May Gardening Newsletter

Dear Fellow Gardeners,

The next step on our Global Agricultural Focus Trip was Canada – British Columbia. I was very impressed with agriculture in British Columbia. Unlike the rest of the country, it’s mainly small scale producers with lots of artisan producers of beer and wine. The area we stayed in is Kelowna (Okanagan valley) which has become a major wine destination – who would have thought? Lots of small enterprises there that excel in quality rather than mass production. This is quite different in other parts of Canada. What I didn’t realise is that Canada is the 5th largest exporter of agriculture and agri-food products in the world after the EU, US, Brazil and China. There is one valley in the Kelowna area (Cawston) where 60% of all farms are certified organic. In Ireland it’s 2% of the agricultural land area. There are no subsidies in Canada to promote organic farming. It is all consumer led. The demand for organic food in British Columbia far exceeds production.

Canadian Agriculture in the Okanagan valley and surrounding area is coming close to perfection if you dream of how agriculture, the environment and people blend together. Both the agricultural environment is well managed with small fields of diverse crops (mainly apply, pears, peaches, grapes but also ground crops (that’s what they call vegetables) such as tomatoes and courgettes. Most farms have a wine, cider or vegetable shop so they really build a strong link with consumers. Even our own food capital Cork would be jealous of the numbers of small artisan craft and food shops in this area. From an environmental perspective – agriculture only occupies a very small area in this vast valley (7%) and there is so much nature and wilderness just a few hundred yards up the hill.

Vancouver must be the most organic city in the world. Organic food is everywhere. Conventional food seems to be the exception. It’s such a modern city buzzing with vitality. There are large supermarkets (Wholefoods) that only sell organic produce.
Another interesting fact is that within Vancouver there are 110 community gardens/allotments. The mayor of Vancouver was an organic farmer and processor and he initiated a community garden outside City Hall.

After a 20 hour exhausting journey we arrived in Buenos Aires. I would have imagined hustle and bustle and people running around everywhere – but no, it was one of the most relaxed and friendliest cities we have come across. Everyone smiles and enjoys life and most importantly drinks Yerba Mate from a gourd cup. Mate is a native plant that is related to Holly. It’s a great coffee substitute and after getting used to it – delicious. Families in parks, people in offices and even during farm visits – everyone brings their gourd and a flask with hot water and starts to brew their yerba mate which is quite a ritual in itself. The owner of the mate cup takes the first swig through a metal straw and then passes it around the group of people. You never thank the owner until you are finished. If you thank them after your first sip you won’t get a second go. I wonder if this drink which appears to be a lot healthier than coffee could make it into Europe?
Another native crop to Argentina is Stevia – unfortunately we didn’t see any growing there during our 4 day stay in Argentina.
Sorry I got side-tracked alittle– farming in Argentina is large-scale. The farmer always lives in the city and checks in with the farm manager about once per week. Given that Argentina is such a vast country – who would have thought that 90% of Argentinians live in cities? Not only is there no government support for farming in Argentina – it’s quite the opposite. Farmers had to pay an export tax of 30% on all crops that are exported and that is on top of normal taxes. So they only get 50% of the value of their crops. The new government is slowly changing this and farmers are more positive. They don’t think it’s fair competition, especially when farmers in other countries get subsidised. The Australians and New Zealanders happily agreed with that.
We saw wonderful co-operation amongst farmers in Argentina. They formed a group called CREA. There are 2000 members and they form small local groups and exchange knowledge and share problems. Each group meets once per month and they also employ an agronomist. They meet on one of the farms and in the morning everyone shares practical information and technical details and in the afternoon the owner of the farm presents a problem that he has on the farm and the group with the agronomist tries to solve it. This system worked extremely well for all farmers. The Aussies and New Zealanders were impressed. They thought that farmers in these countries would never share their knowledge. What about Ireland?

Chile was our last stop as a group. We spent eight wonderful days there. Chileans are completely different to Argentinians but their hospitality even exceeds the Argentinian’s. I noticed on the first day arriving in Santiago that everything is faster – there are no leisurely strolls through the city parks – everything is quick and so is there farming. Chile is or will be centre of expertise in horticulture, especially fruit. It’s a very flexible country and ideas move fast. I asked about organic production (at a meeting with the fruit marketing board) and the CEO said if the world wants it, we’ll produce it. Chile already produces lots of organic blueberries (20% of their blueberries are organic) and also organic wine. Chile is one of the world’s largest producers of fruit in the world. There also appears to be no limit to more land available for expansion. Walnuts are another major crop in Chile.

Throughout the first seven weeks of the Global Focus Trip – I saw lots of amazing places and farms and got a much broader overview of the issues that affect farming worldwide. It was nearly too much to absorb and difficult to keep it recorded as it was full on. We had a couple of days off where we rode up the Andes on horse back to a freezing cold mountain lake for a swim or fished in a lake in Texas but otherwise we were busy.

The group separated a couple of days ago and I arrived in Peru – which is the place of my main study – the Lost Crops of the Incas – but more on this in my next newsletter.

If you’d like to see some photos of my journey, you can follow me on Polarsteps by clicking HERE.

Happy gardening,

Klaus Laitenberger