Visiting Semilla Nueva farmers in La Montana

DSC03205Friday morning we woke up bright and early in Xela to a street scene reminiscent of early mornings in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Xelanians partied quite robustly until about 5 am this morning after their soccer team won in a match against Guadalajara. Our hotel room overlooked the Central Park area, so we made good use of our earplugs – except Colin, who passed out around 8:30 pm and didn’t move all night.

Our hotel breakfast was slow in coming, so we set out on our own to find breakfast and coffee. We found a cafe that advertised a traditional Mayan breakfast for 20 quetzals (about 3 bucks). Mike and I had juevos revueltos (scrambled eggs) with black beans, roasted plantains and sausage. The breakfast was preceded by a milky drink that tasted faintly of tapioca and cinnamon. We found out later it was a corn-based drink called pinol. The boys didn’t care for it, but I thought it was yummy.

The bus ride to Retalhuleu, which most people call Reu (Ray-you), took us from 7,000 feet to sea level (and through 23 distinct ecosystems) in about an hour, and from a Seattle-type climate to sweltering heat and humidity. Along the ride we could see street vendors selling vegetables, at the beginning we saw huge carrots, radishes and beets. Toward the end of our trip we saw plantains, bananas, coconuts and pineapples.

Touring Barnebe's fields with Colin and Jack
Touring Barnebe’s fields with Colin and Jack

This was the day we started our visits to the properties of the farmers in the communities outside of Reu who are collaborating with Semilla Nueva to experiment with different soil management techniques, crops for rotation, and varieties of seeds. Our first visit was to Bernabe, who took us around his field and talked about the process of converting to a more sustainable form of agriculture. At one point in his life he had begun to loose interest in farming as he saw his yields become smaller and smaller for the same amount of effort and traditional methods of burning and tilling his fields every year. At one point, he said, he was inspired to let his land lie and rest for a season by what he read in the bible. His neighbors thought he was crazy, but his instincts proved correct and his soil was improved by the effort. The framework provided by Semilla Nueva gave him the opportunity to test different methods and compare results, and share his experiences with his neighbors.

Anne is the Semilla Nueva staff member who works with local women to encourage a more robust and nutritious diet. Here she and Rolando (center) talk with our group about the work of Semilla Nueva
Anne is the Semilla Nueva staff member who works with local women to encourage a more robust and nutritious diet. Here she and Rolando (center) talk with our group about the work of Semilla Nueva

Later, we dropped off half our group with Juan Manuel and Graciella, and we continued on to the home of Rolando and Eloena and their six children and multiple grand children (three of whom live with them in his one-bedroom home). Guatemala has one of the most skewed distributions of land in the world, stemming from when the Spanish Conquistadors came and land was seized from the indigenous population and given to Spanish families who then held onto it for generations. In the 1950s, the government called for expropriation of some of this land for redistribution to 100,000 families.

Today, that land is passed from generation to generation, and split between sons. Rolando’s plot is about 1.5 acres and supports his whole family. Barnabe’s plot of about 5 acres, with the practices of soil conservation and sustainable agriculture, could yield as much as $300 net per harvest (if I have my numbers correct). Other families are only breaking even, assuming they don’t have any major disasters that destroy their crops. One statistic I read was that the average Mayan lives on around 57 Quetzals a month (maybe $7), so $300 net income on 5 acres of land is significant.

Rolando and Eloana's kitchen
Rolando and Eloana’s kitchen

Our experience at Rolando’s home, a 1 bedroom shed with a dirt floor, was humbling. Eloena and her sister Olympia showed us the traditional way to make tortillas (using a paste of masa and water, and pigeon pea – a high protein addition suggested by Semilla Nueva nutritionists) over an open flame. Then we ate the tortillas with salsa on their porch while Rolando answered questions about his work.

The boys by this time were likely starving (it was about 2 in the afternoon) and said they loved the meal. Colin’s two least favorite foods are tomatoes and beans so I was worried he’d balk (the pigeonpea is similar in texture and taste to the black bean), but he cleared his plate.

On the ride back, we experienced a torrential rainstorm, which the locals tell us is rare for this time of the year. We had dinner at one of Curt’s favorite restaurants: tortillas, grilled meet and salsas, and of plenty of Guatemalan beer, and Colin had time for a swim at our hotel before crashing.

The next day would bring more eye-opening visits with local farmers, and the end of our official Rotary tour with Semilla Nueva.

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  1. What a wonderful time. Thank you for chronicling your visit so thoroughly and with such appreciation for the farmers.