Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Una Finca Urbana (A Farm in the City)

Recently I visited an urban farm, by which I mean a farm smack in the middle of a city. That might seem unusual for the U.S. Believe me, it’s unusual for Paraguay as well. The farm has been around since the 1970s, but the area has only developed into a city over the past 10 years or so. It’s a small farm, less than a hectare, but it’s amazing what you can do with that little land. This farm is particularly remarkable because it’s an organic farm, or to be more specific, perma-culture. What is perma-culture? It’s similar to organic (no reliance on chemicals) in practice, but the theory is a closed system that reuses everything. For example, they use the manure from the cows as fertilizer for the fields. That’s actually common in Paraguay, but what isn’t as common is the idea of feeding animals entirely with home-grown food. Paraguayans, though they do grow some food for their animals, will often buy a ton of food from outside. Not only does this not make economic sense, but it leads to a loss of energy. Our guide, Fernando explained to us that perma-culture farm tries to maximize its energy. When plants and animals are raised in a natural way, they have a higher level of energy. When they sell products from the farm, it’s almost as if they were selling energy. As they sell mostly dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt) and jams, they lose very little energy. Coming from the U.S., where we’re either suffering from an overdose of cancer-causing corn syrup in our food or tasteless and nutritionally-drained genetically-modified vegetables, this concept may be strange. This isn’t as abstract or as crazy as it sounds, however; look at how the quality of soil and plants goes down as a result of overuse of fertilizers and pesticides. Imagine land that’s never been exposed to poisonous chemicals. The soil there was darker and richer, and full of nutrients. Consequently, the food is richer, tastier, and more healthful (we ate the most delicious chipa I have ever tasted, along with rich, creamy yogurt, sweet strawberry and hibiscus jam, and drank hibiscus punch).

We also learned what a biodigester is, and it’s a fascinating thing. It functions by taking organic matter and through an anaerobic process, facilitates its decomposition it into biogas. Translation: you put cow or pig shit into a long tube that’s partially underground, where it’s transformed into gas. One of the components of biogas is methane gas, which means that they have tubes from the biodigester leading directly to a stove. The liquid residue can be used as a biofertilizer for plants, while the solid residue can be used as animal food; they use it to feed their worms. One man’s (or animal’s) waste is another’s alimentation. All this from a plastic tube, heat, and water.

Speaking of worms, they have a ton of worm compost. I was impressed. Worm compost is pretty much unheard of here, but man, is it effective. Worms are amazing creatures: put them in dirt and they put air holes in it and enrich the soil. They can also speed up the decomposition process in a pile of trash, hence, the effectiveness of worm compost. This farm had California Red worms because they’re much more effective than Paraguayan worms. They also had three huge, enviable piles of compost. Compost is a beautiful, beautiful thing: decomposing trash that turns into mulch and acts as a natural fertilizer. They had the idea of building a shower near the compost piles, and this is wild, heating their bath water with the compost piles. You heard me right. Decomposition is an exothermic process, it gives off heat. Stick your hand in the middle of a compost pile and you’ll feel an intense heat. So the idea is to stick a spiral tube into the middle of the pile where it will heat water.

I don’t think this entry can do justice to how amazing this farm was. It was inspiring to see an organic farm in a country where too often farms suffer from excessive chemicals and people suffer health wise because of a lack of vegetables and poor nutrition.

1 comment:

Kate said...

That place sounds amazing! It also sounds like you are having and unbelievable time in Paraguay, which is great :)