The day was still young, and we were eager to arrive at our next destination: a biodynamic spice and tea garden set in the green hills of Gampola.
For those of you who are new to biodynamics, the term refers to a system of agriculture with a focus on restoring and harmonizing the vital life forces of a garden or farm, while maintaining a triple bottom line approach to economic, social and ecological sustainability. While working in harmony with the earth as well as the subtle forces of the greater cosmos, biodynamic farmers strive to create diversified, balanced ecosystems that resonate with fertility and health for all who partake in them.
Many but not all SOFA farms are certified according to Demeter standards for biodynamic agriculture. Among those that are not certified, oftentimes the central tenets of biodynamic farming are still followed. As an organization, SOFA itself is an extension of the same philosophy that governs biodynamic farming, generating a richness and diversity that is able to sustain a high level of economic, social and ecological stability and growth.
Living most of the time in Canada, we sometimes lose touch with the essence of where our spices come from. Though we speak about our producers and show pictures of the spice gardens, with time and distance the energy of these people and places slowly wane from our awareness without our even realizing it. This was a day to rediscover the root of Cha's Organics spices, to refresh our awareness of the source from which they come, and to revitalize our connection with the soil, environment and especially the people who make everything we do possible through their dedication and hard work.
In our modern-day culture, we're so used to the convenience of store bought foods that we rarely stop and think about the efforts that have been undertaken to produce those foods. When we open a package of spices in our kitchen to flavour our favourite dishes, how often to we ponder what a farmer half way around the world may or may not have done to enrich the soil and the vitality of the plant from which the spice was harvested? When we think about the content of medicinal compounds such as curcumin in a spice, how often do we reflect on what steps have been taken to maximize it's presence? Everything we eat and therefore everything we are ultimately comes from the soil. Everything starts there, and it is there that we must first bring our focus when evaluating how a food is grown.
There is a certain irony in the term "high yield variety", that catch-all for hybridized or genetically modified crops that have been designed to produce maximum yields. Oftentimes, it is the chemical inputs that accompany these crops, and the resistance to chemicals that the crops have been designed to uphold, that really make the difference in yield. To a farmer who must pay for these expensive inputs and then poison themselves, their family and their community on a daily basis just a to grow their crops, one must ask themselves, is it all really worth it?
As with anything, what comes out is highly dependant on what goes in. Higher and better yields need not depend on dangerous genetic alterations or chemical poisons, which will perhaps give a high yield but a yield high in poisons nonetheless. Higher yields can also be achieved through careful planning, attention to such details as the direction of wind or the cycles of the moon, and perhaps most importantly the quality of fertilizer used to grow the crop.
Did you know that the fertilizers generally used to grow non-organic crops are petroleum derived? That not only the manufacture but also the runoff of these fertilizers is an environmental catastrophe on a nearly unimaginable scale? Perhaps it seems crazy to think that in the face of this widespread destruction a small one-acre farm can make any real difference. Remember though that even the tallest and strongest coconut trees each started as tiny, individual inflorescences, beautiful yet fragile, nourished by fertile soil and life-giving rain. Call it natural law, karma, or whatever you like - there is an unseen order to all things and what comes out will always be directly related to what goes in. It is in the balance of all things that the final direction will be determined. Ultimately, it all comes down to balance and which side of the balance we choose to invest our energies in.
Back to the spice gardens. As we approached the first garden, we were again met with an abundance of vibrant green trees, vines and low growing plant varieties, each one occupying its own unique place in the lush tapestry that unfolded before our eyes. This show of green then gave way to a small clearing in which a small clay and thatch hut, a slatted wood hutch and a modest house stood. Here we were introduced to Tissa Bandara, to whom the garden and small buildings therein belonged. He smiled at us and we were immediately touched by the honesty and gentleness that emanated from this kind-looking man.
From inside the wood hutch, a mother goat with her nursing kids looked on as we drew closer to discover the contents of the clay hut. As it turned out, this hut was actually a fertilizer depository, housing a barrel of liquid organic fertilizer and a vermiwash system consisting of a large barrel of compost and worms into which water would be periodically dripped from a clay pot that hung overhead. The enriched water that would be collected from this system, it was explained to us, would be used as a foliage spray to deliver extra nutrients to crops.
On the ground alongside the far wall of the hut, we noticed a few brick lined containment units of what looked like fertile soil identified with the letters "CPP" (which I later learned, stood for Cow Pat Pit), a medium sized clay pot with Sinhala letters painted on it that roughly translated as "organic fertilizer", and several cow horns. Above these items, a sign explained the various steps involved in creating different biodynamic inputs. Methodologies such as how to obtain potent liquid fertilizer by first fermenting cow dung in a cow horn buried underground according to the seasonal and lunar cycles, and then mixing it with water to obtain a fertilizer rich in nitrogen fixing bacteria, among other beneficial agents, were detailed on the sign, courtesy of SOFA. Clearly, these farmers knew their stuff.
After spending some time learning more about the various techniques used to prepare fertilizers as well as how those fertilizers were used in growing biodynamic crops, we stepped out of the hut and back into the clearing - directly in front of the hutch that housed the mama goat and her little kiddies. One of the little ones kept trying to grab a drink at his mom's teats, and mama kept running off while gently kicking at him so he would leave her be. I knew just how she felt. Still, that little kid was pretty cute and looked like he could use a hug. I asked if I could hold him, though I've never held a baby goat before. He was so precious! I wanted to hold him forever. Of course we had other places to go, so I eventually gave him back to his mama and we continued on with our visit, eager to see the rest of the garden.
That's when we met the rest of the family, all with smiles as genuine as Tissa's. Spending time with all three generations of this family of biodynamic farmers was a highlight of our day for sure. Their efforts to uphold the richness, the integrity and the equilibrium of this small plot of land were reflected in the very essence of their beings. Each one an integral part of this living ecosystem, each one proudly occupying their own unique place in the lush tapestry of life that their garden was.
We walked over to a small tea garden and adjoining tea nursery, where the tea plants that would later be given to other SOFA farmers from this block were growning. It was nice to see how this tea garden was being managed without the use of chemical herbicides, especially in light of recent evidence pointing to glyphosate (AKA Roundup - a herbicide widely used in Sri Lanka's tea plantations) as the main culprit in the kidney disease epidemic that has been claiming the lives of Sri Lanka's rural inhabitants at a staggering rate.
You see, what goes into the soil will also come out and it seems that when glyphosate goes in, it combines with heavy metals and contaminates groundwater before coming out dissolved in drinking water. Beyond the slavery type conditions that tea plantation workers are often subjected to, this is the true human cost of cheap, plantation-grown tea. Not very appealing, is it? Instead, these farmers that we were visiting had opted for a more ecological and less harmful methods of weed control: manual weeding, companion planting, mulching and good old common sense. All of the above making for a much more tasteful cup of tea IMO.
We were led to a different section of the garden where ginger was grown alongside other crops. Tissa unearthed a ginger rhizome and handed it to me. I peeled away some of its earthy skin to reveal its fleshy, tender inside and gave it a small taste. I knew from experience that this tiny piece of ginger, much smaller and more delicate than the Chinese varieties we normally see in our supermarkets, would pack a punch. Indeed, I was not disappointed - from its intensely fragrant flavour to its fiery taste, this little ginger rhizome was truly a force to be reckoned with. I stashed it away in my purse and continued on to the next discovery.
All week we had been looking forward to visiting our producer partners from SOFA (Small Organic Farmers Association) in Gampola and Matale. We always have such a nice time touring their beautiful spice gardens, and learn so much too. Being on the ground to see first hand how and where our spices are grown is a vital part of what we do, and we know how important this is to everyone back home who has grown to trust Arayuma as a leader in Fair Trade organic spices.
Friday finally arrived, the day we would visit the spice growers. Our driver arrived early in the morning, and we set out with 25 colouring books, 25 packs of nontoxic modeling clay and 5 larger children's toys and activity sets. They were to be given to the children attending a preschool in Gampola that had been built and financed with a portion of the money collected by SOFA from Fairtrade premiums. Mr. Bernard Ranaweera, SOFA's longstanding democratically elected president, had invited us to visit the preschool to see first hand the benefits SOFA members were obtaining from being part of the Fairtrade system. On the way, Mr. Bernard explained that not only SOFA members benefited from the preschool, but also others from their community who would have otherwise had to send their children to preschool in a different village - not very practical when you don't own a car.
Before visiting the preschool, we stopped at the SOFA Gampola office where Mr. Bernard updated us on recent developments. Following this, we visited a nearby SOFA member family that grew not only spices for export and local consumption, but also various house plants and other plants to be used for cut foliage. This cut foliage side project that many women in the local SOFA community were now benefiting from had also been made possible thanks to Fairtrade premiums, we were told. Stepping out of the car, we were met with the scent of cloves that grew from branches up above amidst coconut, banana and a variety of other trees. We walked along the red earth path towards the house and main garden, passing lush pepper vines that wound their way up the surrounding tree trunks. Insects chirped and birds sang, reminding us of all the life that this garden held in it's relatively small space.
Here and there I noticed what we refer to as tropical house plants growing, interspersed with the spice trees and other crops. Some were so tall they towered above our heads. The whole garden was beautifully planned and landscaped, striking a perfect balance between wild and cultivated. Marigolds had been planted along the borders of the garden kept other crops safe from garden-unfriendly bugs and animals, who would keep their distance due to the strong smell of this plant. Many such considerations had been taken into account, so as to maximize yields without the use of any harmful and costly chemical inputs.
A young girl stepped out of the house with her grandmother, and both smiled at us earnestly. Her mother, who was washing clothes by the open well behind the house, also smiled warmly at us and welcomed us to tour her garden. Grandmother, mother and daughter all glowed with the life energy of this beautiful garden. All three were living in safety and dignity, free from the risk of any harm caused by handling toxic, life-threatening chemicals. The vibrant, positive energy we felt from both the family and the gardens was palpable. We would have stayed all day, but we needed to get to the preschool by 11:30 since the parents would be picking up their children at that time. So we said goodbye and were on our way.
At the preschool, we were greeted by a group of smiling children who handed us bouquets of freshly picked flowers upon our arrival. Inside the preschool building, Mr. Bernard introduced us to the teacher, children and the small crowd of parents that had gathered around the back of the room. Looking out on all of their smiling faces, we could feel their genuine and heart-felt appreciation. We handed out the gifts one by one, then Mr. Bernard said a few words as we joined the crowd of parents. He spoke of the work that we do in Canada to sell SOFA organic products, and ended with a word of thanks.
Then we stepped outside, where I noticed a small metal swing set near the sunnier side of the building. At the same moment, Chanaka told me that they were planning to build a better playground on the opposite side, where there was some more room to play and also more shade. Then and there, we decided to pledge the funds to build this playground. I can't wait to see photos of the new playground later this year. As parents and children left hand in hand, we waved goodbye and headed off to see more spice gardens. The day was still so young, and yet already seemed so full. It was hard to imagine what more was yet to come.
Last week was full of adventure. We visited an organic dairy farm in Negombo, bathed in the rock pool of a pristine jungle waterfall with turquoise hued water, and swam in a beautiful and famous river. However, due to an unfortunate incident involving a faulty power converter, my laptop computer and a power failure at our hotel in Kandy, that part of our travels in Sri Lanka will be posted at a later date. I hope.
On to this week. We awoke early on Tuesday morning and headed out to Kandy - a historic city in the mountains - where we would be visiting the people who work hard every day to bring us Cha's Organics spices and coconut milk. The drive was mostly uneventful, which is a good thing when travelling on crazy roads with kids. A little motion sickness from our littlest one just before we arrived in Kandy, but luckily I had packed some emergency baby wipes and spare clothes for everyone. Before long we arrived at our hotel with all the travellers in good humour and clean clothes. After the long drive we decided to take it easy for the evening, and the girls fell asleep at a relatively normal time (yay!) after a quick swim in the pool and a quick bite at the restaurant buffet.
The following day was spent in the company of Dr. Sarath Ranaweera and his team at Bio Foods, our Sri Lankan partner that handles the processing, packaging and export of Cha's Oganics products. We left the girls at the hotel with Chanaka's sister Shiromi, who kindly agreed to accompany us on the first leg of our trip to Kandy. Before leaving the hotel in the morning we all got to see a family of monkeys literally hanging out on the hotel balconies and surrounding trees. The girls were thrilled of course. A good start to our day.
At Bio Foods, we were treated to the world's most delicious tea (called Heaven Scent), which is grown as part of a church project in support of women who have been victims of domestic or other types of violence. Then after some morning meetings we were again treated, this time to a delicious rice and curry lunch made with organic ingredients and ending with a dessert of fresh organic buffalo curd topped with pure authentic organic treacle (sort of like plain yogurt with maple syrup, Sri Lankan style).
Back at the Bio Foods office, we discussed some innovative new products that we'll be rolling out over the next year, as well as some updates to our current product line. We're so excited to see our new products become reality, and can't wait to show everyone back home what we've been working on. We guarantee you won't be disappointed.
The next day was to be spent visiting the new spice processing unit in Dambulla. I would make the trip alone this time so that Chanaka could spend some down time with the girls, seeing as he had already visited the new facility in December. I was up early at 6 AM to catch up on some work, grabbed a fresh papaya juice from the restaurant, plugged in my laptop and turned it on. Nasty surprise: last night's power failure must have fried my computer's circuits.
What to do? My hosts from Bio Foods were ready to bring me to visit the new facility, so off we went after a quick stop at the Mac shop where I was told I would have to try my luck in Colombo. As we drove through town, I looked up and saw the giant Buddha statue that sits in timeless meditation, calmly overlooking the busy city of Kandy. I reminded myself again to rise above all this while being careful to stay grounded, to keep calm and not to spiral into a vicious cycle of catastrophizing and beating myself up. Then, quite predictably, I found myself falling into that very cycle.
The road we drove along on our way to Dambulla was a winding one indeed, and the air coming through the AC smelled of diesel and car exhaust. I started to feel noticeably unwell, which didn't help my mood at all. To focus my mind, I tried concentrating only on the present moment and my five senses. Sight: road work. Physical sensation: motion sickness. Hearing: car horns beeping. Taste: bad nervous taste. Smell: ugh. I had to try something else.
Focusing instead on the lush green foliage of the many beautiful trees outside, and telling myself that whatever was to become of my computer everything would turn out OK, I slowly brought myself back into the moment. I continued to stay in the moment, and before long the moment got better. We had left the noisy, crowded areas on the outskirts of Kandy and entered more rural terrain. Coconut trees, banana trees and pepper vines passed by outside the window, along with scattered road side stands and small shops that looked like they had seen better days.
We arrived some time later in Dambulla, home of the famous ancient cave temple, and pulled up to the new spice processing unit. We crossed the sun drying floors where lemongrass, black pepper and nutmeg had been spread out to dry in the hot mid-day sun, then headed towards the main processing unit. In the entrance way I was asked to remove my earrings and shoes, then given a pair of white slippers along with a white coat, new hairnet and paper mask all nicely sealed in plastic wrap.
We entered the first room, where four groups of women patiently sorted some newly arrived black pepper, being careful to remove any twigs, stones or white peppercorns. The next room was the drying room, where herbs and spices were dried after being washed in pure spring water. The warm air was thick with the scent of the ginger that was being dried in the retorter. Fresh green curry leaf was also drying slowly in the warm air of the main dryer, a custom designed feat of brilliant engineering.
After touring the entire facility, we returned to the sun drying floors, where a small group of women were carefully peeling the delicate mace from freshly sundried nutmeg. I couldn't resist asking if I could try peeling one. I did succeed in removing the mace nearly intact, but not nearly as quickly as the more highly skilled women who looked on in amusement.
Next stop: lunch at the Seethavalley Biodynamic gardens and organic training institute, a sister project specialized in biodynamics and select crops (including several varieties of traditional rice). I was told it would be a special lunch, but had no idea what to expect. After touring the beautiful gardens, I was invited to step into a nice clay hut with thatched roof and clay benches along the walls inside. The air was noticeably cooler inside the hut, and the energy calm and earthy. I was handed a coconut shell cup filled with cool water, and a fresh lotus leaf which was to serve as my plate.
A gorgeous lunch of traditional red rice and vegetarian curries was then served to me with coconut shell spoons, from clay pots. All organic and biodynamic of course. Special was not the word, this was simply divine. A moment to savour for sure.
Then, after seeing more of the biodynamic gardens, it was time to head back to the hotel to join Chanaka, the girls and Chanaka's mother who would be babysitting for us the next day.
It has been three days since we landed in Sri Lanka, half a world away from our snow-covered log cabin in the woods and all that crazy Arctic weather we've been having. I must say I don't really miss winter, though the heat can get a little extreme here too.
The clock on my phone says it's 3:40 PM which feels about right, problem is that means it's actually 1:50 AM local time. And only one out of the three of us is asleep: the youngest one, who also happens to be the earliest riser. This fact combined with the daily 5 AM wake up call from the church next door will likely mean another sleepy day tomorrow with a longer than average mid-day family nap...
Jet lag and reversed body clocks aside, it has been a wonderful trip so far and both of our girls have proven to be great travellers. We can't wait to bring them to see where our spices and coconuts grow, and also visit the surrounding areas where we will experience Sri Lanka's famous biodiversity first hand.
Before that though, we're spending some time in Negombo, visiting with family and letting the girls get used to life in Sri Lanka. Let me just say right now that Chanaka's mother probably cooks the best food in the country and we are being spoiled by her daily. Today's highlight? Fresh hoppers along with some delicious honey hoppers. No, not the insects LOL :)
All you Sri Lankans and Sri Lankan food enthusiasts know what I'm taking about. I'll be posting her recipe for those soon. Along with all those amazing curries. Yum...
I do wish though that there was more access to organic foods around here. With the exception of some locally grown produce at select markets, there's really not much availability. Forget the variety we're used to at our supermarkets back home. The supermarkets here carry mostly imported products in the grocery aisles, at prices that are simply unaffordable for the average Sri Lankan, and none of it organic. I guess every country has it's pluses and minuses.
On the plus side, most homes have some type of tropical fruit tree and some produce growing in their back yard, and in the village it's common to exchange these home grown fruits, herbs or vegetables with relatives or neighbours. Most everything else will be purchased at the market and three meals per day are prepared mostly from scratch. With this in mind, and such ideal growing seasons year-round, there is definitely less dependence on store-bought foods than we have back home.
Well that's it for now, better try sleeping in the hopes of regaining a normal schedule any time soon.
Did you know that the word "serendipity" is derived from Sri Lanka's former name, Serendib? Well now you do :)
In just a few days, I'll be landing in Sri Lanka with Chanaka and our two girls to visit our coconut and spice producers, discover new and exciting products and learn a thing or two about Sri Lanka's ancient cultural heritage. I couldn't hope for a better Valentine's Day gift!
On our last visits, we brought back stories and photos to share with our friends and fans, but this time around we want to bring you along with us for a real time adventure.
Spices, sunshine, elephants and ancient wisdom await. Oh, did I mention the food? So check back in regularly and be sure to comment and share if you like what you see.