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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.