Becoming an Organic Farmer Starts with Baby Steps

Reader Contribution by Sarah Ratliff

While we were working with contractors to have our house expanded from 750 square feet to 1500 square feet, it seemed like the most significant step toward becoming farmers, until the real work began.

I will say we learned a lot about constructing a house in hurricane alley. The amount of steel rebar, cement and concrete blocks needed to ensure a house can withstand up to a category 5 hurricane (150+ miles per hour) is staggering. The number of steel-reinforced columns and beams needed to hold up a small farmhouse and carry a 600-gallon water tank / cistern on the roof is also mind blowing.

Construction lasted six months and on New Year’s Eve 2009, along with our two cats and two dogs, we moved into our newly expanded home. We were exhausted physically and emotionally and the only thing we had the energy to do was feed the animals and fall asleep on the bed we had been smart enough to set up the day before.

No noisemakers, no party to attend and absolutely no plans to stay up until midnight to ring in the new year, I am not sure we made it to 8:00 before we fell asleep.

How About Fireworks to Welcome You to Your New Life?

Asleep for maybe four hours, we were suddenly awakened by loud booms and looked at the clock: midnight. We looked outside and I wish I had been able to find the video camera. We rushed outside to the patio where we were fêted with a panoramic view of fireworks—five or six displays, I think we counted.

“Duh! Of course Puerto Rico, a colony, wouldn’t do fireworks on July 4th!” I said to Paul.

“And here I thought this was our welcome to the neighborhood.” Said Paul. I knew he was kidding but it sure was a nice way to start our first night in our new home on our new farm and the first night before the first day of the rest of our lives.

Although we did a lot in the first two years on the farm, I can condense it into four very important and necessary bullet points:

1. Clean the farm

2. Visit as many organic farms on the island as we possibly could

3. Learn Spanish

4. Continue integrating ourselves and build a network and support system

Everything Grows Very Fast in Puerto Rico: Especially Weeds and Vines

One of the first things we noticed the next day was how much the weeds and vines, known as bejucos (beh-hoockos) had taken over the farm. In the nine months since we bought the farm and started thinking about what to do with it, they both covered any usable tree on the farm.

With nothing more than a machete, it took Paul nine more months to rid the farm of these vines, but he did it. There was no way we could start planting any new trees until it was done.

Checking Out What Other Farmers On the Island Were Doing

We visited both organic and non-organic farms all over the island to get a sense of what people were growing, what livestock they were raising and what tools they were using.

It didn’t take long before we could tell from far away who was using chemicals and who wasn’t. Things were perfect in the chemical-laden farms and in place of perfection, the organic farms had incredible biodiversity: snakes, iridescent lizards and iguanas, birds, bees, butterflies, dragonflies (which people here call helicopters), insects and frogs were all out and enjoying Mother Earth.

Learning Spanish

Eight years in Puerto Rico and we’re still learning Spanish. As I wrote in my second blog, learning a new language in your 40s ain’t easy. That’s all I am gonna say about that. We do fine, but I think it’s for two reasons: we always start with Spanish (people hear our beautiful accents and switch over) and we’re happy to make fun of ourselves.

Let’s move on because it’s not something I am particularly proud of. We have many, many friends and all of them are incredibly patient with us.

And Speaking of Friends

We made more friends in the first year living on our new farm than we made in ten years living in California. Farmers and non-farmers, I have to say that we are very pleased with how easily we make friends, in spite of the self-made barrier of not being fluent.

Although I sometimes feel like we wasted two years trying to figure it all out, we really didn’t. If things don’t work out the way you want, you can always try something else. We learned a lot about what we didn’t want to do and we still hadn’t known what we wanted to do.

During this time I started blogging about our experiences. I didn’t write a lot then and I wanted my blog to be light hearted.

Goats, Tropical Fruit and Bamboo! Eureka!

Before we noticed, more than two years had gone by and we weren’t much further along with our plans than we had been when we moved onto the farm.

In March 2012, Paul came across a website of a man with neither an American nor a Spanish first and last name who was doing what we had envisioned ourselves doing before we even left California and this was still in the “what if?” stage.

Sadhu Govardhan, owner of Govardhan Gardens had goats, was growing bamboo and fruit trees from around the tropical world. He’d lived all over (in both temperate climates and the tropics) and it was clear he had a wealth of knowledge about sustainable farming.

He came out to our farm for a consultation and for the first time in two years we felt we were getting closer to our dreams.

First he sat and talked with us both for about an hour. He wanted to get a sense of what we both wanted short- and long-term and both medicinally and to eat. Next he walked through every square inch of land we planned on using (vs. land we wouldn’t plant on that we’d build on, hike on or leave untouched. And during that tour, he talked really fast. It was up to us to take notes and figure it all out. “Clay here, better for…” And he rattled off a list of fruit trees that would work well in clay.

“Acidic dirt here, best for…” And again, the same.

“Soft dirt here, ideal for…” More of the same.

“This is a great area to keep your goats. It’s flat and close enough to the house you can get to them quickly to feed them, care for them and when they’re kidding (giving birth), but far enough that with every bleat they’re not keeping you awake. I’ll email you photos and you can use my design to create a tropical goat pen.”

By the time he left, four or five hours later, we had a plan for what to plant where, how many goats to start with and how many of each tree (both medicinal and yummy) to buy to yield enough fruit to keep us when we’re too old to worry about how we’d feed ourselves.

When he got home, Sadhu emailed Paul five photos of his goat pens: front, back, floor, doors and play area. From those four photos, Paul was supposed to determine the size of each piece of wood to make the individual pens and the fencing for the closed in play area, the distance between the poles that would go in the ground and serve as weight-bearing anchors, and what size to use for the slats in the floor to allow the goats’ feces and urine to fall below, so they wouldn’t have lie in it and the feces could be easily raked up to add to compost to make rich fertilizer.

Had I been responsible to build this thing, it wouldn’t have been built and we’d have no goats. 

We’d agreed to buy three starter goats from Sadhu: two does and one buck. Born in January 2012, Amani and Mayani were twins. One was Saanen (Amani) and the other an Alpine (Mayani). The does’ mother was Sadhu’s best and most favorite goat, not to mention his best milker.

The husband they would share, Ravi, was a pure Saanen whose father had papers, we were promised an excellent sire.

Promising to pick up the goats on June 2, Paul less than two months to build three pens and a play area. I could help with some of the construction but not much. Paul has the engineer’s mind, is mechanical and spatial. Only he could look at five photos and figure out to make this work.

Tin Cans and ‘Oh My , What is That Smell?’

On June 2, 2012, Paul and I took the drive out to Sadhu’s farm and were greeted by many goats: some were his, some were reserved by other buyers and I knew instantly who Amani and Mayani were. I immediately went over and started nudging them.

“Is it true goats eat everything, including tin cans?” I asked.

Sadhu rolled his eyes. He couldn’t help it. “No, they’re actually very picky eaters, which you’ll see right away.”

He let them all out of their pens and they were running, jumping, twirling, bleating, head butting each other and head butting us.

I was in love.

The wind changed direction and suddenly, “Oh!My!God! What the h*** is that smell? I smell urine!”

“That’s your buck, Ravi. He’s in rut. He’s hoping one of these does is in heat so he can mate with them.” Said Sadhu. “It’s a little early for mating season, but they can start rut early sometimes.”

“But why does he smell like he pees on himself?” I asked.

“Because he pees on himself.” Sadhu could see the horrified look on my face. “First time on a farm with animals?”

“No, but I don’t remember this, this, this smell. Where’s that white goat we saw on your website?”

“Same goat, but that photo was taken in spring when he wasn’t in rut. Now he’s in rut. You should get used to it.”

Too late to back out. We were the new owners of three goats. Two adorable six-month-old sisters who were going to share the stinkiest goat on the face of the planet.

What had we gotten ourselves into?

Sarah Ratliff and her husband, Paul, abruptly quit their jobs after 20 years into serving a lifetime sentence in corporate America, moved to the interior of Puerto Rico, and bought an 18-acre farm. The goal with their farm, which they named Mayani Farms after one of their two “starter” goats, is to be self-sustaining (versus selling anything). Sarah is a freelance writer who recently published the book Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide. Follow Sarah on Facebook and Twitter, and on her website, Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

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