Tag Archives: Brazil

Brazil trip: atlantic rain forest

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.


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 today

30 years ago today

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 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 Rainforest 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.



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

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

Brazil trip: travel day

United Executive Lounge

United Executive Lounge

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 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 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.

a quick bite before boarding

a quick bite before boarding

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.


Filed under agriculture, local food, organic, small farms