Brazil trip: meet the farm

This week I am in Brazil with my good friend Abe Bicksler and nine UI-ACES students. The Sustainability Spring Break Study Trip is being hosted by Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, a diversified organic coffee plantation, near the town of Mococa. Here we are learning first-hand about sustainability, and developing ideas for potential research projects that will help the owners of FAF realize their vision of a truly sustainable 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.

FAF main house

FAF main 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.

Jessica's friend

Jessica's friend

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.

tasting coffee beans

tasting coffee beans

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.

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Filed under agriculture, food, local food, natural, organic, small farms

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