The Integrated Organic Farm—A Crazy Idea that Grew

Filed Under: EARTH Stories
Date: August 29th, 2016

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In 1995, EARTH’s pioneer faculty members had a crazy idea.

Since the beginning, EARTH’s primary focus was on sustainable agriculture. A few people, however, saw an opportunity to take that model to the next level and create a completely auto-sustainable farm that was exclusively organic. The idea was to use integrated family farms, essentially how people have been farming for centuries, as the model for EARTH’s Integrated Organic Farm José Elías Sánchez, or FIO.

The FIO is named after José Elías Sánchez, (1927-1999) emeritus director of EARTH, for his contributions to sustainable development in the humid tropical region. This photo shows Dr. Norman Brown and Sánchez’s widow unveiling the inauguration plaque.

The FIO is named after José Elías Sánchez, (1927-1999) emeritus director of EARTH, for his contributions to sustainable development in the humid tropical region. This photo shows Dr. Norman Brown and Sánchez’s widow unveiling the inauguration plaque.

Keep in mind that this plan predates the “eating organic” trends we see today in our food culture. Founding FIO creator Professor Jorge Arce remembers what people thought about their plan. “A lot of people said the project was impossible. They called us crazy. They said we couldn’t do organic agriculture here. It has never been done. And they were right about that. In this zone, it had never been done.”

To be considered organic, a farm and its produce must meet many qualifications. “You have to prove that the soil is free of all chemicals. You have to hire an outside agency that approves your status as organic. You must pay for this service, and it is expensive. You also have to prove that each worker is following the rules of organic production, which differ from other types of production. You have to be organized because you have to show all your methodology,” explained Arce.

So why go to all the trouble?

EARTH’s FIO was designed to mirror a small family farm. Many EARTH students grow up on family farms, and upon graduating, return to those farms to progress their efficiency and productivity. Arce believed that the students needed a place to experiment and discover what works best in organic production.

“The FIO gives the students many interesting opportunities. We wanted to make them see that conventional agriculture is not the only option they have. They also can make the decision to study alternative forms of agriculture. We aren’t going to tell them what is better or worse. They have to decide for themselves what they like and what they don’t like. As a university, we have the obligation to give them those choices.”

Professor Arce with students on the organic banana plantation.

Professor Arce with students on the organic banana plantation.

Fast Forward 20 Years

Today, Arnoldo Avila manages the FIO and supervises over a dozen current student projects that include tilapia, chicken, pig, cow, yucca, bean, cocoa, herbs, lettuce, onions, and various root vegetable production as well as experimentation on soil types, mandala and biointensive farming, biochar production, developing a seed bank, and using different sources of energy including solar panels.

The farm itself is 18 hectares, but only about 8.4 hectares are currently being used in the various student projects. Although it is a relatively small area, the FIO is host to a shocking amount of biodiversity and is the living breathing representation of 20 years of cutting edge agricultural development.

Arnoldo Avila, FIO manager, in the biointensive section of the FIO.

Arnoldo Avila, FIO manager, in the biointensive section of the FIO.

“The idea of integrated farming is to create a closed circuit where animal, plant, and crop production are interdependent on each other. For example, in cocoa production we use the seeds to make our finished product, but 80% of the cocoa plant is peel that would normally be unused. We process the peel to make liquid fertilizer, or extract pectin to make jelly, or we make a tea from the peal. We are using everything that would normally be discarded in other agronomical operations,” explained Avila.

Students are also discovering how to add value to their products on the FIO. They have learned to caramelize the cocoa seed, a relatively simple process that creates a delicious product that sells for far more than raw cocoa.

On the FIO, Avila embraces experimentation. The students are encouraged to create their own methodology and test their ideas. For example, after fermenting the cocoa seed, the producer must let the seed dry. Commonly, this process requires gas or electric energy, but one student has decided to develop a system using solar panels. Another student is using a different “artisanal” method using direct sunlight, and the two students are comparing the effectiveness of their respective techniques.

The FIO is also home to several ongoing experiments in fertilizers. One of these is called biochar, which is a charcoal produced from plant matter and stored in the soil as a means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This crystalized wood is created through a process of heating without oxygen. “Instead of letting the carbon back into the air which increases your carbon footprint, the carbon is sent back into the ground, enriching the soil,” explained Avila.

Biochar must be heated very slowly through a specific low-oxygen process.

Biochar must be heated very slowly through a specific low-oxygen process.

The FIO also conducts experiments on worm compost, which is much richer in nutrients than other compost of soil. “It is pure plant food,” said Avila.

While the FIO is already an extraordinary testament to the two decades of hard work put in by students, staff, and faculty, both Avila and Arce see the opportunity to grow.

“In my opinion, we are just starting. We are diversifying the farm and using areas that weren’t used before, so we are going to get more production,” said Avila.

While the FIO currently sells many products to EARTH’s own cafeteria, including green onions, cassava, pepper, cilantro, lettuce, squash, cocoa powder, turmeric, and ginger, Avila and Arce would like to increase that output.

Arce pointed out, “Organically grown plants taste better and they’re healthier. You also have the peace of mind knowing that this product was responsibly made while being friendly to the environment. More than a thousand people eat at our cafeteria everyday. One goal is for the cafeteria to buy everything that the organic farm produces. In that way, it can really become the family farm it was modeled after. The family is EARTH.”

It is safe to say that the FIO will continue to represent the initiative and dedication to sustainable agriculture that EARTH embodies. “The only thing that’s impossible is what you don’t do. And here in the University we have the grand idea that we can achieve the things that other people say are crazy,” said Arce.