Organic Farming in the Desert of San Juan – Part I

They say the second time’s a charm, and it rings true for our Argentinean farming experience. From our first experience at the farm in Tunuyán, we were almost ready to pack up, head south and then leave Argentina, a month before planned. Then we met two French girls in Mendoza who had told us about a farm just outside of the city of San Juan, Granja Tia Nora,  in a small town called Albardon.

The dueños, Pedro and Lucia accepted our request to come and work with them on the farm and we left two days later, hoping for a better experience. We weren’t disappointed. In fact, we couldn’t have asked for nicer hosts.

San Juan is a 2.5-hour bus ride north of Mendoza in the region of the same name. San Juan is desert land. No tumbleweeds and cacti, but just kilometres and kilometres of dry desert land, with the mountainous backdrop of La Cordillera de los Andes on one side and Pie de Palo on the other.

When we arrived at the Granja, we were pleasantly surprised. Not only were Pedro and Lucia much friendlier than our last hosts, but we found that we would be living communally in the house with their son (Francisco) and the other volunteers, Emma (American) and David (Dutch).

We had arrived on a Sunday, which is family day at the Granja, where families from around the area come and pay a small entrance fee to use the grounds to have a picnic or lay in the sun, play with the animals, ride a horse or anything else farm-like they could desire. The farm thrives not only from its volunteer help, but also its agro-tourism.

The deal was that we would work 6 hours a day, in exchange for meals and a bed. Lunch would be a communal sit-down affair, and dinner whatever leftovers were lurking about. Siesta time would be respected (a huge 3 hour gap in the middle of the day). And, there would be hot water at night, as long as someone lights the fire to heat the water tank.

The farm has only been around since 2009, and has grown over the years from nothing when they bought it, to now having  organic plants and vegetable patches, two horses, two dogs, seven goats, one pig, four sheep, a llama, two ostriches, and numerous chickens, hens, hares, rabbits, peacocks, turkeys, ducks and a kitten that tries to suckle anything with fluffy clothing. And then there are the geese. The birds that rule the roost, so to speak, who run about bossing the other animals around and chasing the volunteers.

As is culturally appropriate, at Granja Tia Nora work is separated. The physical and arduous work is done by men and anything cautious and cultivating is done by women.

It’s winter, and very dry here in San Juan. Few vegetables grow and survive during invierno. During our first week here I (Natasha) worked with Emma to plant and tend to a few hundred pumpkin, leeks, corn, honeydew, and many plant cuttings, some of which were unknown, to replant in the coming months of spring.

During the first week, changes were starting to already taking place. The cold and snow from the week before turned to strong sun and wild winds. Spring, if not by date, but by animal activity alone had well and truly sprung. The kitten, only a few weeks old and missing his mother was slowly gaining independence and growing a belly. The baby goat started getting cheeky and dared to leave his pen, running around the farmyard. The male turkey was spending his days asserting his territory with his conjoint the female turkey, constantly gobbling and rousing his tail feathers. The pig was trying to escape daily from his pen to see what was happening on the other side, and all the other animals were becoming more and more aggressive.

Antoine and David spent the week working away to build an amphitheatre for the farm. Pedro and Lucia regularly receive school groups at the farm, and the amphitheatre would serve as educational purpose to give talks to the children about plants and animals. During the week the farm already received three school groups that come to play and learn. Antoine and David then drew out and designed the space that would house our seedlings once sprung, the organic vegetable garden.

Around midday Emma and I would be called upon to go and do the shopping for lunch. We would be given a menu for the day and we were responsible for making it. The corner kiosko, Marche Martin, where we would buy our goods was a true small town goods store. The whole family works in this one place that feeds basically the entire village. There are no mega-supermarkets here. Produce is fresh and season dependant, like it should be. Fruit and vegetables also depend on daily supply.

This is cultural immersion. Over the week we had made a menu full of Argentinean specialities: milanesa (basically schnitzel), bombas de papas (cheese-filled mashed potato balls) guizo (stew) and of course the Sunday asado, the biggest of Argentine food traditions. 

It’s a sustainable food cycle – food scraps from lunch go to the compost pile, which is then used to organically fertilise the plants and seedlings on the farm, which will then grow more vegetables in the summer months. Granja Tia Nora is a member of the Italian-based not-for-profit organisation, Slow Food, which promotes eco-gastronomy.

In fact most practices on the farm are admirably sustainable. Weeds are fed to the goats, the larger and woodier weeds are used as fire wood. Other food for animals is certified natural and organic. Plastic bottles are recycled and reused in numerous ways in La Huerta (the Greenhouse), for example as coverings for the plants, a potting bases for seedlings and plant cuttings.

Being in a desert, the lack of rain suprisingly doesn’t equal a lack of water for potable use as the village is supplied with water run-off from melted snow coming down from the mountains in la Cordillera.

Priding themselves on being an organic farm, Pedro and Lucia are constantly seeking new organic farming methods and practices. They have two major projects for the farm. One of them is organic certification. Having recently applied for certification, this week was the week that they would prepare the farm for certification, to be one of the few 200-odd organic farms in Argentina. This is a big deal, and especially in a country that is still less developed than our own, and more particularly in a province that is so arid and so dry that it is a miracle anything grows.

The other main project is to protect San Juan’s native plants. Pedro and Lucia have been working with a local biologist, Pablo, to identify native plants and preserve them in a herbarium.

The plants, quillo, corderra, algarrobo (apparently similar to a carob plant) and jarrillo will also be reforested on the farm. Jarrillo used to also be used by early Argentines as soap. The yellow berries contain a special property that can be used to wash clothes.

By the end of our first week we were tired and ready for our day off, but we had learnt a great deal about organic and sustainable farm life in Argentina.

2 Responses to “Organic Farming in the Desert of San Juan – Part I”
  1. Carole Malinda says:

    Looks like you will be well experienced to start your own organic farm in Oz when you return ????

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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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