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A New Phase: Introduction to Iracambi’s program of agroecology

A lot has been going on here at Iracambi recently!

Let me tell you the story!

For some time we have been dreaming of an agroecology project in Iracambi and here is a little bit of the background. About our new project of working with native bees, and about better ways of working with our vegetable garden!

One of our first ideas is to explore working with native bees. So we partnered with  with Helder Resende, a professor from The Federal University of Viçosa’s Forestry Program to create a native beekeeping program! We identified two species of native bees, the mandaçaia and jataí, on our property, and we are starting to capture them.

Mandacaia bee found at Iracambi and the traps used to catch them

This project is focused on sustainability. Many of the stingless native bees of Brazil are threatened with extinction, and do you know what happens if the bees disappear?

We will have a food shortage! This is because bees play an important role in pollinating plants. Without this pollination, plants will be unable to produce fruits and seeds. The bees are indispensable for the maintenance and conservation of every ecosystem that we humans rely on!

Without bees, without forests, without animals, without water, without life. The primary objective is to stimulate  the reproduction of these native bees, and to show farmers in this region that—in addition to being a sustainable practice—it can be financially worthwhile as well.

Another idea is to build up our vegetable garden on more organic principles. . . So we went to visit  Cultive, a farm in Leopoldina (about a two hour drive from Iracambi). The owners are a couple, Janice and Gabriel, who studied Agronomy at UFES the Federal University of Espirito Santo and then embarked on this challenging journey of organic agriculture.

Janice and Gabriel, the creators of this dream!

They began three years ago, on a flat plot of land overgrown with brachiaria grass. It all started with dragon fruit!

Dragon Fruit Cactus

Janice studied dragon fruit during her time in college. The dragon fruit plant is a species of cactus (therefore, they don’t like very much water), and it grows best in the shade. Janice and Gabriel went on to study how to best produce dragon fruit in Leopoldina, which has a very hot and sunny climate!

Banana trees providing shade for the dragon fruit

They decided upon bananas, which grow rapidly to provide shade, and also provide plenty of organic material for the soil. The cassava plant does the same.

Janice told us as well about their greatest difficulties, including composting. Because of the lack of organic producers in the area, they often had to buy organic compost all the way from Rio de Janeiro.

Because of this, they made  a partnership with the city of Leopoldina. When others prune their trees, they send the organic material to Cultive to grind and turn into compost. They also planted several species of native trees, such as the Oiti and Ipê, to produce their own compost material.

Passion fruit seedling

They told us about the constant battle with brachiaria, a grass with very aggressive roots. For a long time, they were always cutting the grass, only to have it grow back again! As you can see now, however, after three years the brachiaria is under control. This is because the soil is now rich enough for the other plants to fight the brachiaria themselves and keep it at bay.

In the new plot that they are beginning in the upcoming season, they are planting  Mombasa, a grass that grows taller than brachiaria but has less invasive root systems. In addition, Mombasa provides nutrient-rich organic material to replenish the soil when it is cut.

They also used other plants , such as jack beans, gliricidia, marigolds, and rattlepods. Studies have shown that these plants can enrich the soil in just 15 days! Incredible, huh? They have also used ashes and chicken faeces.

Another challenge has been ants! We asked them about how they dealt with these ever-present pests. They experimented with  entomological glue to stick to  the ants so they are unable to damage the trees. However, they did say that they don’t like using the glue, as the increased presence of insects is usually a sign that you’re doing something wrong!

For the most effective irrigation, Janice and Gabriel use the Rain Bird Irrigation System, and also installed taps in every line of plants. With this, it is possible for them to program exactly when and for how long to water their plants. They could also, for example, choose to water every line except for where they were harvesting or working on. For the parts of the farm that do not have the system installed yet, they are surrounding the plants with straw to maintain the humidity.

For their next part of the farm, they are planning on planting lines of bananas 8 meters apart, and lines of fruit-bearing trees and vines  (dragon fruit and passion fruit) 20 meters apart. Between the lines will be okra, cassava, tomatoes, and other vegetables. They also make sure to rotate the plants to maintain the soil’s fertility. Their end goal is to have some areas of the farm be more of an agroforest, when the native trees develop.

The Iracambi team with Gabriel

In all, it was a great visit, filled with opportunities to learn about how to proceed as we build our own vegetable garden. We learned a little bit about what works and what does not, and the various challenges that we will face. Some of these lessons (for example, how to control the brachiaria and ants) will also be applicable to our Forests for Water project. And of course, as always, we ended up in the kitchen to try freshly picked dragon fruit! It was delicious!

A plate of fresh dragon fruit!




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