Living in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil, I have become very interested in local agriculture. Farming here is not much like it is in the south of the UK where I grew up. There, many acres are managed by few people with big machines. That happens here of course, but the number of families living on the land on small farms and producing milk, beef, coffee, corn, and sugar, with minimal mechanisation is astonishing. What's more, some of these families ownership and residence on the land stretches back for nearly 400 years, some of the original settlers to this part of the continent. Though they are often quite poor economically, they often have most of the food they eat, and perhaps some medicinal herbs, growing in the yard or ‘quintal’ - the area normally cared for by the woman of the household. Because of this practice of growing much of the food at home, they are far from risking starvation. This saved income can also be the equivalent to the income of the typically male managed commercial side. Work is hard and relatively low paid. Many children are leaving this lifestyle for university and jobs elsewhere. Yet, there are still many who much prefer this lifestyle to the city. And if you take a look at some of the images, you might understand at least one of the reasons: Minas is one of the most beautiful regions in the world, and there are few tourists around.
The first day, a long car journey during which we were thrown around on the hilly, bendy roads to the point of feeling sick by Pericles, was just to land and meet people in Viçosa, a university town 3 hours south east of Belo Horizonte. I had been excited and little nervous to spend two days with these men I knew very little about. They were clearly good friends. Pericles is impulsive and a little melodramatic, Jose Mario is thoughtful, patient and asked me questions. I sensed he appreciates what it is to learn through reflection. It wasn’t long before we realised it was really going to be a three day trip - the buses to Belo Horizonte and the plan didn't quite match. But I didn't mind too much, it was more of a chance to visit farmers and learn more about agriculture in Minas Gerais.
On the drive, amidst deep discussions of 70s and 80s music in Brazil, the US, and UK, I realised these guys worked in different but related organisations, and had different opinions, but found significant common ground in their attitudes to power, bureaucracy and respect for farmers. Jose Mario has been working for several years on sustainability indicators for farms: maps and information that can indicate key risks and opportunities for improved incomes, reduced costs, and environmental sustainability. And Pericles has been working a great deal on the app to make the package accessible in the field, and allow for easier data capture including geolocated photos, altitude measurements, and co-produced maps made from google aerial images. Our trip was a chance to apply the indicators again and use the app in the field.
Their vision has multiple aspects. They see the indicators and app as having immediate use as a research tool to discover regional patterns and local possibilities regarding income, productivity, crop types and quantities, waste management systems and practices. For technicians in the field the information can help provide specific and targeted help for major vulnerabilities on farms such as water management and pests, as well as opportunities such as coffee certification schemes or lower cost crop management. The hope is that one day farmers themselves will be able to operate the app, upload useful research data, and find out for themselves which management practices might be most beneficial with minimal or no help from external professionals. It reminded me of farmlogs.com, a U.S site and app that helps larger scale farms track and manage everything from quantities of heat and rainfall to equipment maintenance. Except that these indicators explicitly focus on sustainability as well as farm management. Another comparison might be that the farmlogs app almost renders agricultural decision making into data management, and these indicators form a starting point for a conversation between technicians and family farmers.
As we drove to Viçosa, the town close to the three farms we would visit, Jose Mario spoke about different land features around us. Inclined areas that were losing soil were the hardest to combat, according to him, as most plants struggled to cling on: once this happens, the soil keeps being washed away. A good solution for almost any agriculture, according to Jose Mario, is controlling how rainwater lands, runs down and accumulates as managing this can repair soil, avoid damage and feed crops. We could see lines of eucalyptus, a good option for inclined and degraded soil, but for the most part used as a commercial crop for charcoal. In some areas, cows grazed in the hot sunshine, in other places the coffee plants reached from valley to hilltop. Colourful, tile-roofed family farm houses and their associated coffee drying areas popped up at regular intervals, and finally, amidst all the rolling hills of Minas Gerais, there was the beautiful forest.
Our first visit the next morning, we were welcomed into the home of Bizete (a nickname) and his family. Jose Mario had visited once before nearly 7 years ago, so he explained that they were continuing research and testing an app version of the indicators. Bizete, like many a typical Minas farmer (so I’ve heard) took a little while to warm up, remaining quiet and curious before beginning to open up about all the information like financial turn-over, production quantities and crop areas, that is kept almost entirely in his head. After some home-made cheese and sweet bread with coffee, we made our way round the farm and saw the stunning scenery he lives in every day.
Bizete is a pretty mainstream farmer - he is curious and intelligent, sticks with coffee and corn, and uses a standard market insecticide and fungicide to ‘medicate’ the coffee for the variety of biological problems that can occur. From his perspective he was not motivated by environmental concerns, but the chance to increase yield per hectare and anticipate risks to the crops. After leaving Bizete, and during an always satisfying Minas self-service lunch in Araponga, Jose Mario explained that as someone both supporting farmers and with an environmental perspective, he had to be concerned with the way he framed information - the mention of environmental priorities could be off putting, yet economic concerns also lead to environmentally protective measures through the sheer pragmatism of ensuring interactions with surrounding soils, plants and water remain hospitable to crops and animals.
We continued on another orange dust road to visit our next appointment, João. This time Jose Mario had been twice before, and we were welcomed with some significant enthusiasm (and lots of coffee!). Although warmly received, it still took some time to get information for the indicators. But this time because he wanted to tell us so much. Having started years ago with a normal coffee farm and little money, he learnt about organic and agroecological farming through a local institution called the Centre for Alternative Technology, and began applying it with gusto. Today his farm has a great mix of coffee, corn, fruit trees like orange, avocado, khaki, açaí and papaya. The trees provide partial shade, allowing a more stable and resilient crop cycle and there was no sign of any biological threats. João works hard, but he doesn’t use chemical pesticide and his organic certification gets him a high price. Other parts of the farm in transition to agroecological have a Fairtrade certificate, offering a different premium on standard coffee. It was striking how keen he was to discuss so many aspects of his farm, and to gather any extra tips. He was generous in many respects. After a walk round to pick up pictures and altitude references, we were sent on our way with a bag of khaki - they look and feel like apples, but they taste like chocolate!
Environmentalism, for me as I live at the moment, typically centers around types of consumption. Do I avoid meat? Avoid flying? Buy from this store? Buy organic or certified? This sense of the environment, as I have inherited it from my studies and perhaps my English origins in various ways, is a global and philosophical issue. The environment is a global system. Environmentalism is an ethical stance. It’s not to say that I don’t have local relationships in walks to my local parks, in the strong memories of particular trees, or when I gaze into the changing sky from my window. But my associated ideas, experience and knowledge of the term are very different to these farmer’s notions. And their relationships to the plants, animals, earth weather and water around them are much stronger. Not so long ago, and somewhat to my embarrassment, I asked some residents of Bento Rodrigues, a town of 600 destroyed by mud from a mining disaster, ‘do you think your relationship to the environment, to nature, has changed?’. My Portuguese was perfect, as I was informed afterwards, but their response was a blank. I wanted to hear some evaluative answer, such as ‘yes, I now intrinsically value nature more than before’ (!). They had strong relationships to that place by the river, to their yards of fruits and vegetable, to the forests nearby, and obviously all of this had changed. But none of this is ‘nature’ or ‘the environment’. None of these particular, local, special relationships forms part of a relationship with some other abstract concept in the sense that I was using them.
On this trip to see coffee farms, it was interesting to hear how farmers might embrace something I considered environmentally focussed for a host of different reasons (as well as evidence to me that better solutions can often appear in the face of greater constraints). What’s more, without naming themselves as environmentalists, these farmers were naturally working to cultivate a variety of flowers, vegetables, fruits, trees and plants, to ensure that poisons were kept away, and to ensure a good water supply was intact. At this scale, a farmer can know every part of his land, so many of the changes and patterns, and use this to work with nature. Something Jose Mario and Pericles were keen to enhance, and something I have virtually no experience with.
Our visits were over, and after another lovely lunch, we were back on the road for another 3.5 winding hours of journey back to Belo Horizonte. It had been intense, both seeing and learning so much, and trying to concentrate on some rapid Portuguese! Jose was keen for me to review the paper they were producing about the indicators which he would send later, and Pericles was happy to get me back to my flat. I was glad to get back and rest. As soon as I did I began wondering about what else would be learnt on a longer trip. When and how is it that farmers choose their approach? What are the roles of the wives and families in practice and approach? How do the farmer cooperatives in minas form and what are their relationships to farming approaches? What are the representations of family farms for people in the city?
The next day, as I sat in an uber, I spoke to the driver about the value of family farming to people in the city. He said that his grandmother had a ‘sitio’ or smallholding. He had good memories as a child and still visited. He thought people didn’t value this culture enough - that is was being lost. Having spoken about this issue with many people from Belo, this is one of the differences I notice here as in comparison to the UK; so many families in the city have land, or have family with land, or at the least have memories of living or seeing relatives when children. A generation ago, most people still lived on non mechanised farms. Agriculture and living with land, despite the high rises, noise, light and busyness of Belo Horizonte, is still close by. Not just in the geographical sense, but in people’s hearts. The family farms of Minas appear incredibly valuable to me, both as a connection to the past, for the families that live them, as a resource for today, and even perhaps as critical to a diverse and resilient future. It is fragile, and it is changing. I wonder if I can do something?
Next steps? Hopefully I will get another invitation to visit some farms, and I have even been told I could stay two days, working alongside a family to really learn about their lifestyle. I would like to begin to dig deeper into how they see themselves, their history and their relationship to land and environment. And after that perhaps to see how public institutions and policies interact with this. One step at a time. For now, it was a great pleasure to gain a small insight into a world I know so little about.