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.
To be continued...