“You need three things for organic production: organic matter, micro-organisms, and nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, boron),” states Carlos Huertas, my 24 year old boss. In the first day of my internship (semi-organic vegetable (tomato) farm), Gabriel, my 45 year-old host father organic agriculture consultant Danny Devito character, and I follow Carlos around as he walks in circles turning on this irrigation tube, and hand-watering those seedlings. We follow him into the garage where Gabriel explains the barrels of organic chemicals by saying, “If you take a spoonful of this, it won’t kill you. If you take a spoonful of non-organic chemicals, it will kill you.” He gestures towards the EM (effective microorganism) liquid vat. Carlos proceeds to gather some tools and head out as Gabriel continues to explain, you add molasses, which the micro-organisms eat and then reproduce rapidly. It needs an anaerobic environment for bacteria in the production of EM, muy importante, in order to kill off the bad bacteria such as salmonella and E. Coli.
In my first week here, Gabriel has mentioned at least a few times this EM, los microorganismos del bosque, the microorganisms of the forest, this seemingly secret forest formula that he has taught to Carlos and others. I have tried to get more out of him: what exactly are they and how do you capture them and bring them here to this vat of molasses liquid to spread on the tomatoes’ soil? but his only response has been, “sometime I will show you.”
Carlos’s style is a bit less informative, either I am watching him use the gas stove to repair an irrigation tube in silence, and then he is handing me the tube to try it myself, or I am working for eight hours alone in the greenhouse lowering and pruning and trellising the thousand tomato plants there, after which Carlos finally shows up from wherever he has been, grins, and pats me hard twice on the back.
Yes, Gabriel, on the other hand, from the get go, has been intent on speaking to me about agriculture. These opportunities, unfortunately, arise during my time off, during dinner, while watching TV, or brushing my teeth. Nonetheless, I am content to have my mind buzzing with Spanish agricultural terms on Saturday morning, as I follow Gabriel off to the Zarcero farmers’ market and then to the hydroponic lettuce and tomato farm. We have just gotten back, had lunch, and I am sitting down to talk to my mom on the computer, and Gabriel stands in my doorway and says, “Vamos a la Montana, a la bosque para recoger los microorganismos. I want to go before it rains and it might be raining tomorrow so listo? Vamos.” I take off my headphones and pop off my bed, intrigued and amused to finally be capturing the microorganisms from the mountain forest. We set out, and after ten minutes of walking uphill, we are turning off the road onto a cowpath that winds down around the mountain. (Let me first explain that Zarcero is in the mountains, and going any direction either involves going up or down, so going down to get to the mountain was not unusual). Gabriel is carrying a pink bag filled with plastic ribbons and six packets of cooked rice. I should have realized when we set out that Gabriel was wearing tall rubber boots with jeans tucked inside them for a reason. He was also carrying a machete, which he would use to point to things along the way. (After almost getting knicked by it once, I kept myself out of range.) I, on the other hand, felt like a city boy in my special clean weekend outfit: converses, corduroys, and only unstained plain white T-shirt (since unlike yesterday I figure I will not be stirring a cement pond of cowshit water and moving the shitwater tubes and its irrigation pump to different areas of the field). Oh well, the cowpath was muddy with cowshit and occasional full cowpies. It was also narrow with electric, ticking wires marking either side, rendering sidestepping a less appealing option. Now, we were cutting off the path, lowering ourselves well under this electric wire (my hitting-the-rucking-pad-under-the-stick practice coming in handy), and trudging through knee-high grass across the pastures, and under more wire.
The tall (montane humid) forest is finally looming below us, on a steep steep slope leading into a mountain stream. We step downward, sideways, backward, into the forest, into “suelo muy suave,” Gabriel states, a ground that sinks with each step, thick and rich with decomposing leaf matter from the dense foliage. Gabriel starts digging around, perched diagonally on the slope, rummaging through this soil and that, glasses becoming speckled with dirt, holding the soil up to his nose. “Huele, smell this soil,” he says. I let him drop the soil into my cupped hands.
It is the best soil smell I have ever smelt. It is a sweet sweet deep earth pine must. I feel as if I am a mole, smelling only the sweet dank earthy depths below the ground. Or else, I am standing with my eyes closed in Ilana’s basement cedar closet. I proceed to smell this patch of soil, and that. I can’t stop smelling its sweetness, its fullness, I want to roll in it and plant things in it and I am more than pleased to be sitting sunken in the humus slope getting high on soil with Gabriel. He says that if you have soil that smells like that, you can grow anything. I don’t need more convincing.
We were like goats scampering from level to level. I was careful not to brace onto anything anymore for balance after getting pricked by tens of tiny invisible bamboo hairs like baby porcupine quills. Lower into this forest, “huesos,” Gabriel says. I look and see a cow skull in the soil. Gabriel starts digging around in it, pulls out the jawbone, and sticks the rice packet where the brain might be. “Calcio y fosforo” he says. The bone has calcium and phosphorus that is decomposing into the soil. He makes me smell this soil too, and it is less sweet, but it is the richest soil that I have felt, reminding me even of fresh worm castings. It is not too sandy or clay-ey, but moist and soft and smooth and crumbly. It appears as if it has been sifted like brown sugar and it is a deep deep chocolate brown. Another packet Gabriel tucks in a rock crevice where algae and lichen cling to the rock’s surface. Still another he buries next to a special leguminous tree. Gabriel buries the remainder of the six rice packets in distinct spots, marking them each with ribbons. “This you can’t learn in books,” he says. Well shit, I think to myself, eyes wide, I better take note. I could use some farming magic. Only I don’t know what microormitizas or armicigas are, nor would I know what they were in English, and I wish that Heather Rose or Kate were here to explain to me these secret science organisms right before my eyes.
This much I got: he was finding areas with different types of micro-organisms, burying the rice packets shallowly and covering them with leaves so that the organisms would enter the rice since it has a lot of proteins and carbohydrates. The leaves would protect the rice from the rain. Apparently, the organisms will also magically turn the rice different colors as they multiply. Then, we will somehow transfer these little guys into water, producing 40 liters of microorganism fertilizer. But, until then, now, we wait. In three days we will collect our rainbow rice packets and capture our micro-organism feast. To be continued…