Villa Bárbara, A Farm that Practices Environmental Care
by Allie Prescott, communications volunteer
posted on March 7, 2016.
Papaya trees line the winding entrance to Sembrandopaz’s Experimental Farm, Villa Bárbara, providing shadow for a multitude of flourishing oregano, aloe vera, moringa, chile pepper, lemongrass, and basil plants, which are just a preview of the many diverse crops planted on the farm. Located just a 15 minute drive from Sincelejo along a bumpy, dirt road, this farm exemplifies the benefits of zero chemical farming.
Under the care of the charismatic Narciso Diaz and Sembrandopaz’s farm administration team, this 19 hectare farm switched from slash and burn farming, which is a typical method in the area, and using chemicals to becoming a agro-ecological farm in just under three years despite a drought that has plagued the region. When he first began working at the farm in 2008, he saw that the main cash crops- ñame, cassava and corn- were in decline even though they were applying artificial fertilizers. In 2012, he and the farm administration team saw the need to change how they cultivated the land.
“What we want is for plants to work together harmoniously with nature,” said Narciso as he pointed to a papaya half eaten by birds and insects. “Many farmers see this papaya and spray the tree or throw the fruit away. They don’t understand how important it is to work with nature. They don’t see the importance that these animals bring.”
The setup of the farm is unlike the many monocrop farms seen throughout most of Colombia. Crops are planted strategically based on what nutrients they give to the soil. A combination of plants and animals such as free-grazing chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl work together to provide the soil with the proper nutrients.
The farm currently grows sweet orange, two types of limes, papaya, cassava, and ñame to sell as cash crops and are in the process of planting over 100 mango trees to diversify the overall production. The farm also has a wide range of other fruit trees and coconuts for its own consumption.
“The idea is to use this farm as an example for campesinos in the area,” said Lillian Hall, an agronomist who works in Sembrandopaz. In the communities that Sembrandopaz works with, among them Mampujan, Pichilin, Alta Montaña, and Libertad, there is clear deterioration in soil heath, and consequently in the levels of crop production, due to slash/burn agricultural methods which destroy the nutrients and organic material in the soil. “We want them to come here and leave inspired.”
“One of the biggest issues is ignorance,” explained Narciso to a group of farmers in the neighboring town of Pichilin during an Environmental Diagnosis Workshop organized by Patrimonio Natural (Natural Patrimony) and Sembrandopaz. “I was like you. I used a lot of chemicals because I didn’t know another way. I didn’t know the impact that these chemicals have on both your health and the plants. They are not good for people—they cause cancer and other horrible diseases. We have to be careful about what we put on the plants because people will eat them.”
Contrary to Narciso’s original skepticism, the crops have flourished and he has become a committed spokesperson for using homemade, organic insecticides and diversification of crops. He has traveled to organic farms locally within Colombia and internationally to Nicaragua in order to gather more ideas for potential implementation on the farm.
“One of the biggest challenges is not only opening people up to organic stuff, but showing that everyone can also make their own types of products using what they have on hand,” said Lilian. “Many people say that they don’t have enough money to buy the products, but don’t realize they can make their own.” At Granja Experimental, they make their own insecticide using a combination of neem, garlic, chili powder, castor beans and tobacco.
Narciso sees the farm as a large experiment and is willing to try new things. He wants to learn more about water harvesting and composting. They are also planting drought-resistant Tepari beans that require very little water, and potentially could provide a solution for the many farmers in the area that have struggled during the drought.
Narciso’s wife, Manuela Buelbas, also plays an important role on the farm as she manages the animals on the farm and is the farm’s experimental chef. She readily tries new recipes using what is grown on farm, such as making Moringa Lemonade.
Narciso and Manuela came to the farm in 2008 with their granddaughter Nicole after they were violently displaced from their home in the department of Cordoba. Narciso was forced to abandon his successful farm and community, where he had initiated projects to improve schools, roads and living conditions. His leadership had made him a threat in a town that witnessed both guerilla and paramilitary activity. Three paramilitaries forcefully entered his home and shot him in his face. The bullet went in through his mouth and out behind his ear, knocking out half of his teeth. After many nights in the hospital, they fled Cordoba for Sincelejo, where they arrived with only the clothes they were wearing.
“We have overcome this with the help of Sembrandopaz,” explained Manuela, who described how they arrived with nothing. “Now we have all of this.”
Narciso and Manuela hope to work more with the surrounding communities in order to teach them some of the things they have learned.