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 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.

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My new home.

Compost! Mmm that nice pile of “waste” decomposing in a pile/hole/compost drum in some corner of your garden. Some people have their compost down to a serious art, or science, depending on who you talk to while others just chuck that waste into a pile that occasionally gets stirred. However its done with whichever special recipe, everyone agrees that compost is a hugely important part of growing healthy soil and thus healthy food. Some such as Abishay (pictured with beard below) refer to this mix of stuff as black gold. However you look at it, there’s something beautiful about turning our waste and scraps into rich, fertile soil that feeds the crops we nourish ourselves with.

Making black gold

At the farm we usually make a “lasagna” out of:

  • Greenwaste: nitrogen and carbon from kitchen scraps, cut grass and alfalfa, garden weeds
  • Brown material: mainly carbon from dried grass, corn stalks, quinoa stalks, etc.
  • Dirt: fertile bed soil, adding a mix of microorganisms from around the farm
  • You can also add: manure (nitrogen rich and really great addition!), urine (for urea), ash, calcium, etc.

This last Thursday we hosted a compost workshop with our friend Abishay, a composting genius. We made a large pile of compost. We do use manure for boacshi, a rapid acting compost but not in our regular speed compost. This pile was perfectly stacked and with well packed edges that will be turned once a month for a total of 3 times before it is ready for use!

 

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Key things worth sharing:

  • Larger piles break down faster (at the minimum a 3x3ft. pile will do, even bigger if at altitude).
  • Start your pile on an even plain, flat surface cleared of grass. Piles should kill any weeds below it but it helps to clear the space first. We did a half fresh manure, half chala (corn stalk) base to see which controls the grass beneath better.
  • Fresh manure at the base will kill grass, while broken down manure will help it grow
  • Height  of the pile is more important the width
  • Water between each layer as you build
  • Water the ground for several days (dripping) before turning the first time. This will bring out the worms!
  • Manure makes your compost richer. Manure from smaller animals such as cuy (guinea pig), chickens, etc. is richer than from larger animals such as cows and sheep.
  • Urine is a cheap substitute for urea (dehydrated salt-like substance) that is rich material for any compost pile.

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If you’re in the Sacred Valley, come check out our pile! If not then these photos will just have to suffice. Best part of the day? Asking everyone to bring their own bucket of manure, urine, or food scraps…nothing like a nice warm gift of someone else’s urine! ~Kat

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This week’s photo shows a fusion of new and old. Yes, I know it looks like a pile of rocks with some pretty colored lettuces sticking out from the top. But what you’re really looking at is the terracing technique, a practice borrowed from Incan agriculture. This terrace is an old method we adopted from the Incas that is then planted with a crop that is relatively new to the valley, heirloom leaf lettuce.

Incan terraces are a sophisticated agricultural method, plus they look cool!  Terracing creates microclimates. Between each terrace a change in temperature and light exposure occurs. The Incas harnessed this technique to grow crops suited for various climates in one place, essentially creating the perfect climate that each crop needed to thrive. At Moray, the Incan runis of a sophisticated agricultural laboratory, they would slowly adapt crops to different climates by moving them up or down terraces. So while the heirloom lettuce sitting on this terrace may be a part of a new movement for organic, unique varieties in the Sacred Valley, we’re still looking to the past to help us keep these little leaf-lings warm and thriving at the farm. ~Kat

“Every healthy farm should have bees” – Jerry Freeman (expert bee keeper)

 

These bees, or as Jerry calls them,” his girls,” increase yields, pollinate like crazy, and of course beautify the farm by supporting the bountiful biodiversity it contains. So, we’re learning bit by bit about beekeeping but finding there is so much more you can do with your bee buddies! On Tuesday, Ruben and I learned how to make pure beeswax candles. The wax is straight from the The Sacred Valley Honeybee Sanctuary’s hives located right on AASD’s Demonstration Farm. Visiting expert bee keeper, Freddie Terry from Arizona and our local beekeeping experts Ruben and Jerry were a wealth of information, sharing insights into making natural bee products ranging from candles, propolis extract, and lotions, creams, and more!

Buzzing about experiment #1: Beeswax Candles

 

Above is  a picture of our experimental candles, part way through the process. Yes, I know this round of candles is relatively unappealing to the eye. But hey, we’re just getting the process down. Once the wax dried we peeled off the cups and took off the q-tip holding the wick. Can’t wait to get some wax molds and cool designs going. Vegetable candle molds anyone, ehh?? Plus, the candles burn 10x longer than normal candles and it is a cleaner burn than many other candles. Neat!

The Sacred Valley Honeybee Sanctuary is working closely with the Andean Alliance to launch beekeeping courses. They are experimenting with sustainable, alternative hives and of course creating awesome bee products. They hint at even eventually open a apitherapy clinic. I’m pretty excited to be part of this process, learning, creating, and enjoying the natural products of our farm’s busy buzzing bees!

Thanks to Freddie for giving us some candle making tips – this photo below shows him heating up the wax before we start candle making. ~Kat

 

Water catchment pit linked to a hose for drip irrigation in the greenhouse

Innovation

It’s what happens when you give project participants ownership over their projects. But why would someone ever be stripped of the freedom to innovate with something they own? They aren’t. But creativity can be stifled. Or it can be encouraged!

With the Maucau family greenhouse project we worked hard to get participants excited and deeply involved in the planning process from the frequency of workshops through the prioritization of content and above all the bigger vision of the project. Participants envisioned the potential allowing them to play a leading role in determining the direction of projects. For several months we held bi-weekly workshops, including one bigger demo farm workshop. Prior to our last community workshop, Ruben, Chris, and I visited each family greenhouse. We were slammed in the face by innovation! Many ideas we had talked about among ourselves were being put into practice – from water catchment to innovative space maximization practices, to simply yet clever irrigation systems. Leave a farmer alone and s/he will immediately identify problems and design clever solutions. This post shows some photos of what we saw. Some of these practices were so hard to capture on camera, and those you see are not done justice. But believe me, seeing firsthand what these innovators had done between workshops was quite impressive – it made each and every trip and all the planning worth it.  All I could think was: This crew of family greenhouse owners is awesome! They sure schooled me in how to overcome their growing challenges. ~Kat

 

Both the pit style and the rocks of this compost help keep materials warm and prevent over-drying in the high altitude climate

rain-fed catchment system fed by a rigged up roof gutter.

Mulch! Who knew such an ugly word could be so beautiful. Have we stumbled upon the ugly duckling of farming? I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder but you have to admit, this lettuce, alfalfa co-mingling pictured above is pretty nice to look at.

 What is this Mulch thing?

Mulch is a simple, multi-purpose farming technique used worldwide. Mulch is any material used to cover the soil around plants in order to retain moisture, keep soil nutrients from burning off, protect against soil erosion, and even to add fertility. We’ve played around with a bunch of materials and finally today we tried out alfalfa for several reasons. First, alfalfa is widespread and accessible to farmers here – a perfect local, low-cost solution! Second, as it breaks down, the alfalfa will replenish nutrients that the crops it surrounds are taking out. Plus, it just looks good.

 Let’s get technical

Why am I sharing the marvels of mulch with you? Our demo farm lends itself to experimentation, knowing we’re not messing with a subsistence farmer’s food system. I’m excited to use this new blog theme to share some of the more technical farming practices we try out at the farm, such as different mulch materials. Even though we’re trying to adapt these practices to the region in which we work, a lot of them are applicable to other farming systems. Yep, that means you too can enjoy beautiful farming techniques.

Any suggestions for what we can experiment with next?