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Photo by Tom Pablo, South America Semester.

Farming in the Sacred Valley

Our group headed towards Calca, a small town just 30 minutes away from Urubamba. During the ride we enjoyed the snow streaked and pointy peaks that jutted through the sacred valley with apparent ease. I was trying to imagine the amount of snow that was on these same apus, or mountains, only a decade ago–mucho más por seguro. Elly and I sat in the front of the van with our driver Wilbur, to enjoy the views and avoid carsickness brought on surely by age as well as our windy route. The students and Randall and Frank took up the back seats talking excitedly and looking on with awe as Amado took his first bite of banana ever, a commemorative moment. He seemed to enjoy it!

Our destination and where we spent three afternoons from Wednesday to Friday this week was EcoHuella, a small family-farm a couple kilometers outside of the town of Calca, south of Río Vilcanota, the same river that snakes it’s way rapidly to the base of the all-too renowned citadel of Machu Picchu. As we jumped out of the combi we were welcomed by Julio and Aaron who eagerly started presenting themselves and the farm. The first day we were acquainted to the spot. The farm included one spiral garden that, as we soon learned, kept the moisture in the middle and invited frogs and toads and stayed away pests and cold. They also introduced us to the dozens of cuyes, or guinea pigs, raised for eating on special occasions. Google cuy and then Google cuy al palo for one of the famous preparations of the area.

During our first day at the farm we watched a short video about Julio and his dream of liberating campesinos, or farmers from the region, from the burden of needing to rely on anything else but Pachamama, or the land. “Liberation” for Julio, as Livana asked him poignantly to define, meant sovereignty and self-sustenance, freedom and fertility, independence and integration. Through his project, Julio empowers fellow campesinos to use the agricultural practices that have been part of the region for centuries and that have sometimes gotten lost through modern and conventional farming and such waves like the Green Revolution that destroyed the concept of organic farming and replaced it with synthetic and chemical techniques. Agroecología or agro-ecology is what Julio practices, models and teaches that is characterized by a harmony with farming and Pachamama or Mother Earth.

Julio’s definition of liberation farming also means that farmers should have a chance to set down at the end of a hard-day’s work and be able to enjoy a poem. They should have time for this, Julio expresses matter-of-factly. I imagined a campesino reading or even writing some prose while enjoying the last of the sun’s warm rays before shrinking away behind the mountains and beckoning nightfall. It was a pretty sight, the sunset as well as the farmer reading poetry.

Our second day on the farm we tried our hand at making a raised bed or zurco. This was in preparation for planting on the following day. Our last afternoon at EcoHuella flew by. Juan, a técnico on the farm, introduced us to bocashi, a composting technique brought over from Japan, and its importance in providing the soil with all the essential minerals. It’s a fermentation of animal excrement, plant waste, and other added minerals like phosphoric rock, magnesium, and calcium to help fortify the soil. The students hesitantly took weathered rakes, shovels, and pitchforks and stirred up the bocashi pile and started gaining momentum as they began shoveling the parts that were warm and broken down into buckets to take to the raised beds. They mixed in the compost with the soil and then waited patiently while Juan showed them how to plant tomato plants and lettuce seedlings into the beds by using the biodynamic method of triangulating.

As the afternoon storm drew nearer and nearer the students stayed close to the beds, squatting and reaching to plant the exposed roots of the seedlings into the welcoming soil.