Sembrado con Amor / Grown with Love

A Story of Regeneration: Moving towards regenerative agriculture on the southern pacific coast of Mexico

At Playa Viva, every aspect of our operation attempts to go beyond low-impact and actually make the place—the land and our community—better than it was. In other words, we practice regeneration.

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The farm.

Regeneration applies to everything that we do. What we do in food production is no different; we practice what’s called regenerative agriculture.

You might ask: what makes agriculture “regenerative”?

Regenerative agriculture is not just organic, and doesn’t just “do no harm”, but it actually improves the land. It represents a wide array of techniques that actively work to rebuild and regenerate soils, enhance biodiversity, increase resilience to climate change, and strengthen the health and vitality of farming and ranching communities.

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As the lead for Playa Viva’s social and environmental impact, I wanted to know… so are we actually doing that?

On an environmental level, I knew from working with our Farm Manager and Permaculture Specialist that the type of agriculture we are practicing is regenerative … but what about the social component? Are we raising awareness about sustainability? Are we changing perspectives? And if we’re raising awareness, is that awareness spreading to change agricultural practices in the region?

To begin to answer these questions, I decided to start by sitting down with the two people who grow our food: José Garza and Abel Vejar, both from the neighboring town of Rancho Nuevo. I wanted to know how they got into farming, how much they knew about organic farming and sustainable agriculture prior to joining the team, and how working for Playa Viva as a whole has (or hasn’t) impacted them.

But before I tell you what I discovered, I need to give a little context:

Today, most farmers in this region of Mexico hold a strong dependency on fertilizers and herbicides. During the mid-twentieth century, due to numerous policies and reforms, Mexico’s agrarian landscape was in a precarious state. Many rural areas of the state (as well as across the country) were suffering from poverty, land disputes, and hunger. In response to this, the Mexican government, in partnership with the United States, launched the Mexican Agricultural Program in 1943, which aimed to combat rural poverty through the use of modern agricultural technology and expansion. Through financial and technical support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the program created fertilizer subsidies, promoted the use of herbicides and pesticides, and distributed new hybrid varieties of maize and wheat, and trained farmers how to use them.

Coupled with a booming tourism industry, the coastline of Guerrero—once a verdant coastal forest replete with mangroves—was dramatically transformed through slash-and-burn agriculture into monoculture mango, tamarind, and coconut groves, and deforested for cattle ranching.

This created a significant decrease in biodiversity along with a reliance on fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to grow food for short-term gain in disregard of long-term social and environmental impacts. These developments have had severe impacts not only on the environment but also on the local economy. Lack of crop rotation, unbalanced crop nutrition and intensive use of pesticides and herbicides have all led to soil degradation, declining yields, declining water quality, and have greatly altered the rural landscape.

The current situation is a major concern for local farmers and policy makers, who are looking for ways to improve standards of living while strengthening the natural resources that abound.

In response, Playa Viva, along with its partner business Gente Viva, is working to provide solutions through the promotion of regenerative agriculture. The mission of Gente Viva is to create a resilient food system that provides sustainable economic opportunities to farmers by connecting them with international, domestic and local distribution for their healthy, organic produce.

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So let’s begin… What did I learn from my conversations with our food production team?

Abel Vejar, 31, and José Garza (better known as “Güero”), 31, are both from the same neighboring town of Rancho Nuevo. (Actually, they’re cousins born on the same day, same year, one hour apart!) They each come from slightly different farming backgrounds: Abel hadn’t had much experience working on farms—only some experience with fruit trees—while Güero had worked the land nearly his whole life, but never farmed organically. I wanted to know more about these two: how they made their way to Playa Viva, how and why they became farmers, and what impact working in organic food production has had on their lives.

Q: When and how did you make the decision to be a farmer?

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Abel: Well, I first started working in construction here at Playa Viva. I worked for about three months and remember seeing the lettuce in the greenhouse—they really caught my eye … They’re what really caught my attention and the reason why I wanted to come here to work and learn. I really like the job as I’m learning so many things here, which is most important to me: learning. Also, in respect to the lettuce, I had never seen them before nor knew them until now. I had never grown them—other fruits, yeah, like mango, banana, coconuts, all those kinds of fruit that we have here. But I had never seen these lettuces and they stood out to me because they are really beautiful and really tasty. And yeah, I really like working in food production, because nature really calls me.

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Güero: I personally was very young when I started working the land. I was eleven years old when I started to work on my own in farming to grow corn seasonally. I was growing corn, pumpkin, cane, beans—the essentials. And from there I began to familiarize myself with the land—I was learning to harvest, learning to work with a machete, learning to plow. But yeah, I was little when I began to work the land—well, work it alone. I started working the land with my family when I was really little, maybe 7, 8 years old—the easier stuff—but I started doing farm work then. Here in Playa Viva, I started just a little while ago. About three years ago I started working here, first at the hotel as a chauffeur, then I worked in permaculture for about another six months, and then I started here in food production. I’ve been working in food production for about two seasons. It feels like I’m still just learning—lots of things that I still don’t know—but that I’m going to be learning a lot.

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Abel with his lettuce
Q: Have you always farmed organically? Did you know much about organic farming before working for Playa Viva?

Abel: No—the fruit trees I worked with, we worked with chemicals. Because to clean them, you needed liquids; to get the tree to produce fruit, you used chemicals; you also used liquids to fumigate the fruit to get rid of insects, so yeah I came in not knowing much [about organic farming]. It’s here where I’m learning a lot. Here everything that we work, everything that we bring [to the kitchen], everything is organic, all the plants that we grow are worked purely by hand and not with chemicals.

Güero: Before, we used to use chemicals all the time. We used pesticides for weeds—not the worst ones—but in any case we still used them. And here at Playa Viva, from the start I began going to courses and started learning things, primarily that they aren’t good for your health. But while you don’t see it, you don’t believe it. Then later on you start to see that yeah it’s good to eat food grown without chemicals … I actually didn’t know anything about organic agriculture [before working at Playa Viva]. In the past, when we planted tomatoes, we tried to put as little chemicals as possible, but we always used them, when there was a pest or anything. But organic-organic, I never farmed organically myself. Not until two seasons ago, so now about a full year working on my own. Before I was working with Sapo (former head of food production), so we spent a season together, planting, and that’s where I started learning and they started bringing me to courses. So yeah, I’ve learned a lot.

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Visit to the local organic basil farm for a workshop on making organic insecticides and fungicides 
Q: Has your perspective changed about organic food or sustainable agriculture after having worked for Playa Viva. If yes, how? If no, why not?

Abel: Yes, because after trying different types of fruits and lettuces, I think it’s healthier because now I can invite my family to try this type of organic food. Our food that we grow is healthier than what’s available where I live—because all of the fruit that we have in Rancho Nuevo, all of it is grown with chemicals. Similarly, things like tomato and chile are also grown with chemicals. I would like it if we were all farming organically, because like that, you would see less disease and illness. It’s cleaner eating. […] I’ve brought some lettuce home for my family to try, and this type of lettuce specifically [points to lechuga tropical next to him], and my wife particularly loved it. She said it was delicious. My family had never tried it before, but they all really liked it.

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Guero and one of his WWOOF volunteers

Güero: Yes, a lot. About food more than anything else. But yeah, if I myself grow something, it will be organic; for me, for us, because, well, it’s better … Like I told you before, I knew that it wasn’t good, but I didn’t know how bad [pesticides] were. I thought what they said about [pesticides] was just tontería [nonsense]. I didn’t understand really until I started going to courses … From that point on, I started talking with people who were already inside the organic movement and they helped me understand that what I was doing before wasn’t good. And now, my mind’s changed, now I think differently, and I think it’s good to change and to make others change as well, but it’s difficult. You can see here that [organic farming] is difficult, but you are eating something healthy, something clean, something that you know won’t harm you. But not there [in the town]; it’s different.

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Preparing the harvest for the weekly farmer’s market
Q: Are the people in your town interested in organic farming? Do you see more people shifting to or practicing more organic farming in the future?

Abel: Well, I say yes because for example in my town, a lot people are already starting to grow organic sesame. In Rancho Nuevo a lot of people grow sesame, almost the majority of people who live there do, but they grow it with chemicals. I think that now there are the opportunities to grow organically, and from there they have the means to produce organically (through Gente Viva’s program). And I think it’s good because it’s a support—teaching them how to grow organically—and that support can give us more work in the organic sector. So, I think some people are going to be growing organic sesame with Nick (Gente Viva), and they like that. It would be a good change.

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Guero selling his organic produce at the Eco Tianguis Sanka in Zihuatanejo

Güero: I think so, because in Rancho Nuevo there are already two or three people who are joining the organic farming group with Nick (Gente Viva) … The only problem here is that a lot of people don’t grow organically because they don’t have the means—in the sense that you have to invest a lot in this type of farming, more than anything the supplies, those are more expensive, and it’s more difficult. Now it is at least — later that could change, but that’ll take time … I think it’s going to happen little by little. Little by little you have to tell and teach people about it because if you don’t tell others what you see and know, no one is going to be encouraged to do so. They’ll say it’s cheaper to go to the market and buy what they’re going to eat rather than cultivating it themselves. But if you eat a tomato here, for example, you know that little tomato is clean, you know that there’s no chemicals. You can eat it right from the garden … there’s no chemicals or anything like that.

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The sprout house amongst the cacao
Q: Would you say that Playa Viva has been a transformational experience for you?

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Abel: Yes. It’s a change. It’s a change in my awareness, my knowledge, to know more about what I’m learning here in food production. And I’ll also say it’s a change to improve economically for my family, because where I live there’s no work. I mean, wherever really in the countryside, you suffer when you live in the country where there are no job opportunities, but here [at Playa Viva] there are.

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Güero: Yes … If I hadn’t been working for Playa Viva, I still wouldn’t know about organic farming … And for example, this opportunity I was given here in food production—I had never really worked in area where I was at the front of it, in charge. It’s a big responsibility but at the same time it’s an experience that you get accustomed to; you get used to carrying out your work that you yourself are responsible for. You’re responsible for carrying out everything and seeing it through … I really like experimenting with what I’m growing, that’s what I like the most. If it doesn’t work out one way, I’ll try another and see if it works out.

——

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After speaking with Güero and Abel it was clear to me that working here at Playa Viva has impacted them. For Güero’s case, you see the transformation of someone who has been farming his whole life with chemicals, who now would never use pesticides again and sees the importance of eating organically. For Abel, you see someone without any farming experience, who was so taken by the leafy greens in the greenhouse that he wanted to learn more; now after given the opportunity, he sees and understands why growing and eating organically is so important.

What’s exciting is that this is just the beginning of everything: a change, a shift, a step in the right direction. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface — both in our work with Gente Viva, food production at Playa Viva, as well as understanding what kind of impact this work is having and will have in the future.

I’m left feeling overly inspired. On at least one level, we’ve provided at least two people with a livelihood as organic farmers who now are aware of the harmful effects of pesticides and herbicides. They can feed their families with healthy, organic produce, and share what they learn here with their community.

Lastly, I was taken aback at how proud they are and that what they do is a labor of love.

“It’s all grown with love. This is what I believe: if you grow something with love, it’s going to give you better results. It serves a plant well; watering it, including talking with it. For example, whenever I’m watering this lettuce, I’m always caressing it, giving it a loving look. I talk with them, I even sing to them.” — Abel

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Guero, Abel, and their three volunteers Beth, Alice, and Christabel

 

 

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“Push” to Open

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One week till Playa Viva officially opens for Season 6. Lots of improvements coming online including a new well, LED amber lighted paths to rooms, repairs to the bridge and upgrades to internet. Yes, Telmex finally installed telephone and Internet service to Juluchuca but we are still 1.7km, as the crow flies, away from the nearest Telmex connection. So we are building two communication towers, one in Juluchuca and one in Playa Viva. Then we add some point-to-point communications and hopefully we are good to go. We still recommend you make Playa Viva a blackhole vacation and store all electronics till you leave.

Every Season means a little more. A few improvements based on customer requests and a few improvements based and natures request (repairs due to rain, wind, salt air, etc.). The final result is a better Playa Viva for everyone. This year you will see an improvement to the gardens and chicken coop.

We are also working on a new edition of the Field Guide which will be out by the end of the year. A nice surprise is the Playa Viva Cookbook which is almost done as well. This is our first edition so we will definitely want your comments on how to improve it for the next edition.

What else should you expect
For Season 6? Well, we have more retreats, some great new hosts (as well as some of your favorites returning) and a few small changes here and there that you may it even notice. One other big change is that prices are going up starting October 9th so book your reservations for Season 6 now.

Home Made Soap at Playa Viva. Perfecting the Process.

ImageDuring a recent visit to Playa Viva,  we made our second batch of soap with Lorraine, currently on tour of duty as the Yoga/Massage/Host at Playa Viva.  She just sent us this note related to continuing with our soap making efforts.

“I was able to make soap on Sunday with Gabriel.  The minimum amount being 10 liters.  After re-reading the information sheet on bio-diesel it states that for every 1 liter of soap 50 milligrams are required of essential oils.  I experimented with one liter adding chocolate and peppermint.  The remainder I left un-scented. This being the 3rd batch ready for use 2/21/13.

What I did do was re-melt the remaining pieces left over after cutting the 2nd batch and scenting two samples and adding oatmeal to one. I left the rest un-scented which smells nice and not overly fragrant.  This will be ready for use 2/27/13.

ImageI cut round pieces and asked the housekeeping team to place them in the rooms instead of the regular soap. We now make a point to inform the guest about Playa Viva soap in the rooms. Since then we have had a total 4 sales at $5.00 for a three pack.  The guest love it!

The only thing I would make other than bar soap would be the liquid soap that is used for general cleaning because the glycerin would be good for all wooded surfaces.

My recommendation:  in order for your soap product to come out, once the proportions are established would be to:

  • pay Gabriel [who currently runs the bio-diesel production] to make it
  • let it set for 3 weeks, then have the housekeeping staff reheat it, (I taught them how to do this)
  • at this time you can add fragrance (which can be costly) let it set another 3 weeks before using.
  • This process allows the Sosa [lye] to evaporate leaving a nicer product.

Lorraine”

Fire and Water – a Korean Proverb – Leading Our Strategy for Community Service

We participate in a conference every year called Opportunity Collaboration which addresses the issues of global poverty alleviation.  One of the best parts of the conference is the daily colloquium which provides a “homeroom” meeting space for the same group of about 20 participates to come together each day of the conference and address, discuss and dive deep into the topic of poverty via the lens of daily readings.  Last year, one of the readings, a Korean Proverb, really touched me deeply and has provided a framework for Playa Viva’s strategy on Community Development.

The proverb, below, allowed me to see that the work of many non-profits  and even government agencies as “fire” – building bonfires that burn bright and hard but only last a short time vs. “water” – taking a longer-term view that we are part of the community and thus finding our natural course of action which can create lasting and permanent transformation.  It is in this context that I am most excited about the “fire” and passion that is initiated by our guests and the need for us to help turn these projects and ideas into “water” – consistent programs that create a lasting positive impression.

We invite you to read the Korean Proverb on Fire and Water and provide your comments on how this effects your good works. We invite you to participate in our commitment to create real positive change in the community we serve. We invite you to bring your fire and passion projects and work with us in channeling water and permanent good.

Fire and Water
In the fourth century B.C., hidden within the state of Lu, lay the district over which Duke Chuang governed. The district, though small, had prospered exceedingly well under Chuang’s predecessor. But since Chuang’s appointment to the post, its affairs had deteriorated markedly. Taken aback by the sad turn of events, Chuang set out to the Han mountain to seek the wisdom of the great master Mu-sun.

When the duke arrived at the mountain, he found the great master sitting peacefully on a small rock looking out at the adjoining valley. After the duke had explained his situation to Mu-sun, he waited with bated breath for the great master to speak. Contrary to Chuang’s expectation, however, the master whispered not a word. Rather, he smiled softly and gestured to the duke to follow him.

Silently they walked until before them lay the Tan Fu River, whose end could not be seen, it was so long and broad. After meditating on the river, Mu-sun set out to build a fire. When at last it was lit and the flames were aglow, the master had Chuang sit by his side. There they sat for hours on end as the fire burned brilliantly into the night.

With the coming of dawn, when the flames no longer danced, Mu-sun pointed to the river. Then, for the first time since the duke’s arrival, the great master spoke, “Now do you understand why you are unable to do as your predecessor did – to sustain the greatness of your district?”

Chuang looked perplexed; he understood now no better than before. Slowly shame enveloped the duke. “Great master,” he said, “forgive my ignorance, for the wisdom you impart I cannot comprehend.” Mu-sun then spoke for the second time. Reflect, Chuang, “on the nature of the fire as it burned before us last night. It was strong and powerful. Its flames leapt upward as they danced and cried in vainglorious pride. No strong trees nor wild beasts could have matched its mighty force. With ease it could have conquered all that lay in its path.”

“In contrast, Chuang, consider the river. It starts as but a small stream in the distant mountains. Sometimes it flows slowly, sometimes quickly, but always it sails downward, taking the low ground as its course. It willingly permeates every crack in the earth and willingly embraces every crevice in the land, so humble is its nature. When we listen to the water, it can scarcely be heard. When we touch it, it can scarcely be felt, so gentle is its nature.”

“Yet in the end, what is left of the once mighty fire? Only a handful of ashes. For the fire is so strong, Chuang, that it not only destroys all that lies in its path but eventually falls prey to its own strength and is consumed. It is not so with the calm and quiet river. For as it was, so it is, so it will always be: forever flowing, growing deeper, broader, ever more powerful as it journeys down to the unfathomable ocean, providing life and
sustenance to all.”

[…] “Reflect, Chuang,” continued the master, “on what type of ruler you are. Perhaps the answer that you seek will lie there.” Like a flash of lightning, the truth seized the duke’s heart. No longer proud but embarrassed and uncertain, he looked up with his enlightened eye. Chuang was now blind to all but the sun rising over the river.

Viva la Vida

Once we arrived I could not believe my eyes and I realized that the pictures online just can’t do justice.

I arrived at Los Angeles at around 12:00 noon yesterday. My friend Matt picked me up from the airport and we went out to lunch at Birds where we met up with Dave. We then ventured to Santa Monica beach where there was a serious ultimate Frisbee game going on that took up the entire beach. I realized how much I missed California. The sunsets, the smells, just the whole feel of it all. At 4:30pm I arrived in Zihuatanejo, Mexico after a bumpy 3 ½ hour flight from Los Angeles. My arrival at Playa Viva did not fall short of anything of what I had expected. Actually, it was more than what I’d expected. Johnny, one of the staff, welcomed me at the baggage claim and we drove 40 minutes through the little towns of San Jeronimito, Petatlan and Juluchuca until we reached a dirt road that would take us to Playa Viva.

The signs were perfectly marked as we and headed towards the Pacific with fauna and gardens on either side of the narrow dirt road. We crossed a riverbed along the way, the dry season enabling us to successfully maneuver our way over the shallow current.

Once we arrived I could not believe my eyes and I realized that the pictures online just can’t do justice. Julia (the manager) sat down with me at the side of the pool and she gave me a layout of the resort, the local area, and explained to me her responsibilities as a manager. The sun was setting. I couldn’t help but notice the healthy glow that shimmered on her face as the sun beamed a radiant orange. The pool, the playa, the ocean, everything seemed to glisten perfectly with the sunset. The Pacific to the palm trees draping over the hammocks to the soft sands and the cactus. This is an oasis.

Dinner was served. A plethora of wild shrimp in its shell, rice, beans, fresh salad with lettuce picked straight from the garden, steamed vegetables, queso, broccoli soup…. All home-made… accompanied by a rice/oatmeal drink, made from scratch, called horchata.

I now lay in my cabana perched high up above in a bamboo structured bungalow and I can’t escape the sounds of the crashing of the waves. They sound as if they’re 20 feet away from me, but in fact they are about 100. I feel warm, moistened, calm, and clear minded. I am ready to explore, learn, and grow as I take on this new phase of my life here at Playa Viva.

Sal Viva Now Available for Purchase Online

Plastic salt production on left vs. Sal Viva organic salt production on right. Help preserve the heritage of healthy artisanal salt, buy Sal Viva.

Sal Viva, “the Salt of Life”, harvested in Juluchuca, right down the road from Playa Viva, is now available online for purchase through our partners at CharitiesUSA.com/GreaterGood.

Purchase an 8 oz package which is now available online for $9.95 and in the process preserve land, save animals and do good.

This is the best salt you can buy. High in minerals, low in sodium, high in iodine and the salt crystals melt seamlessly into your mouth or whatever concoction you are creating, enhancing the flavor of your food and beverages.

Beyond the health benefits and great flavor, purchasing Sal Viva contributes to social and economic justice as well as protects the environment. 120 families are members of the salt coop, supposedly 80 are currently working the salt flats and less than half are working it “organically”, that is, using the traditional means of hand crafting sand, clay and calcium into drying ponds. Unfortunately, due to the lack of a “fair market price”, many coop members are using cheaper plastic lined ponds that leach contaminates into the salt and eventually will pollute the lagoon.

By purchasing Sal Viva, you are promoting a cultural heritage that is centuries old and your purchase directly promotes environmental conservation by eliminating the use of contaminating plastics. Thank you for your support.

Restaurants, Home Chef’s and Specialty Stores interested in carrying Sal Viva should contact us via the Playa Viva website.

Day 1 Destination: Playa Viva

We arrive into Zih on an uneventful flight from SFO.  (Thank you very much).  It’s been almost 3 years since I first laid eyes on the rough terrain of Playa Viva.  Then, Playa Viva was merely a ‘regenerative vision’— where David had me tromping through every nook and cranny of this rugged land.  (“Pahleeese, David— can we just sit down and have a cervesa?  Where’s that chocolate, anyway!?”).  Playa Viva was raw and graceful all at once.  And while I loved hearing the vision, I’ll admit that while swatting mosquitoes and dripping from the July heat, I was a bit dubious.  David’s eyes assured me that it would become ‘home’ to those who truly love all that this part of the world has to offer.

Fast forward a few years and here I am.  With my two teenage sons, and two surf pals, in tow.  The vision manifests itself before us.  Definitely exceeding any and all expectations. There is an attention to detail in the lifestyle here at Playa Viva that is both difficult to ignore and yet, seamless.  As if they want you to know how cherished your presence is, but— no worries, we do this for you because you are important to us, not because we are looking for the next tip. From the warm smiles and cool lavender towelettes that greet us, to the natural elegant structures that are designed to enhance the surroundings, to the healthful cuisine– the details do not escape us. They are so befitting the environment.  Well thought out, and effortless to those of us lucky enough to be here.  And, the location.  *sigh* … I guess someone’s got to be here, right?

My being here at Playa Viva is personal.  And, with all that Playa Viva has to offer as an eco-resort, it’s the personal side that resonates most.  It feels as though it has been designed just for my sons and I.  Just exactly what our hearts needed.  While we are not alone here— the company we share only emphasizes the personal experience.  We easily exchange email and fb addresses because we know that what we are sharing among others is extraordinary.  And, we want to keep reminding one another of this, in the days to come.  It’s personal.