Sustainable Solution 37 - Alda's Organic Neighbourhood Farm

Organic farmer Alda explains how fertile soil enables her to grow food without poison, increases biodiversity, and has positive climate effects.

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“There are millions of organisms in here. They make the soil fertile!” Alda says while holding up a handful of soil at the compost heap. We really lucked out. We were looking for a unique place to spend the night in the countryside of Uruguay and found Alda. She not only has a bed & breakfast, but is also an expert in the field of organic farming. “But the soil wasn’t that fertile when I came here,” Alda continues. What has she done to turn pasture into an organic neighbourhood farm?

Oasis in the Monoculture Desert

Our discovery of Alda’s farm seemed unlikely when we started exploring Uruguay a few weeks earlier. We soon learned that the country is obsessed with barbecue, known as asado. Fascinated by this cultural phenomenon, we visited the Mercado del Puerto in the capital Montevideo. It’s famous for the many parillas, grill-restaurants, where grill-masters show off their skills to locals and tourists alike. Although we eat little meat, the display of cooking meat to perfection on wood fires captivated us, too. After we tasted a particularly tender steak we understood why meat preparation is a kind of ritual in this country.

Anxious to see some of Uruguay’s countryside, we left Lucipara tied to a mooring buoy in Colonia. By rental car we drove into the hinterland. For hundreds of kilometresall we saw were meadows with grazing cows. Patches of trees offered them some shade. A closer look revealed that the trees were all eucalyptus. Its fast-growing, yet dense wood is the pulp and paper industry’s favourite. It is also widely used for the asado. “Monocultures of meadows, cows and eucalyptus wood. We are basically driving through the immense footprint of the asado culture!” Ivar assessed. Is the soil too poor for growing anything else, we wondered?

Suitable Soil

It does not take long to get an answer to that question. The land of our bed and breakfast Ñangapiré is full of trees, shrubs, and flowers. It also boasts a large vegetable garden. Owner Alda Rodríguez explains that we are staying on a fully operational organic farm. “Everything you will eat here comes from our own land,” she promises. Ivar is all ears. “We only saw monocultures on our way down here. How is it possible that you grow so many different crops?” Alda seems to have been waiting for that question and is quick to respond with: “Come, I’ll give you a tour!”

While showing us around, Alda tells her story. “Our countryside is depleted because of monocultures. In fact, the land in Uruguay is very suitable for agriculture, but most farmers opt for monocultures of grass and cattle. The agro toxins used in the meadows poisons our water and ends up in the food chain. Biodiversity vanishes” she laments. “When I started here 15 years ago, the land was very degraded and soil erosion was visible. Only some eucalyptus trees grew here. I planted more than 1,000 different trees and shrubs, native species of fruits and shrubs. Very soon, nature made a comeback. Did you notice the many birds and insects?” she asks, rhetorically, for their presence can’t be overlooked.

A Fertile Soil Is the Basis

“To grow healthy food, fertile soil is of vital importance.” Alda continues. “So to keep feeding the world, we need to keep the soil fertile. It seems that many have forgotten that basic rule. Nature has everything you need for a healthy soil. Fungi, insects and other soil organisms provide nutrients for plants to grow with water, COand sunlight.” Alda reminds us. “So we should cherish soil life and not kill it!”

“At the compost heap we recycle the biomass that is released on the farm. This way we return nutrients to the soil,” Alda tells us and grabs a hand of compost soil. It is dark and filled with worms. Ivar adds: “The more fertile the soil, the more carbon it can absorb. COfrom the atmosphere is, as it were, captured in the soil. Good soil management is therefore also important for the climate!”

Cherish Your Seed

Alda knows what she’s talking about. She holds a PhD in agricultural sciences and has written a book about organic vegetable gardens. She is also the founder of the ngo BIO Uruguay Internacional, which supports organic farmers throughout the country.

We follow her to a wooden shed. “This is my seed bank,” she says, proudly. “Here I dry and store seeds of edible crops.” Surrounded by hundreds of pots, she explains the importance of it: “I exchange seeds with other organic farmers to increase biodiversity on all our farms, making the crops more resilient to diseases and pests.” “And you don’t have to buy seeds from industrial companies!” Floris adds. “You get it!” Alda smiles.

A Poison-Free Beacon in the Neighbourhood

“What do you want to eat tonight?” Alda asks while standing in the vegetable garden. We look out over rows of fresh vegetables. Flowers and other plants grow between them. “The lettuce and the leek look delicious”, we reply. “But isn’t there way too much for your family and the B&B?” we ask her. “Yes, this is for the entire neighbourhood,” Alda replies. “My neighbours get their fresh vegetables from me.” Thanks to Alda, the whole neighbourhood can eat poison-free and healthy food.

That evening we sit by a wood fire in the guesthouse when Alda and her daughter serve dinner. It couldn’t be any fresher and tastier. Our lettuce and leeks were still in the vegetable garden a few hours ago. We enjoy these vegetables even more knowing how healthy they are, especially since they have been grown organically. Ivar sums up the sustainability benefits of an organic neighbourhood farm: “The food is super fresh, poison-free, requires no packaging, and minimalizes transport!”

What You Eat Shapes the Land

As we drive back to our boat past meadows, cows, and eucalyptus trees, we realize how exceptional Ñangapiré is. “Alda shows that it is possible to farm here without poison, to increase biodiversity, to store more carbon in the soil and to earn a living with it”, Floris concludes. “Absolutely. And the transition to a more diverse landscape is accelerated when people eat more vegetables instead of meat,” Ivar adds. Organically grown vegetables from a neighbourhood farm, that is!

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