DR – Dairy Tour

We started the morning off bright and early in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic where we all load onto our little bus that will guide us through the day.  The first stop of this farm tour day includes a dairy.

What’s important to know about dairy and this community is that there is a definite transition in agriculture.  Dominicans follow the crop that will provide for them.  About 50 years ago the community was farming peanuts.  U.S. severely impacted the peanut business so then they tried tobacco.  It was profitable for some time but then Phillip Morris cancelled all their contracts in 2001 and so the farmers transitioned again.  Due to this,  we had the unique opportunity to see the infant stages of a young dairy business.   

In the DR, most milk production goes toward cheese production but this particular dairy association switched to liquid milk with the company Parmalat.

DR-Banana Tour

I had the unique opportunity to tour one as part of the Sustainable Food Lab Conference.  The Food Lab works collaboratively with private and public companies, NGO’s and anyone else that would like to help solve sustainable global supply chain problems. 

In some ways, the banana tour was a little underwhelming.  On the other hand, I took a non-drowsy Dramamine and I was almost comatose.  My body did not react well to that drug and I will never take it again.  Even though I was struggling I still managed to gather some interesting information. 

I didn’t get to witness the banana processing facility in operation but there were a number of water filled troughs and I assume the bananas are given a dunk in the tanks before being boxed.

This specific banana farm we visited features all organic bananas although other farms in this banana association are mostly organic and Fair Trade (FT) certified.  The majority of these bananas are sold to Europe and the Netherlands where the demand for FT and organic bananas is high.  Most of the organic fertilizers for the bananas come from Europe so this arrangement makes sense from a shipping standpoint.  The tariffs and levies also play a large role in determining profitable and available markets.

Bananas are bagged on the plant. The bag helps to deter pests and often times the bag contains chemicals offering further protection. This field was organic so the bag could still be chemically treated with an organic chemical. The colored ribbon hanging from the bag is an indicator of when the bananas should be harvested.

The conversation with the banana farm rep didn’t leave me confident in their certifications because he seemed very unsure of the whole process.  In his defense it isn’t his main job function but there was something that seemed not on the “up and up” about the process.  The farm employs 2 people to handle the certifications and much of this includes providing samples of banana leaves and fruit from their various banana farms across the DR to send off for testing of banned chemicals.  Growing organic bananas is more expensive because of input and labor costs but bananas are also susceptible to Black Sigatoka, an infection that can dramatically reduce yield of the banana plants.   

I am so scared of spiders and can’t believe I had the guts to take a picture and not run away shrieking! A baby banana spider, tarantula, hitched a ride with one of us on our cloths for about a 20 minute ride from the banana farm to our lunch location. This little spider was super-fast and a jumper!

This banana association chooses to grow organically because their customers have told them that organics are better because of the reduction in chemicals and it’s a part of sustainability.  The Dominicans are a resilient group of people and adjust accordingly in order to make a living.   

Bananas that don’t meet standards and part of the flower are collected and returned to decompose into the soil.

The farm tour guide didn’t know a lot about the FT portion of the banana farms that are a part of this particular banana association but he mentioned that he knew some funds had gone to help laborers that needed surgery.  As previously mentioned, this particular farm isn’t FT certified.

Random banana facts:

  1. You can make bananas grow longer in length by cutting off a small portion of the banana as it is growing.
  2. The markets (customers) are now asking for a banana that is 8′ in length compared to the previous 7 1/2″ banana.
  3. Banana plants last about 15 years and they bear fruit after one year.  This banana association starts new fields every 5 years.
  4. Bananas produce a “daughter plant” or farmers can take a cutting from an existing plant to produce another banana plant.
  5. There is no real demand for bananas in the DR or neighboring Haiti because there is no market.  Everyone can grow bananas in their backyard.
  6. Dominicans don’t wait until the banana or plantain for that matter is ripe.  They use them while they are green and starchier as well.

Another interesting fact.  Banana farms are often described as marching because the daughter plants all seem to form to the left side of the mother plant.  As a result the field literally moves when the mothers are cut down leaving the daughter plants.  You can imagine how this could happen by viewing the picture below.

Banana fields literally move with the arrival of the new daughter plants the mother plants are cut down and the daughter continues.

Let the DR farm tours begin!

If you happen to be following my Dominican Republic posts, the first two blogs were pre-conference.  I had a great opportunity to get to experience the Puerto Plata community with locals and I had a great time.  But now we start to shift gears and really get down to business.  Several people asked me why did the Sustainable Food Lab choose the Dominican Republic as the conference location.  Here is my take on it.  We live in a world that sources from a global supply chain and it’s important to look at our purchasing impacts in those global communities.  After all, all food is local to some community.  We explored foods like bananas, coffee, sugar, rice and cocoa.  Speaking of cocoa, it is estimated that the world’s cocoa supply could be consumed in 15 years.  So the Dominican Republic is a great place to see an example of a global supply chain in action and see the impact on the local communities that work in agriculture.

The first two days of the conference consisted of a Learning Journey where my group toured the northwest part of the DR checking out rice, banana, dairy, fishers and the communities of the workers in those respective areas.  From there, we joined back with the other two Learning Journey groups where we then went into two more days of meetings discussing priorities such as mitigating climate change at the farm level, business models for trading with small-scale producers, sustainability metrics, and implementing “values based sourcing” in supply chains.  Basically, my brain still hurts from the conference. 

There is also the emotional side of the visit.  As we visited the small impoverished communities, they seemed to think we were their saviors from their situations and that just wasn’t so.  It’s much more complicated than that.  The trip was filled with knowledge, experiences and difficult emotions.  I actually seem to have more questions than answers but I look forward to sharing my farm tour experiences with you next.

DR-Day two with Rafael

Sunday, April 29th

I had a great experience with Juancho, Tati and Klinia the previous day so I was pretty excited about visiting with Rafael.  And the day didn’t disappoint! 

Rafael arrives at my hotel to pick me up and we are off!  The first order of business is to visit with Rafael’s sister.  Rafael tells me that he needs some gazpacho because he had too much to drink the previous day and his sister has the best!  It was delicious!  It’s actually a three-day holiday in the DR so the entire country is celebrating…and I think the whole country is in our hotel because it was quite the happening place. 

The picture isn’t the best but you get the idea.  The gazpacho made by Rafael’s sister was delicious. This must be the DR version of the Bloody Mary.

After getting our fill of gazpacho we head out on a tour of the city.  Rafael takes me around the city sharing stories about DR history and influences from Spain, Africa and native DR inhabitants.  He seems to have an answer for every one of my questions which I appreciate. 

It is part of the DR to have rain water collection for each house.  You can see the almond tree leaves in the top left corner of the picture.  I will discuss this more in a moment.

There are two infrastructural requirements that seem to be a part of every residence in Puerto Plato and that is rain water collection and back up batteries for when the power goes out.  It is common to lose power so many homes have batteries on their roofs that fill up from the existing power source.  When the power goes out, the home automatically switches over to this battery reserve.  The rain water collection is used to supplement the toilet system and probably other areas of the home.  Another item to note is that in the DR, you don’t flush toilet paper instead you put it in the trash.  Also, you can’t drink the water in the DR so there is a lot of bottled water.   I saw many people transporting the huge bottles of water on their motorcycles.  Somehow I never got a picture of people on the motorcycles to share with you.

It seems to be a common practice in the DR to have some sort of deterrent surrounding the exterior of your property. I saw razor wire and broken glass bottles in cement as the most common.
The DR version of an alley.  Alleys in the states have no sense of nature to them so I found this image fascinating.  However, it also gives you an idea of the infrastructure in the DR. 

After touring around Puerto Plata, we settle down at Rafael’s favorite bar and meet up with one of his former teachers and Carlos, the bar owner.  I’ve had such great luck with DR bars.  I love everything about them….the sense of community and how everyone knows each other, the great “feel” of them and that both bar owners wanted to ensure I had a great experience.  I can only speak for the two bars I visited but it was a great time.   

A little more about Carlos’ bar….it’s an open bar much like the bar Juancho took me to the night before.  The outdoor seating has gravel rock floors and the “ceiling” is from the broad leaf almendras or almond trees.    At some point it started raining and we never moved because we were protected from the rain by the leaves of the almond tree. 

A view from our seats of this great bar that looks across the boulevard towards the ocean that lies on the other side of the trees.
Rafael preparing a perfectly mixed DR Brugal rum and coke/pepsi for me.
Apparently when you order rum in the DR you are presented with the whole bottle.  So we drank it.

After meeting more local people (including some of the Brugal family), good conversation and finishing the bottle of rum, we decide we should stay put for a while and have lunch with Carlos before leaving. 

A typical DR meal. Rice and beans, pollo and tostones.  Tostones, flattened plantains,  are an important dish in the DR.  It was delicious!

Under our almond tree canopy I only had one concern.  The falling nuts.  It sounded like they hit hard!  Carlos saw me keep looking up to identify the source of the noise so he brought me over some of the almonds to try.  Carlos doesn’t know English so he demonstrated that I should eat the fruit surrounding the hard nut shell.  I found that the fruit sort of puckered my mouth.  It was a little bitter with a hint of sweet but the color inside was gorgeous.  He then brought me a dried almond that he opened so I could taste the nut.  It was very reminiscent of raw pecans but a little less bitter.  Rafael explained to me that this isn’t the same almond as what I’m used too.  The nut is elongated and thinner so it doesn’t look like an almond either but it was still tasty.

A picture of a ripe almond fruit, the pink color inside of the fruit and then the dark-colored seed pod where the nut is located.

So how in the world do you end this wonderful day?  With one more drink!

Rafael loves to end his meal with a shot of sambuca that is lit to toast the coffee beans. I don’t love licorice flavor but the toasted coffee beans balance the flavor for me and it was quite tasty!

After this excursion, Rafael wishes me well and I head back to my room for an afternoon siesta before I start the official conference with evening work events.  Farm tours of bananas, rice, dairy and other pictures and blogs to soon follow.

Any incorrect information and misrepresentation of facts is an accident on my part.  Or perhaps I could blame the rum.

DR-Day One

Saturday, April 28th

I’ve often been asked “What is the best conversation you’ve ever had in your life?”  Before tonight my answer would have been Will Allen discussing worms …of all things.  But it is so true.  And worms/vermicomposting is absolutely amazing but tonight….everything changes. 

Tonight I am in the Dominican Republic for a Sustainable Food Lab meeting about sustainable global supply chain.  Before I continue, let’s put this in perspective.  I grew up in rural South Georgia.  I never really thought I could travel in the US much less to other countries.  I consider this a trip of a lifetime.  So I am in the Dominican Republic and I know that our hotel experience is not representative of the DR culture.  I recently met (through conference call) Lorelei, a DR native, through a Sodexo diversity network mentoring circle.  She introduced me through email to some family friends in the DR who are willing to take me around.  I find the courage to dial the phone number of people I have never met…in a country I have never visited….where I am not fluent in the language…upon the recomendation of someone I’ve never met face to face.  It was one of the best decisions of my life.

Juancho and Klinia taken with a view of the Port of Puerto Plata in the background.

Juancho and his daughter Klinia pick me up from my hotel and I have no idea what I’m in for as they have planned the evening.  They drove me down the boulevard (a road that hugs the coastline), show me where Columbus landed in the DR (poor lost bastard) and a historic fort that also housed criminals for some time.  It was awesome. 

El Morro, the old Spanish fort, with a view of Mount Isabel de Torres in the background.

By this point, we are starting to get comfortable with each other.  Remember, they’ve never met me and I’ve never met them.  Klinia tells me with a smile that they thought I was going to be an old woman.  Like I would have a walker kind of old lady.  I must type and talk in “old lady” because to this point this has been our only communication.  (Note to self – I must determine “old lady” font.)  We all find this absolutely hilarious because a good part of my experience was built around the fact that I was supposed to be old.  For example, they thought sticking to meal times was very important because I needed to eat on a schedule as well as selecting the bar where we would have drinks later.  It’s actually very thoughtful.  But still funny.

The delicious sancocho prepared by Tati. It was one of the best dishes I ate the whole week!

After touring some of the city, they brought me back to their beautiful home where Tati, Jauncho’s wife, prepared a traditional DR dish called sancocho that consisted of yucca, plantain, pork, chicken, salt, pepper and rice.  It was delicious.  It was the flavor of home and comfort and welcome.  

And there is another important family member to meet. Lindsey Lohan. This is a great family joke. Lindsey is one of the best dogs I’ve ever met. And very reminiscent of my dog Callie.  Unlike the American Lindsey Lohan, this cute pup doesn’t like the camera so this is my only shot of her.

Tati loves art and their home is filled with beautiful pieces from all DR artists, one of which is a family member. 

A local DR artist made these. I have a picture of another similar piece that was my favorite but the picture didn’t turn out.

After dinner, they suggested a walk around the town so we went to the plaza that housed their local cathedral and many buildings featuring Victorian Architecture (like the cover picture for this blog).  A few blocks down was also their favorite local bar.  I’m pretty sure they took me here because it caters to the “older crowd” but it’s also Juancho’s favorite bar and the owners are his friends.  They were also very welcoming of me and wanted to ensure I had a great DR experience.

The old justice building is now an art school. This picture captures some of the old justice exterior as well as some of the new artwork that I thought was interesting.

The bar we visited was designed for “Christy.”  Like-I- would-be-an-alcoholic-because-I-would-be-at-this-bar-all-the-time kind of bar.  It was designed with Spanish influence featuring rock floors and although it was covered it was an outdoor bar. I could hear the sounds of the DR – motorcycle engines, Latin music and honking horns.  Juancho smiles and tells me the DR are a loud people.  =)

This might not be the best picture but the Presidente in this great bar was outstanding!

Much like the US, the DR is currently going through a presidential election so politics are top of mind.  We had great conversations about local and global politics, race, religion, gender, history and the importance of education.  It was interesting to hear first-hand how United States policy influences the people of the Dominican Republic.  Juancho doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Espanol so Klinia translates as needed.  It was a thoughtful conversation because of the translation pause and the two conversations going on at once.  I loved when Juancho would touch my arm and tell me “Christy.  It’s important for you to know…”  I loved how he would tell me this throughout the day so I would recognize and remember things that are important to the DR. 

Klinia is so smart and studying marketing in Santiago.  I’m so thankful she was there to help me with conversations.  Tati knows English well so we had some great conversations too.  The entire family was a gift. They were so caring and filled with pride about their country and it was very important for them to share that with me. 

Here is my lesson learned.  Most of your preconceived notions are wrong.  Be open-minded. 

Soapbox moment-If you visit the DR or other countries, leave the hotel.  Spend some of your money in the community and see what’s around you.  But be safe. 

I realized through our conversations that I haven’t taken a strong interest in understanding the impact of global politics and the US influence on other countries.  I also recognize how Americans take so many things for granted.  Including myself.  It was a great humbling moment.  This conversation has become the best conversation of my life.  How do I quantify this you might ask? It is a conversation that opens your mind and changes your life.  And this all happened on day one in the DR.

It is entirely possible that I have spelled family members of Juancho’s family wrong and I might have also recollected things incorrectly.  I humbly apologize for any errors.