This week has been wild. I survived my first time traveling solo in Latin America and made it to my hostel in Cusco without any problems.  I even made some friends in the hostel! I met up with my fellow intern Viviana for dinner (Alpaca steak and pizza) in Cusco. I went to bed feeling a little nervous for the next day but proud of my accomplishments so far.

Adjusting to a new family

The next day I met with Viviana and Chris to go pick up Anna from the airport. I was nervous that it would be awkward but luckily we all got along really well. Driving into the Sacred Valley I was struck by the lucia dishesinsane beauty of the mountains surrounding us. The dramatic landscape helped to calm my nerves. One of my biggest concerns going into the program was the living situation. I knew that amenities would be basic and that I would be living with a host family, but after my experience in Chile living in a host family consisting of one older woman, I was worried that I would be lonely. I was really excited to learn that I would be living with the other interns and in such a large host family. The experience so far has been wonderful- Maritza and Lucho are very sweet and accommodating. They love learning about our lives and telling us the history that surrounds the Sacred Valley. I loved playing Spot It with them and seeing their playful sides. This house is never quiet- Lucia is always yelling about something and the radio is always playing weird oldies or Peruvian music, but I love the energy and the friendly vibes from this family.

Lucia’s favorite pastime- doing the dishes.


Old insecurities

chard days work

All in a chard day’s work.

After my nerves about the living conditions were assuaged, my old fears about my own physical capabilities started to return. Before Calca I had no experience farming- let alone at this high of an altitude. I knew that the program would be physically demanding but I was nervous about my own abilities. I was a chubby kid growing up, and to this day a small part of me still feels as though I don’t have the physical capabilities to handle intense work like this. I know that the only way I can overcome this insecurity is to prove it wrong again and again. Overall I’m really proud of the work I’ve done so far in Calca.





I am bad with children but good with dogs

dogsOne of the things that I’ve been loving about this program is the insane abundance of cute, friendly dogs. It seems so trivial- here I am having this great cultural experience and I’m happy that there’s a dog on the farm? But honestly having Leroy and the pack of dogs that greet us when we come to the office and the puppies living in our backyard just makes me feel more at ease here in Calca. Kids are another story. Going into the lesson plan I was nervous- not only because I had no teaching experience but because I had no kid experience. However, all of my nerves were calmed once we left Rayampata and immediately five or six children flocked to me to hold my hand for the entire walk up to the farm. Friday morning was super fun for me – more fun than I ever thought teaching a bunch of 8-year olds how to compost could be. I felt seriously overjoyed afterwards because I felt as though the kids had accepted me and looked up to me. It made me feel on top of the world.



Quinoa harvesting

quinoa harvest

Kati is a 14-year old girl who came to teach us how to separate quinoa seeds from the chafe- that unwanted plant material that still sticks around after harvesting.  I was shocked when one afternoon she stayed with us to sift quinoa even though it was pouring rain outside and we were stuck in the dark, cold shed. She helped us sift for a few hours without a single complaint. 14-year-old Nikki never would have been so patient. This photo is awesome and encapsulates everything I hoped that this experience would be. That gorgeous, golden quinoa made us so happy because we had worked so hard to harvest it and were left with a truly beautiful product.  I hope that this theme – the happiness that comes when you create something amazing- continues throughout the duration of my time here.



My love affair with América Latina

                I’ll be honest- a lot of the reason why I chose to do this internship was so that I could stay in Latin America and continue to allow the disorganized chaos of this entire continent teach me new things about myself. I loved my time in Chile, but am trying very hard to keep this a separate experience. I have a feeling that I’m about to grow a lot over the next 9 weeks. I thought I would come out of this internship with stronger arm muscles, better Spanish and more knowledge about farming, but now I’m realizing that this is going to be a mental and spiritual journey about challenging myself and throwing myself into uncomfortable situations and allowing myself to swim rather than being scared that I’ll sink. I have a feeling that some really special things are going to happen for me in the Sacred Valley and, although not without some nervousness, I’m ready to embrace all of it.


My new home.

Grow your soil first, your food second. This is a piece of advice many ecological growers are familiar with.

So how exactly does one grow a mass of brownish black dirt? Soil is a living and thriving thing. It is a substrate hosting microbes, bacteria, and a multitude of nutrients, the most important for plant growth being Calcium, Potassium, Nitrogen, Magnesium, and Phosphorus.  The soil feeds living microbes. Healthy soil is teeming with living matter from microscopic material to slimy earthworms. The things we put into or take out of the soil in agriculture can either improve the health of this living system or severely deplete it of nutrients.

For example, chemical based agriculture pumps alien sources of synthetic chemicals into soil to feed crops rather than relying on the natural occurring substances to do so. Intensive farming of one crop, monocropping, sucks too much out of the soil substrate. Soon farmers are left with a dead brown mass that once was home to millions of thriving microbes. In order to continue growing crops, farmers must pump more external, synthetic substances into the depleted soil, essentially just using the dirt as a place to put plants who then eat these synthetic fertilizers.

The alternative to this model is feeding the soil so it grows and in turn provides nutrients to support the growth of healthy crops in a more natural way. This can only be done by harnessing the power of nature and working with, not controlling or depleting, ecological nutrient cycles. AASD and many other ecological growers grow the soil through natural fertility building techniques such as compost and bocashi. These materials restore the nutrients we took out of the soil with the previous crops. And most importantly, we rotate crops.


Different types of crops take different nutrients out of the soil and put other ones back in during their growing cycle. In order to ensure the balance of nutrients is restored, we can rotate crops based on the ratio of nutrients they give and take. For example, lettuce feeds heavily on nitrogen.  So we don’t want to plant kale after  lettuce which because both are what we call heavy feeders. Instead, we want to balance this nutrient load out. We use the above chart to help plan this rotation. This is a simplified version to help one remember which plants usually give, take, or lightly feed on nitrogen. Of course, other nutrients are restored through this balance too. Normally we rotate our crops by fruiting varieties (tomatoes) to leafing varieties (lettuce) to rooting varieties (onions) to leguminous varieties ( beans). With this rotation, we can help restore the nutrient balance, growing our soil, and in turn growing healthy plants. ~Kat

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Seed saving is a hot topic around the world. Growers and consumers alike are rebelling against the seed monopoly that comes hand in hand with industrial agriculture. They are rejecting the role of genetically modified seeds that require agrochemicals to properly propagate. The biggest qualm centers on the idea of the terminator gene found in many modified seeds sold by big agriculture companies such as Monsanto, Cargill, and Dupont. Growers are unable to save seeds from such seeds, as they are genetically modified in such a way that the next generation of seeds will not produce. The debate over the ethics of such a seed is nothing new. But as more and more people across the world turn to an alternative agriculture path, supporting food systems that are ecological and healthy both for humans and the environment, they too have begun to speak up more about control over seeds. The movement is well underway to promote open-pollinated varieties  to foster seed saving and seed exchanges. That’s why the new Community Seed Toolkit, a joint undertaking by Vandana Shiva‘s organization, Seed Matters and the International Recue Committee’s New Roots program, is worth checking out. It makes it easier than ever to share and create a thriving seed exchange in your own community. Pretty exciting!

The harvest crew

The harvest crew

Recently we spent a day at the farm with the Sacred Valley Honeybee Sanctuary harvesting honey from the 12 hive apiary. Several of the Sanctuary’s recent apprentices came to help out with hive checks and harvesting honey from two of the top bar hives. This was a pretty exciting day in our role as hosts to sustainably managed bees at the demo farm!


Comb from a top bar hive

We started out suiting up and checking on hives in the more standard Langstroth (box shaped) hives in which honeycombs are pre-fabricated. Jerry pulled a fast one on everyone and insisted the inspectors could not wear gloves…eek! Luckily only a few stings later we were on to the top bar hives to harvest! The top bar hives foster a more natural form of beekeeping. The bees make the comb size and shape themselves, adding personal decorating touches that are more in tune with their needs. With this type of hive, you literally just cut off part of the comb oozing with glistening, fresh honey and drop it into a bucket. The pre-fabricated Langstroth hives take a more intensive harvest process that keeps the combs in tact for future use.


Fresh sliced honeycomb

So Jerry, the head beekeeper, identified the most honey filled combs for harvest, then quickly sliced the comb into a bucket. I wanted to reach out and eat the honey right there. The bees were less than pleased but I’m sure they had plenty to share!


home filtering processes

Next we crushed the comb up in a bucket and poured it into a new bucket with holes poked in the bottom. The honey sat and dripped through several layers of strainers to make the final product, pure organic honey. Home filtered! I’d say I can’t wait to try it but we definitely dug right in at the farm, slurping the fresh honey out of slices of comb. Each comb had a little bit of a different color and taste due to the various plants the bees foraged. Yummmmmm it was so good, messy, and amazing despite the sugar crash that followed. Can’t wait until the next harvest! ~Kat


Checking on the ladies one last time




A fresh egg from our ladies at the farm! Our chickens have finally started pulling their weight around the farm and we couldn’t be happier.

Recently I met an inspiring individual, Liz Birnbaum, in the midst of the ecological farming movement. Liz began as a guerilla gardener, establishing a small organic farm at at her alma mater. In her current position as the Program Coordinator for the Ecological Farming Association (EcoFarm) Liz connects constantly with big movers and shakers in the ecological farming movement. Naturally, I wanted to know what makes Liz passionate about her work – what does ecological agriculture mean to her? Below is a mini interview Liz undertook to give us insight into their inspirations. Enjoy!

Broken Banjo Photography

Broken Banjo Photography

What does ecological agriculture mean to you?

Ecology is the study of relationships. To me, ecological agriculture is based on a point of confluence: it joins nature’s ecology and human’s agriculture. It evokes the concepts of farming with nature, harmony, and biodiversity rather than slash-and-burn monocultures. Ecological agriculture is not about just using something up or making it work for one person/being, it is about a give and take. It is about a balance.

Ecological agriculture also invokes a concept of place-based learning—the kind of experiential knowledge one can only get from walking the land and paying keen attention to the forces at work. Ecological agriculture is much more than just concept. It is a practice. It includes a community-based model of learning that promotes ethics, principles, and methods for farming in harmony with nature.

At the Ecological Farming Association, where I am currently employed, a primary aspect of our mission is to educate farmers about ecological agriculture. For 33 years we have been hosting the Ecological Farming Conference, better known as EcoFarm, which last year had 75 workshops and discussion group sessions where farmers, ranchers, food handlers, distributors, and others came together to learn about the cutting edge topics in ecological agriculture.

Ecological agriculture is an umbrella term for permaculture, biodynamics, agroecology, integrated pest management, organics, and more. Looking at EcoFarm’s workshop content is a good way to get a sense of how diverse the term ecological agriculture really is. We had workshops on seed saving, attracting pollinators to the farm, on-farm water stewardship, pastured poultry, food hubs, draft animals, farm finance, growing local grains, and much more at the 2013 EcoFarm Conference.

 How and why did you get involved in the ecological agriculture movement? 

I first got involved because I saw a need in my community to have critical conversations about sustainability. Since everyone eats and food is the great equalizer, I felt that food was the best place to start talking about the environment so that the discussion would include everyone. So, I became a farmer. I had next-to no experience in growing at the time, but I promoted the idea of a campus farm and the college community from student government to the board of trustees gave me tremendous support to start the farm. It was an incredible first season, from getting the fence up to laying out the beds to staking my first tomatoes. When I tasted the bounty of that first season and I saw how it brought the community together, I was hooked.

I worked to get the food we grew into the campus cafeteria to make sure the whole community could access it. I also set up a way to financially sustain the project by having many events and classes in the garden, including weekly on-site “harvests” where faculty and staff could come to buy fresh fruits and vegetables from the four awesome student interns and myself. I managed the farm for two seasons.

Food became an intellectual obsession, to put it mildly. I began to realize how much food was connected to everything I cared about—art, communities, social justice, health, the environment, etc. I felt like I could explore it forever. So I helped create and co-teach some courses: Biodiversity and Agriculture, Botanical Imperialism, and Chicago: The Food City. All of these had food and farming as a central theme. And that is how I got involved in this whole movement!

How has your commitment to ecological agriculture changed your life or your lifestyle?

Well, I have moved to California! I am from Chicago and now I am living in Santa Cruz which is nestled in an agricultural area.

I have gotten so many awesome freebies through the wonderful community of food producers out here, so I am eating well. I also think so much more about what I eat and how to prepare it. I have also gotten really into food crafts like preserving and foraging and blogging about it all .

If you were on a bus trying to convince someone to see the value in ecological agriculture, what are the 3 most important points you would want to express? 

Earth—Look 7 generations ahead at the earth. How can you leave it better than you found it. I think that farming ecologically is a part of the answer.

Economy—Support a “know your food, know your farmer” system, not a faceless system.

Respect—Respect all life, don’t have a “winner takes all” attitude with the rest of the plants, animals, and fungi on this earth.

All that said, I am not the kind of person who will be judgmental of someone who eats McDonalds or eats from an anonomous food producer. I am the kind of person who wants to make a change so that those options either do not exist as they do (the cheapest and most plentiful things around for so many people), or they are made more sustainable somehow. I think everyone comes from different places with this and socioeconomics dictates so much.

If you could only eat one vegetable for 6 months, what would it be and why?

Probably onions. Is that a weird response? It might sound funny, but I eat onions in just about any dish for any meal of the day. The only hesitation I would have about this choice would be the lack of vitamins, which might have made me move to a brassica, but since I am from Chicago (named after the wild onion), I just had to go with onions. They are just so versatile and tasty! And they store so well. Yay for onions!

-Liz Birnbaum of Ecological Farming Association



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The AASD utilizes a technical practice closely related to John Jeavon’s Grow Biointensive method of sustainable farming. John is a best selling author of various agriculture books most notably “How to Grow More Vegetables.” We appreciate John not only for his technical expertise but also because he is a great supporter of the AASD. John’s organization Ecology Action has offered numerous internships to local farmers greatly supporting the sustainable agriculture movement here in Peru. I arrived in Michigan last night to a package from John filled with a very generous donation of seeds and learning material for our organization.

John’s claim to fame is his technical expertise but he is truly making a difference by supporting sustainable agriculture in Peru and around the world. ~Aaron

Recently Ruben and I asked Raul, one of the Choquecancha greenhouse overseers what organic/ecological agriculture meant to him. Below is a rough transcription of the Spanish recording. Hopefully we can share the recording soon when we get enough bandwidth!  Raul had much more to share but this is a tid bit of what makes ecological growing important to him. As he stood in the greenhouse Raul made it clear that growing without pesticides and chemical additives is extremely important for the health of the community. He sees the value from the point of human and ecological health. The school year is just getting started again so we’re excited to work closer with Raul and other enthusiastic organic growers at the schools. In the meantime, enjoy this update:  

Ruben: Raul, what does ecological and organic agriculture mean to you? What do you understand about this method of agriculture?

Raul: I understand that organic agriculture is about woringk naturally with no chemicals. This means working with guano de corral and compost. The products are healthier for our children and ourselves.

Ruben: What do you know about chemical agriculture? Why is it not important to you?

Raul: For me it is not important because it brings sickness and plagues. For example if we put fertilizer on a plant, it will grow large and produce a lot. But it has no nutritional value, it is not healthy. It will eventually get pests and plagues and this is not good.


This video features Ruben teaching some of the biointensive planting method to students in the Ccachin greenhouse. Ccachin is a small Andean farming community in the district of Lares. To date AASD has 3 greenhouses in Ccachin, one at the primary school and two at the secondary school. This video features AASD’s efforts with the students to breathe some new energy into one of the secondary school greenhouses. Enjoy!






Check out our photos from the 1st Demo Farm open house held yesterday, Sunday October 17th.

Click here to view the whole photo album on  Andean Alliance facebook page!