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Organic Farming in the Argentinean Desert

As we arrived into the Argentinean desert with with the mountainous backdrop of La Cordillera de los Andes on one side and Pie de Palo on the other, we were ready for our ec-adventure - two weeks working on an organic farm in San Juan. San Juan is a 2.5-hour bus ride north of Mendoza in the region of the same name.

San Juan is desert land. No tumbleweeds and cacti, but just kilometres and kilometres of dry desert land. At the beginning of our eight month South American odyssey, my partner Antoine and I had decided that we wanted our experience to be more memorable, more valuable and most of all more sustainable. We both work in sustainability and wanted our experience to reflect our values. So we found ourselves volunteering on an organic farm.

When the due?os, Pedro and Lucia accepted our request to come and work with them on the farm and we left allmost immediately. We weren't disappointed. Not only were Pedro and Lucia the friendliest hosts, but we found that we would be living communally in the house with their son (Francisco) and the other volunteers, Emma (American) and David (Dutch).

We had arrived on a Sunday, which is family day at the Granja, where families from around the area come and pay a small entrance fee to use the grounds to have a picnic or lay in the sun, play with the animals, ride a horse or anything else farm-like they could desire. The farm thrives not only from its volunteer help, but also its agro-tourism.

The deal was that we would work 6 hours a day, in exchange for meals and a bed. Lunch would be a communal sit-down affair, and dinner whatever leftovers were lurking about. Siesta time would be respected (a huge 3 hour gap in the middle of the day). And, there would be hot water at night, as long as someone lights the fire to heat the water tank.

The farm has only been around since 2009, and has grown over the years from nothing when they bought it, to now having organic plants and vegetable patches, two horses, two dogs, seven goats, one pig, four sheep, a llama, two ostriches, and numerous chickens, hens, hares, rabbits, peacocks, turkeys, ducks and a kitten that tries to suckle anything with fluffy clothing. And then there are the geese. The birds that rule the roost, so to speak, who run about bossing the other animals around and chasing the volunteers.

As is culturally appropriate, at Granja Tia Nora work is separated. The physical and arduous work is done by men and anything cautious and cultivating is done by women. It's winter, and very dry here in San Juan. Few vegetables grow and survive during invierno. During our first week here I (Natasha) worked with Emma to plant and tend to a few hundred pumpkin, leeks, corn, honeydew, and many plant cuttings, some of which were unknown, to replant in the coming months of spring.

During the first week, changes were starting to already taking place. The cold and snow from the week before turned to strong sun and wild winds. Spring, if not by date, but by animal activity alone had well and truly sprung. The kitten, only a few weeks old and missing his mother was slowly gaining independence and growing a belly. The baby goat started getting cheeky and dared to leave his pen, running around the farmyard. The male turkey was spending his days asserting his territory with his conjoint the female turkey, constantly gobbling and rousing his tail feathers. The pig was trying to escape daily from his pen to see what was happening on the other side, and all the other animals were becoming more and more aggressive. Antoine and David spent the week working away to build an amphitheatre for the farm.

Pedro and Lucia regularly receive school groups at the farm, and the amphitheatre would serve as educational purpose to give talks to the children about plants and animals. During the week the farm already received three school groups that come to play and learn. Antoine and David then drew out and designed the space that would house our seedlings once sprung, the organic vegetable garden.

Around midday Emma and I would be called upon to go and do the shopping for lunch. We would be given a menu for the day and we were responsible for making it. The corner kiosko, Marche Martin, where we would buy our goods was a true small town goods store. The whole family works in this one place that feeds basically the entire village. There are no mega-supermarkets here. Produce is fresh and season dependant, like it should be. Fruit and vegetables also depend on daily supply. This is cultural immersion.

Over the week we had made a menu full of Argentinean specialities: milanesa (basically schnitzel), bombas de papas (cheese-filled mashed potato balls) guizo (stew) and of course the Sunday asado, the biggest of Argentine food traditions. It's a sustainable food cycle - food scraps from lunch go to the compost pile, which is then used to organically fertilise the plants and seedlings on the farm, which will then grow more vegetables in the summer months. Granja Tia Nora is a member of the Italian-based not-for-profit organisation, Slow Food, which promotes eco-gastronomy.

In fact most practices on the farm are admirably sustainable. Weeds are fed to the goats, the larger and woodier weeds are used as fire wood. Other food for animals is certified natural and organic. Plastic bottles are recycled and reused in numerous ways in La Huerta (the Greenhouse), for example as coverings for the plants, a potting bases for seedlings and plant cuttings. Being in a desert, the lack of rain suprisingly doesn't equal a lack of water for potable use as the village is supplied with water run-off from melted snow coming down from the mountains in la Cordillera.

Priding themselves on being an organic farm, Pedro and Lucia are constantly seeking new organic farming methods and practices. They have two major projects for the farm. One of them is organic certification. Having recently applied for certification, this week was the week that they would prepare the farm for certification, to be one of the few 200-odd organic farms in Argentina. This is a big deal, and especially in a country that is still less developed than our own, and more particularly in a province that is so arid and so dry that it is a miracle anything grows.

The other main project is to protect San Juan's native plants. Pedro and Lucia have been working with a local biologist, Pablo, to identify native plants and preserve them in a herbarium. The plants, quillo, corderra, algarrobo (apparently similar to a carob plant) and jarrillo will also be reforested on the farm. Jarrillo used to also be used by early Argentines as soap. The yellow berries contain a special property that can be used to wash clothes.

By the end of our first week we were tired and ready for our day off, but we had learnt a great deal about organic and sustainable farm life in Argentina.

Week 2

For every six days on the farm, you're entitled to a day off. Since we hadn't been to the big city yet, we decided to spend ours in San Juan. San Juan is the capital of the Province bearing the same name and with a population of approximately 120,000 people it's not exactly the most exciting city, but pleasant all the same. The only problem we had was making the mistake of going during ritual siesta time. After over a month on this side of the world, we still haven't learnt that city outings are not to be made between the hours of 2 and 4pm. That is if you want to get anything done. Consequently, our big trip to the big city resulted in a stroll, a lunchtime tango show, and a coffee, and not much else.

Back on the farm Emma and I were moving onto weeding the soil to make way for new plantations in the springtime, and the boys were still busy digging away to make the flowerbeds for the new vegetable patches. Pedro and Lucia were busy with the Department of Albardon, who conducted a thorough check and analysis of the farm for organic certification. Granja Tia Nora is now a certifed organic farm.

We had well settled into farmlife and I even got to take one of the horses, Jengibre (Ginger), out for a run. Four volunteers quickly turned into seven during the week when a Belgian brother-sister couple and a Mexican girl joined us at the Granja.

It was now a full house, and an interesting one at that! At the dinner table conversations in English and broken Spanish were now mixed with Dutch and French. We spoke of cultural and country differences and Lucia and Pedro told us stories about organic farming and their journey and we learnt about the polemic that involves large multinational companies, compulsory farmland acquisition and soy production. And that when it comes to farmland in Argentina, the rich elite in Argentina produces a large part of the world's soy beans for consumption. Something to look into...

One lunchtime however, the conversation turned to the farm animals when David declared that he has never killed or seen killed a chicken for food before. Subsequently, Lucia and Pedro promised that Fran (their son) will show him how. Now, my Spanish is getting better, but I still hoped to have misunderstood, and so I ignored the topic until it changed to other matters. It was only when after work, David came into the house with blood on his hands and a plucked chicken in a plastic tub that I knew they weren't kidding.

Of course it's part of farm life, and some might say it's the best way to learn where food comes from, but I say it's the best way to turn Natasha into a vegetarian, and so there was no roast chicken for me the next day at lunch.

Roxana the Mexican girl is a qualified horticulturalist, so the rest of the week the girls and I worked with her to identify better ways to cultivate the new plants and seedlings in la Huerta, and we also took flower and plant cuttings to replant around the place and make the farm a little more colourful.

Our time on the farm was nearing to the end and Pedro wanted to take us and the other volunteers to meet two of his friends, who happen to be among Albardon's best producers - Luis, a hippy pottery maker and hobby farmer, and Juan Diapolo, viticulturist and wine maker.

First stop was Luis' place. We were told about this Albardon hippy legend when we first arrived at the Granja, and after having met him briefly a few times we were yet to go and check out his home and gallery. Arriving at the gate we discover that he lives and works in his home, which above ground, much resembles a bamboo tepee, but it's underground where his mastery takes place.

His house is built with mud and sticks, and he lives a simple life revolved around his pottery works which are on display as soon as you enter his property. In his underground haven, works are drying for orders from all around the country.

Luis is famous in Argentina by word-of-mouth (and also by his blog wwww.luisartesano.blogspot.com), and it's easy to see why as his every intricate detail is a complex work of art. Next we stopped off for a visit at El Milagro winery to meet Juan and taste some of his finest produce. Although El Milagro wines are not certified organic, they explained to us that they use no chemicals in their vinyard.

In this part of the world there are two specialities when it comes to varieties of wines: Bonarda (red) and Torrontes (white). Neither of which we had ever tasted before. Unfortunately we couldn't taste the Torrontes, but we liked the 2009 Bonarda so much that we bought some bottles.

Albardon is not a big place but it has a bit of everything that a small village may need, including a theatre. The theatre hosts regular shows and concerts that surprisingly come from all around the country. This weekend was our big Saturday night outing to the theatre with Roxana and David to see a monologue called 'Javiera'. Supported by the Instituto Nacional del Teatro, Javiera was about the destiny of one woman who makes jam for a living, when her tree bares no more fruit, and what happens when a girl called Carmina finds Javiera's collection of paper fans which hide legendary fairytales of a tree full of mystery and life.

The show was fantastic and out-of-the-ordinary of anything we would likely go to see elsewhere, and a good way to practice our Spanish.

The next day, the 21st August was 'El Dia de los Ninos' in Argentina and the farm was hosting an event for the day. In Argentina, there is a day to celebrate everyone - mothers, fathers, children, doctors. El Dia de los Ninos was declared to be the second Sunday in August (however this year was the 3rd) after a UN recommendation to promote solidarity amongst children, their welfare and well-being.

A large part of the farm's livelihood counts on agro-tourism, and these services need to be promoted. Having a background in PR communications and marketing, both David and I lent a hand to help out with that aspect and spent a couple of days creating flyers and marketing the Granja via social media. David created publicity for the Dia de los Ninos, while I did the same for the Granja's ongoing workshops in native plants and spinning yarn.

Our last day on the farm was spent cooking up a French feast for Lucia, Pedro and the volunteers. The day before, Pedro and Antoine were talking about French food, when he asked if we would make them a Boeuf Bourguignon before we left. The perfect way to end our stay on the farm. We were joined by Lucia's sister as we ate, chatted and enjoyed our last afternoon at Granja Tia Nora.

"Ustedes son muy buenas personas," said Pedro as he dropped us at the bus station. "Si quieren volver, no hay problemas". "We love you too Pedro!" We just may take him up on that offer to come back one day.

Hasta Luego Granja Tia Nora!

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