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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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 more challenging.
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
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.
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
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
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