Biodynamic farming pioneers revolutionize banana production in the Dominican Republic
Three-quarters of all bananas exported from the Dominican Republic are now certified organic. Six years ago, none were.

By Jeff Boshart
Posted April 6, 2004

Pioneer. That's the word that comes to mind when speaking with Christoph Meier of Finca Girasol, Inc. It would be difficult to find anyone else who has had such a tremendous impact on the growth of organic agriculture in the Dominican Republic, although it would be equally difficult to get Christoph to take credit for the amazing successes. The numbers are astounding: in 1998, when Christoph arrived in the Dominican Republic to do consulting work for Mercantile Food Company, there were no organic bananas grown for export here. Today, 75 percent of all banana exports leaving this Caribbean nation are organic.

Finca Girasol looks no different from any other farm along this sun-beaten stretch of asphalt. Other than a small sign with the farm’s name, the only identifiers are the plastic bags protecting the maturing banana bunches from insect damage.

To reach the original 61 ha (151 ac) property of Finca Girasol (or 'Sunflower Farm'), you drive an hour and a half southwest from the capital city of Santo Domingo. After the provincial city of Azua, the terrain changes from desert scrub to irrigated tomato, melon, plantain and banana fields fringed with coconut trees. Eight kilometers west of Azua, Finca Girasol looks no different from any other farm along this sun-beaten stretch of asphalt. Other than a small sign with the farm’s name, the only identifiers are the plastic bags protecting the maturing banana bunches from insect damage.

The land on which the farm sits is part of a coastal plain between the Cordillera Central mountain range and the Caribbean coast. Before the construction of an irrigation project in 1983, farming in this region consisted of extensive goat and cattle ranching, as well as the production of some tobacco and green onions. Rainfall is limited to an average of 600 mm (24 in) per year, with half coming during hurricane season. Soils are limestone-based and range in texture from gravely sand to a heavier sandy loam with a pH of 7.5 and organic matter of around 3.5 percent.

Bananas of the Cavendish variety are interplanted with canavalia beans, which are used as a cover/green manure crop for young banana plants. Planting density is 2,000 plants (or ratoons) per hectare, on 2.0 m x 2.60 m spacings. Whenever possible, banana fields are maintained as permanent plantings. Permanent cover protects the soils from the harsh tropical sun, and soil fertility has been on the increase under this system.

Digging in

In 1994, Christoph and his wife, Annelien, moved to the Dominican Republic from Harlemville in upstate New York and purchased this farm in the Azua valley. They began by planting bananas, and initiated their export enterprise by purchasing bananas from local farmers who were too poor to purchase chemical inputs and were therefore farming organically by default. In the first several years of their business, the Meiers purchased up to 90 percent of their product from local farmers who had planted primarily for home use.

In August of 1995, the farm produced its first 49 boxes of bananas, with each box weighing 18.2 kg (40.1 lbs). More recently, three more farms have been purchased, bringing the total amount of land under production (including pastures) to 115 ha (284 ac). Yields have risen to their current level of 800 to 1500 boxes per week, with the farm shipping 27 metric tons of organic and biodynamic bananas to Europe each week through the export company Horizontes Orgánicos. These bananas are certified organic by IMO (Institute for Market-ecology) of Switzerland and biodynamic by Demeter International. A smaller quantity of bananas, as well as mangos, are sold under the Fair Trade labels “Taino” and “Max Havelaar.”

Animal raising has been and continues to be an integral component of the farm, including 20-30 dairy cows (a cross of dairy breeds and hardy Zebu cattle), draft oxen, bees and horses, along with employees’ pigs, chickens and ducks. The milk from the dairy herd is sold locally and provides a good living for the herd manager. Calves up to age one roam the banana orchards to help with weed control. Manure from the herd provides 40 percent of the farm's fertility needs, with the balance coming from manure purchased from small farmers in the community.

Calves up to age one roam the banana orchards to help with weed control. Manure from the herd provides 40 percent of the farm's fertility needs . . .

The dairy herd is fed green bananas, leaves from a highly nutritious leguminous tree of the genus Leucaena, and sugar cane. The large pastures are not irrigated, so productivity of the native grasses and shrubs is dependent on rainfall. Animal health is excellent, and little doctoring is necessary due to good nutrition and the dry climate, with ticks being the only significant problem.

Water management is crucial in the region’s arid climate. Water carrying nutrients and soil particles from mountain streams is channeled through an extensive canal system in the southwest part of the country. In the past, crops were watered by flood irrigation, but the farm is now converting to a sprinkler system placed under the leaf canopy.

Crop losses to pests and diseases are judged to be acceptable relative to the potential expense of any additional control program. Black Sigatoka is a major banana disease problem in some parts in the world, but has not yet been detected here. Yellow Sigatoka is found periodically but is controlled through early detection and the destruction of infected leaves. Sigatoka spores are spread by rain splatter, so the dry climate helps limit the impact of these fungal diseases.

Building a business

Throughout their relatively short history in the Dominican Republic, the Meiers have sought to balance the bottom line with fair labor practices. Christoph serves as president of Horizontes Orgánicos, and Annelien sits on the board of directors. A portion of the company's profits is dedicated to improving children’s educational opportunities in the area. Dominican employees hold 40 percent of the company's stock and may review the financial records at any time. Associated growers receive an organic premium for their crops (approximately 20 percent higher than conventional prices), as well as support from Horizontes Orgánicos agronomists and even the occasional short-term loan.

Dominican employees hold 40 percent of [Horizontes Orgánicos] stock and may review the financial records at any time. Associated growers receive an organic premium for their crops (approximately 20 percent higher than conventional prices), as well as support from Horizontes Orgánicos agronomists and even the occasional short-term loan.

Thanks to the El Niño drought in 1997 and Hurricane Georges in 1998, Horizontes Orgánicos has suffered its share of crop failures. To reduce exposure, they have worked to diversify their offerings, experimenting with crops ranging from passion fruit to acerola (or tropical cherry) and from coffee to cacao. Current products such as coconuts and mangoes (fresh, or dried with solar technology) are available for purchase on the Web at www.horizontesorganicos.com.

How has this farming enterprise developed into the successful operation one sees today? “Experience,” answers Christoph, and “a little luck.” He and Annelien were in the right place at the right time, but they also worked hard and put in many years as farmers in Europe and in the United States before launching their current venture.

They were fortunate to be at the conjunction of two factors necessary for success in any business venture: good marketing and high market demand. Friends were a great help in the marketing area, and of course the educated consumer—primarily in Europe—helped by asking for organic and biodynamic tropical food crops. It might be tempting to believe Horizontes Orgánicos is just riding a wave, but a closer look is needed to understand the dynamics at work.

In some ways, the Meiers helped create the wave they are now riding. They met in 1960 at the Warmonderhof agriculture school in Holland, where they studied biodynamic agriculture. For the next fifteen years they managed biodynamic farms in Switzerland. In 1975, with four children, they emigrated to the United States and developed Hawthorne Valley Farm, which grew to include field crops, pigs, a dairy herd, chickens and horses, as well as vegetables and a cheese plant and bakery. They were involved in farmers’ markets in New York City and elsewhere, ran a farm store and worked with a mail order business. The farm also included an apprenticeship program and offered educational opportunities to local school children.

Until their time in the Dominican Republic, much of the Meiers' experience was in the non-profit sector. Horizontes Orgánicos is a completely for-profit enterprise, but Christoph and Annelien continue to be involved with supporting fair-trade and educational organizations.

Christoph originally came to the Dominican Republic to help search out, inspect and certify organic producers, so in addition to his own direct experience he has observed many farms over the years. For an organic farming endeavor to be successful, he says, three elements are key. First, one needs a good observational skills and a solid grounding in basic agricultural knowledge (an understanding of soils, soil-plant interactions, animal health, etc.). Although Christoph acquired these skills in Europe and the United States, the basic principles are entirely applicable in the tropics.

Second, know your specific climatic and geographic patterns, and third, understand local land use patterns and regulations. Do research before setting up shop. Christoph visited the Dominican Republic for several years before purchasing land. The Dominican Republic has a stable government with relatively good land policies, but in some Latin American countries it is not uncommon for someone to turn up at your door claiming that the land you purchased actually belongs to them or to someone else. In other areas, heavy reliance on chemical inputs by large agricultural land owners can make organic production more challenging.

When the Meiers established Finca Girasol, there were people who told them it wouldn’t work, but they were confident that they had done their research, had good partners and trusted in their past experiences.

Local partnerships are crucial, but can also be the most delicate part of starting a new business. This is where the experience comes in. Says Christoph, “over many years, a certain gut feeling about people develops, often from bad experiences in the past.” Being able to speak Spanish fluently (from a childhood spent in Argentina) has been invaluable. Christoph advises that anyone young or new to an area should partner with a more experienced farmer.

Finally, one needs to be willing to take some risks. When the Meiers established Finca Girasol, there were people who told them it wouldn’t work, but they were confident that they had done their research, had good partners, and trusted in their past experiences.

The switch from building the wave to riding it leads Christoph to wax philosophical about the future of organic and biodynamic agriculture. At present, he is no longer directly involved in education, training, or certification work—activities he found very rewarding. Instead, Christoph spends his days in the office handling phone calls, checking on customers in Europe, and meeting with his management team.

Striving for a better world

In some ways, the biggest challenge for this well-traveled couple is working within the current economic system. They strive to be just in their labor practices, treating others as they themselves would wish to be treated. They share control of the company with people who would otherwise lack opportunities to learn and grow professionally. Horizontes Orgánicos is no longer the only company exporting organic bananas out of the Dominican Republic; there are now a total of five, some with direct historical ties to Horizontes Orgánicos. The Meiers regard knowledge not as something to hoard, but something to be shared as widely as possible.

Horizontes Orgánicos is no longer the only company exporting organic bananas out of the Dominican Republic; there are now a total of five, some with direct historical ties to Horizontes Orgánicos. The Meiers regard knowledge not as something to hoard, but something to be shared as widely as possible.

Still, despite his personal good fortune, Christoph is not entirely content with the way things are. Horizontes Orgánicos works with fewer small farmers’ associations than it used to. The entry into the market of larger organic growers (including Dole and Chiquita) is pushing out small growers by raising quality control and fruit appearance standards. Local cooperatives occasionally suffer from petty corruption and individual greed. Some farmers refuse to follow the guidelines necessary for organic certification and lose their certification. Others lie about the age of the bananas they are selling, which can ruin an entire shipment of bananas on its way to Europe or Japan, because one bunch of bananas ripening in a shipping container will release ethylene gas and cause premature ripening of the entire shipment. Strict production records must be kept and this is beyond the abilities of some of the smallest land owners.

Organic agriculture as a whole still has a long way to go in the Dominican Republic. The major markets for tropical organic products are thousands of miles away. Events happening in other countries have a greater impact on local production practices than domestic events. Although the Dominican Republic receives tariff protection in Europe through a long-standing arrangement, this is about to change. The World Trade Organization, prompted by Chiquita and the US government, says this is unfair. Soon, small producers like Horizontes Orgánicos will have to compete with large American-owned firms operating from other Central American countries.

So where’s the hope? On a practical level, Christoph believes the market for biodynamic bananas has yet to be saturated in Europe. The Meiers' eldest son Kaspar has joined the family business full-time and will bring new energy to meet the coming challenges. On a larger level, Christoph takes hope from the rising anti-globalist movement worldwide. Governments, he says, must begin to understand the essential role of small farms in our societies and develop policies and protections toward that end.

When asked how he originally got involved with biodynamic farming more than 40 years ago, Christoph says, “Sometimes children go the opposite direction from their parents.” His father was an executive in a chemical company and would not have known a thing about how to fix a tractor or raise an animal. But on the other hand his mother used to love walking the farm lanes while pregnant with him, so he considers himself, as he puts it, a “born farmer.”

As lifelong, international pioneers in organic and biodynamic agriculture—as a couple who helped create the wave of demand they are now riding—one can only hope that Christoph and Annelien will stick around long enough to help direct that wave's future path. They now speak of life after 60, of longer vacations and spending more time with family and friends. Somehow it is easy to imagine that in those more quiet times, their influence will continue to be felt in many lives and many places.