Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ninja farming in Guatemala

We recently had the pleasure of taking a very well-deserved vacation from the farm and to visit Guatemala for the first time.

So what does a farmer typically do on a vacation off the farm? Well, if you're from Whitmore Farm, you visit another farm of course!

While visiting, Lake Atitlan, a volcanic lake in the highlands of Guatemala, we heard of a crazy kid from New Jersey and his wife running a micro-farm in one of the lakeside towns only accessible by boat! 

So...of course, we had to go.

the view from our hotel
our hotel room door

a view from the balcony - the lake in the foreground is a collapsed volcano and very deep

But of course, before we talk about the farm, let's talk briefly about Guatemala!

If I had to say one thing about it, that word would have to be textiles

The Mayan indigenous people (well really the women) can weave and embroider some incredible stuff.

The shop below is a ubiquitous site in Guatemala and it can be very distracting!
Typical textile store
Similar to a drop spindle for hand spinning wool

A native of a different kind,
 my niece-in-law who has been living amongst the hippie and Rainbow Family community in Mexico and was able to meet us for some of our time in Guatemala.

In addition to some awesome translation services, she was able to cleanse us using the Mayan tradition of burning a special kind of very sappy wood.

A beautiful view and a face full of sacred smoke later and we were cleansed and ready to go!

I know this posting is going a little sideways and heavy on the pictures, but I had to include pictures of this wonderful little butcher we ran across in the Mayan town of Santa Katarina with these wonderful hand-painted signs advertising his product.

 Now Will and I do love us some pig, but I did find the pig on the left to look a little sinister! 

Open seven days a week ;)

Now the guy on the right - much more my speed!

Not sure where all the pigs were. I only saw one during my whole time in Guatemala, and that was some scrawny pig.

Okay, so getting back on track with the title of this post, we would need to take a boat to get to the town above which our friends at Atitlan Organics did their good work!

10 am, 'be on time' their website warned...

Now this being our vacation, not knowing exactly how long the trip would take, we asked the staff and owners at our hotel.

'Oh, 45 minutes, no problem' was the response. Now, this being said, one thing we had learned pretty quickly was that local peoples' perception of both time and space seemed to be operating in a different plane of existence. 

At several points already during our trip, we had been led on some very long walks thanks to directions given with a smile, but clearly no actual SENSE of direction. 

Sorry but nothing that a language barrier could explain - our niece is fluent. When asked about it, Alexa laughed and agreed. For some reason, the Mayans just didn't seem to have much of a sense of exactly where things are...I guess they just figure they would eventually get there if they wandered around enough. 

That certainly worked for us out of necessity during our short time there.

So, with some suspicion, we agreed to leave one hour ahead of time - 9 am sharp. An extra 15 minutes to allow for the 'guatemalan' effect in our travel times.

The boat trip over was lovely as you can see and we arrived in about 20 minutes, smooth sailing.
So far so good!

Upon our arrival, we stumbled upon a pair of very American-looking fellows. 

My niece asked for directions, en espanol. Hablo anglais? they asked...two Americans! Great! 

No confusion there! Directions were given and off we went. We were a full 40 minute walk uphill to our destination and suddenly we were late!

We were in Guatemala, Central America, the land of manana and I was stressed about time! Clearly, I had been seriously misled about latin culture somewhere along the way!

coffee plants growing in small groves along the path uphill towards the farm
One tuk tuk ride later over cobblestone, concrete, and what looked most like dry river bed, we were just a short distance away 'up that way' our tuk tuk driver waved. 

Our tuk tuk could go no further :(

At several points, I felt the urge to put my feet out the side of the tuk tuk and push a la Fred Flintstone, in order to help the poor tuk tuk carry its heavy load up the steep hillside and rough terrain.

I was suspicious. 'The Americans said to the RIGHT of the radio tower, and this guy says LEFT?', I asked. Ugghhh. Not again.

Well surely, our American brothers couldn't be wrong.

One short trip to the RIGHT of the radio tower and back again, we were back on track and heading to the LEFT of the radio tower.
(Sorry to have doubted you Mr. Tuk Tuk driver)

Now, it was actually hot...very hot. I was breathing pretty hard as I hauled my plump, 50 year old body up a 30 degree incline, and that's when the bees arrived.

Not just normal, friendly, Maryland bees, but seriously pissed-off (oh shit this is Guatemala) Africanized bees.

Now we were running uphill, waving our jackets over our heads, being chased by bees. 'I'm going to die here' I thought.
We crossed a stream and thankfully, the bees did not follow. Death would not have me that day.

So finally onto Atitlan Organics and its Ninja gardeners, Shad and Colleen, working the soil for over 4 years on the slopes of Lake Atitlan.

As they describe it:
"amazingly beautiful and dynamic farm scape, complete with orchards, vegetable and medicinal herb gardens, baby animals and intelligent people."

The siting of the farm was quite scenic alongside a small stream and tucked into a small valley above the town. The hillsides are very rocky and somewhat steep, so as expected, there was some major terracing going on.

As Shad put it, he wanted to keep everything good that comes onto the farm (water, topsoil, nutrients, organic matter) and let none leave the farm. Smart thinking from a farming perspective.

Shad gave us a very inspiring and passionate description of his farming practices, taking advantage of every square inch of sunlight reaching his microfarm, all the way from the tops of the trees to the soil underfoot and everything inbetween.

Poultry and rabbits shared communal housing, where the chickens were able to scratch through the rabbit droppings on the coop house floor.  Deep bedding and attention to dry (brown)  and wet (green matter/urine) ratios helped produce a very nice compost that was used across the property.

One of Shad's original designs for a mobile chicken house. As with much of farming, this model was found to be impractical and the chickens were moved to a stationary poultry house.

No surprise....the terrain is very rough and flat ground is hard to come by.
The farm's new goat house and milking parlor, funded fully through farm-generated income. Quite a feat in such an area so inhospitable for farming.

The vegetable garden at Atitlan Organics.

As we ended our tour and headed back down the mountain, we were treated to a beautiful sunset.

A perfect ending to a great day of ninja guatemalan farming!

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