonded. They seem to be having a great time. They love the farm. Some have already started talking about NOT wanting to go home.
“What should I tell your parents,” I asked.
“Come and visit.”
For more pictures click HERE.
March 23, 2009 — Life and Magic Everywhere
Today we got down to the work of deeper learning, deeper understanding of the art and ecology of growing coffee in shade. But after breakfast, time was spent moving people around. Six of the ladies moved into the big house (they’re happy) and other shuffling allowed an increase in everyone’s comfort. The accomodations here are simple and charming. We are all very comfortable and the staff here makes our beds and opens the windows every morning, then closes the windows in the evening before the mosquitoes get busy.
So after breakfast and the move Marcos took us on an extended tour of the coffee fields and told us a long and detailed account of how they’ve come to try growing coffee in cleared patches within the areas of secondary Atlantic rain forest that exist on the farm. We were able to see first-hand the stark differences in the soil, biodiversity, tree health and production of coffee grown in different environments. We also visited with one of Marcos and Silvia’s partner farmers who farms several fields on the property, growing annual crops. He talked about the chemicals he used to use and how bad they made him feel. Like so many farmers I’ve talked to, health concerns changed his thinking about ag chemicals and led him into organic.
It’s starting to sound redundant, but lunch was amazing again. Not only is the food fresh and wonderful, our meal times have gotten longer and more enjoyable. We’ve really started to settle into the cultural tradition of a truly social meal time. We linger, talk and laugh. When the food comes out time doesn’t seem to mean much, and frankly, we like it that way. Dinner was even more so this evening.
Once lunch was sadly behind us, we were called up to the field behind our cabins. The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation had left some trees for Silvia and it was our extreme pleasure to participate in planting these. They even prepared signs for each of us with our names, the name of the tree we where planting and the date. We held a simple ceremony marking the occasion with a hope and blessing for those in the future who will eat the fruit from these trees we have planted today. Then there were many other trees to plant, a job we finished as the first drops of rain started falling from a passing rain cloud.
Tree planting is hot, dirty work. We cleaned up and had some good time to rest. The Laurens went for a quick swim. At 7:00 pm we gathered for “group time” to talk about the day. I asked each student to share their high point. There was silence, then Ms. Williams informed me that it was a dumb question. The whole day, they said, was a high-point. Every part. We talked of all we had seen and learned, and it was all good.
As we finished up dinner, a neighbor and close friend of Marcos and Silvia’s came by. This was the famous “Johnny Loco” we had already heard so much about. The man has grown coffee his whole life, and in 1990 he started to buckle under the burden of his large and costly conventional operation. At that point he started changing the way he did everything. He told us of how he made the risky decision to stop using a vital insecticide. This change preserved the beneficial insects that kept the pests on his farm in check. In the first few years he saw neither increase or decrease in the levels of the pest, then in the fourth year, the pest numbers started to drop. He’s never had to go back to the insecticide. In addition, in uses cattle to control weeds in the trees and he let’s other trees grow to provide shade. It was a great story and we will get to visit Johnny Loco’s farm later in the week.
Now it is late and the last of us are closing up the main house and heading for bed. Tomorrow we learn about cheese-making.
Abe and I got up early with the intention of milking a Brazilian cow. No cows. No farmer. We waited. It was a no-show. As we lingered, Abe looked down and saw this…
30 years ago to the day, someone pour this little patch of concrete and scratched the date. Weird.
After breakfast we split into two groups. The first went to cheese-making 101. The second group went to the kitchen garden and tied and weeded tomatoes. To reward our good work we were lead on another fabulous walk across a part of the farm we had not yet seen. Within 20 minutes we were looking at the largest ficus tree I had ever seen, but that was just the beginning. Twenty minutes later we entered one of the only remaining patches of Atlantic Rain Forest in Sao Paulo. It was awe inspiring. We drank from a natural spring and gathered around a tree purported to be 1000 years old.
It was much hotter today and we all got a little sunburned. On the way back from the Rainforest we stopped at the nicest pond on the farm and swam. We rode the rest of the way back to the farm in the back of the farm pickup. The hiking, the sun and the swimming left us all hungry. Lunch was the usual wonderful fare plus a beef dish. While we ate the heavens grumbled and opened up with a downpour that made everything delightfully soggy again.
We relaxed until about 3:30, then we planted native trees in a small area of the farm that is being restored to forest. The workers had used the augar to drill all the holes, many of which were filled with water from the rain. But not all the holes were wet and we planted as many trees as we could. We slogged home, wet and muddy. I cleaned up and read for a while before drifting off to sleep. I missed the 6:00 yoga, but several of the students went and showed up at our group meeting energized.
Marcos showed us video of an event at the farm he organized for a group of coffee buyers. Dinner was special. The fabulous FAF cooks made a polenta with several toppings — tomato sauce, grated cheese, okra, chicken and greens. Several of us got to watch the chickens being killed earlier that afternoon, a first for some. It was, of course, another meal full of deliciosity (yes, that’s a real word).
By tomorrow night the students will need to have told Abram or I their idea for a viable research proposal for the farm. Some have already shared their ideas with us and we are impressed with what we are hearing. The objective of the trip is two-fold: 1) provide students with a learning experience in sustainable farming and living, and 2) generate research proposals directly related to helping FAF become more sustainable, ecologically, socially or economically. The next step will be to work with the owners to prioritize the proposals and figure out a way to actually conduct the research. More than one of the students have already indicated an interest in returning next year to carry out their proposed research.
The ramifications from this trip could be far-reaching.
March 25, 2009 — A Sustainable Experience
Abram coined the phrase “sustainable experience” a day or two ago. It captures what we were hoping for this trip — first-hand experience that internalizes what sustainability really means. Honestly, we could not have picked a better place for a sustainable experience. The farm, and Marcos and Silvia’s passionate approach to it’s management is an emerging picture of sustainability. Diversity is everywhere. Every day has been different and new. I’ve seen hundreds of butterflies. Of those I’ve seen up close, no two were alike. Bird calls, every day there’s one I had not heard before. Still haven’t seen a toucan.
This morning we rushed through breakfast and headed down to cheese making 102 (yesterday was 101). We tied knots in long strings of steaming hot cheese stuff, then it was put into cool water to harden. Later it was cut
up and seasoned with herbs and olive oil. We gobbled it down this evening before dinner. The rest was tucked into forms of provolone. It didn’t take long, but everyone was able to participate.
After another cup of coffee we piled into the back of a truck and followed the back roads to a neighboring farm. Renato de Mattos Ribeiro’s family has been around since the mid-1700s. Now Renato is having to change
some things. He’s an agronomist by training who for most of his life ran the large conventional coffee plantation by the book. Now he seems to be in the process of morphing into an ecologist. He showed us his extensive seedling production and planting of a native hardwood Brazilian tree called Guanandi. Renato chose this species because it has the same properties as mohogany, but grows much faster. When I say fast, I’m talking about tree time. Renato is growing these trees to eventually sell for high quality lumber, the kind of stuff with which fine furniture is made. Renato is thinking long-term sustainability. It will take 18 to 20 years before the trees will be ready to cut. He’s also preserving primary and secondary Atlantic Rain Forest on his properties, and he talk passionately about the benefits of diversity. Renato is also in the process of building new housing for his workers. We saw both the new houses
and the old.
Why are Renato, Marcos and Silvia, and all these other farmers doing these things? The reasons we are hearing sound all too familiar. Coffee in Brazil is like corn in the US. It’s a commodity that makes a lot of money for
a lot of people, unless you’re the farmer growing the crop. Time after time on this trip we’ve heard the same stories that we hear in Illinois — can’t make any money raising [enter commodity mono-crop here] anymore. We have to do something different. “Different” means diversify, reduce costs, find a niche, develop a market, remove the middleman, sell direct, add value, etc, or all of the above. These are hard times and even farmers
like Renato are looking for new answers.
Back at our own fazenda we ate lunch and gathered in the living room of the big house to look at GIS generated maps of the farm’s springs and creeks. It’s work Silvia has had done by Dr. Louis Nery in order to comply with governmental laws designed to protect Brazil’s natural resources. Natural buffers must be maintained around all bodies of water. In addition, land with a slope of 45 degrees or more must be left in a natural state. In addition to that land, another 20 percent of the farm must also be set aside. The 20 percent can be determined by the farmer, but once the plan for all this is submitted to the government, it cannot be changed. She and Dr. Nery explained all this, and we gained some important insight into just how involved the Brazilian government is in the country’s agriculture, and how serious they are about protecting the water resources in the country side. At times, the rules for protecting the environment make it difficult for farmers who are already struggling to farm profitably.
After dinner, which included an incredible passion fruit dessert, a group of us went for a night hike. We stayed on the farm’s roads because we were warned about snakes in the forest. We were hoping to see some
nocturnal wildlife, but the main event turned out to be the night sky. Super clear air and no city light pollution made for spectacular star gazing. Finally found the southern cross, which is four stars shaped more
like a diamond than a cross.
Tomorrow (March 26) is Abram’s birthday. He’ll be 29.
March 26, 2009 –Bees, Ethanol and Horses
We’ve had a full day of learning and fun. Spent all morning with Dr. David DeJong. He’s an American who has worked at a major Brazilian university as a Professor of Genetics since 1980. We learned about Brazil’s many native sting-less bees, and the Africanized bees (they aren’t as bad as everyone thinks) they use for most commercial honey production. He took us outside and we were able to see several hives (sting-less ones). They keep bees on FAF and recently hired someone to get that operation back on track.
Before lunch, Marcos took us for a walk to some waterfalls, where we swam under the canopy of the rain forest. We saw a plethora of butterflies and gigantic bamboo. It was just what we needed after the bee session.
After lunch we split into two groups. The students met with Jason Barton, a PhD student from Vancouver working on bio-energy issues in Brazil. He presented the students with a real-life Brazilian sustainability dilemma…
Traditionally, sugar cane crops are burned off in the field before harvest. They do this to clear out all the leaves and plant-biomass, snakes and spiders and other animals, before workers go in and harvest the cane by hand. The smoke negatively impacts air quality, and reducing all that biomass to ash means it isn’t returned to the soil. Soil quality suffers.
Another method of harvest, using mechanized equipment, eliminates the need for burning, but also eliminates the need for most of the human labor. Jobs are lost. Many people have to find work elsewhere.
It’s actually against the law to burn, but it is a difficult law to enforce. Economic trends and a new government approach has resulted in reduced burning of sugar cane fields. Instead of cracking down on the burning laws, the government has cracked down on labor laws. Vigorous enforcement has resulted in higher labor costs for farm owners. Economic trends have lowered equipment operating costs. The overall result has been a decrease in burning, but also a increase in unemployment. There are always trade-offs. There’s no perfect system.
While the students wrestled with that dilemma, Abe and I met with two research agronomists who work at a Brazil ag agency research site in Mococa (Agencia Paulista Tecnologia Dos Agronegocios). We sat down with them and discussed the possibility of them helping with some the research Marcos needs to conduct on the farm. The researchers are willing and interested, but would need money. Grants will have to be sought to make this a reality, but we will be sharing the class’ research proposals with these gentlemen and hopefully keep the conversation going.
After all this, most of the students went to visit the Cafe Igarai in the little village near the fazenda — Igarai (pronounce, ee-ga-da-ee’). There they visited with women of the village who have started a company through which they sell products they’ve made. They’ve even got their own website. Visit that HERE. Buy something truly hand-made in Brazil that will support women in Igarai. Silvia was instrumental in starting this group.
Rachel didn’t go the the cafe with the others. She had arranged to visit one of the farm worker families to ask some preliminary questions pertaining to her research proposal. The objective is to measure the quality of life of farm workers on FAF. Silvia is especially interested in making sure their workers are properly cared for. She and Marcos have already taken several steps to improve the worker’s lives and they are very interested to know if these measures are working.
Abe, me and Jason Barton had the wonderful pleasure of joining Marcos on a horse-back ride through some of FAF’s coffee fields. It was awesome, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.
The students and everyone at FAF put together some intensely chocolate cake and other desserts for Abe’s birthday. We sang and he blew out the candle. Tomorrow we visit another farm and go river rafting (floating, no white water).
For more pics, click HERE.
March 27, 2009 — White Water and the Long Goodbye
We were looking forward to what was planned for Friday, but couldn’t believe it was already our last full day in Brazil. We rose early, ate a quick breakfast and piled into our rented van. The plan was to go river rafting down the Rio Pardo. It was about an hour drive on roads of varying quality, past a sugar cane refinery, and finally to a little motel/resort type establishment where we were outfitted with life-jackets and helmets.
Helmets? I thought we were just floating down the river.
We loaded ourselves into an old school bus and rattled over more dirt roads. Finally, on the bank of the river we were schooled in basic paddling and the instructions we would need to understand (in Portuguese) so that we
would know WHEN to paddle. We were divided into groups of five and six and assigned our paddles and rafts. Once on the water our boat captains reviewed our instructions and we practiced while we were still in calm water.
Still in calm water? I thought this was just going to be an easy float down the river, quick, safe, calm. What’s going on here?
Next our captain gave us detailed instructions on what to do if the boat turns over, how to float through the rapids and get back in the boat. This was obviously not going to be what I was expecting. Next our instructor got us ready to be intentionally dumped so we could practice. Cool! In we went. The instructors were very experienced rafters and good teachers. They let us float (without the boat) through a class-3 rapid. A couple more rapids in the rafts and we were pros. Finally we got to some water that we couldn’t do without a lot more training so we disembarked and walked down river to rocks from where we could watch our captains go through the big water without us. They let Jason Barton join them because he was experienced. The last wave of the class-5 (class 6 is the highest) rapids was just off the rocks on which we were standing. The captains rigged up a rope with a loop on one end, then demonstrated our next option. One of them, with the rope looped around his wrist jumped into the open mouth of the monster rapid. When he came up a couple seconds later the guy on the other end of the rope pulled him back around to shore. We all ended up doing it, and it was a blast. All of us were commenting on how different this was from a rafting trip you might find in the states. They actually let us do some very exciting stuff, but not before they trained us and let us practice. The people in charge were very professional and very competent. None of us felt unsafe in the least.
After rafting we drove up some steep rocky roads to an diversified organic coffee farm in the mountains. Emilson and his family welcomed us with a delicious lunch and traditional Brazilian songs on the guitar. We also got a tour of the farm. On this farm there is no waste. Every thing is used and re-used. Within a home-made digester they capture methane from the pig and cow manure and use it for cooking in the kitchen. Catchment ponds grow fish they sell at market. Weeds in the coffee were controlled with a weed whacker and free-range chickens. They use propolis from their honeybees to treat leafcutter ants and fungus in the coffee. They grow most of what they eat and take things to market weekly. Coffee is the main cash crop, and Marcos is helping Emilson market his coffee based on quality. Like Marcos, he gets much more for his coffee than his neighbors.
Back at the place we have started calling “our farm” we cleaned up and had our group time before the party was to start. It was our last night and we were starting to sense the end and feel sad, but we put it on hold to make homemade pizza and have one more night of fun.
People started arriving. Almost everyone we had met and visited with during the week showed up. It was a great time to say thank you again and good bye until next time. We had become so fond of all these people. We had started to really feel a part of this beautiful place. The next morning at the little goodbye ceremony, we gathered in a circle, holding hands, I realized again what it feels like to leave a piece of your heart somewhere.
For more pics, click HERE.
The plan was to leave by 8:00, spend some time in Sao Paulo before heading to the airport about 5:00. Me and Daniela where talking about it, planning, when she said to me, like she thought I might be upset, “You know, you may not get away exactly at 8:00.” I said, “Daniela, I am absolutely certain we WON’T get away anywhere near 8:00.” Then we laughed. We had definitely become Brazilian in our attitude towards time.
It takes a long time for 11 people to get packed up, organized, loaded up and ready to leave from a place. In addition we had to say good bye to everyone about four times, before we got to the real goodbye, the one that happened right before we all finally climb into the van to drive away.
But it worked well. By the time we finally did drive away almost all the tears had been shed and much of the sadness of it had drained away. It was probably closer to 9:00 when we finally drove off. I didn’t even think to look at my watch. I only know this: I’m already looking forward to going back.
Thank you again to our hosts and all the people at Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza for taking such good care of us, and making our week so memorable. Also to all the people in the Igarai and surrounding farms who visited with us and allowed us on their farms — thank you, thank you, thank you!
A special thank you must be said to our good friend Rafael Perroni. Marcos asked him to meet us at the airport and guide us to the farm. He was there with a smiling welcome and his “University of Illinois” sign. He even took the time to download an image of the block I. He helped us exchange currency and was our life-line to the Portuguese language. A college student himself, his school was not on Spring Break, but he ended up skipping class and staying with us the entire week. He was a huge help in so many ways. We would not have survived half as well without him. We all became very fond of Rafael. I consider him to be a close friend and brother. When one of the students had to stay over an extra night, Rafael made arrangements for her to stay in a safe place in Sao Paulo and he watched over her until she was safely on the plane. Rafael, you went way beyond the call of duty and we all appreciate putting your life on hold to help us through the week. You are our good friend. Your Grandfather would be proud! Please come visit so we can return the blessings.