As I mentioned previously, I’ve been helping out with some farming in addition to teaching at the local primary school. I use “helping out” very loosely, though, because I’m really slow and ineffective compared to the people here. I think they derive a fair amount of amusement from city folks like me!

I help out once a week at Patricia’s mum’s farm, with Ned, Patricia and her brother. I arrive at about 8am and stay until about 4pm, so technically it’s longer hours than teaching, but far less intense.

In the afternoons after school,  I also sometimes help my host family with farming duties.

Some of what we’ve been doing in the last few weeks:

  • harvesting coffee beans, removing the skins and drying them

It’s surprisingly easy to remove the skins by simply scrubbing them with this rock.

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Next, Ned separated the skins from the beans using water – the skins and some beans (apparently the bad ones) float.

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Then they are left to dry out in the sun. It takes a couple of weeks.

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  • Making panela (unrefined whole cane sugar from sugarcane juice).

First, they squeeze the juice from the sugarcane using this machine:

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We also drink sugarcane juice in Singapore! With ice and sometimes lemon or lime, which is making my mouth water just thinking about it. Without ice, it’s a little too sweet for my taste.

In Singapore, the sugarcane juice vendors put the sugarcane through the machine multiple times until it’s bone dry. Here, they just do it once, but the sugarcane is then used as fuel for next step below.

The sugarcane juice is then boiled down until it’s extremely thick.

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They then stirred it for a bit to solidify it even more.

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The most amazing part to me is that this is all done entirely by hand, with the exception of the juice-squeezing machine.

  • Desgranando maíz (I’m not even sure what the proper English terminology is – removing the corn kernels from the cob)

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In this day and age with so many GMO food items, it’s really refreshing to see 100% natural and non-GMO corn. Look at the variety here! I especially like the red ones – they’re so pretty.

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This isn’t young corn, so the kernels feel rock hard. It’s very hard on the fingers! I could barely feel my thumbs for a few days afterwards.

That said, I think I’m getting the hang of it, and with no time pressure and good company, it was a really enjoyable way to spend an afternoon!

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Patricia, her brother Melchor, another volunteer (Scott) and me

We only do this entirely by hand for corn that’s to be planted. If it’s just to feed the chickens, it’s much faster to put all the corn into a bag and beat it with a stick. Most of the kernels come out that way, and then it’ll just be a question of checking through everything and removing the few that remain by hand.

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  • Grinding corn into cornflour (actually the machine does all the work, I just use a random branch to free any corn kernels that get stuck at the bottleneck)

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  • Planting and harvesting potatoes

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The latest batch of potatoes that I helped harvest – there should have been a lot more, but apparently the cow(s) got into the field and ate a lot of the plants.

Planting is hard work: first, holes are dug (using spades), then we put manure and the “seeds” (in this case, 2 potatoes with small shoots) in each hole before covering the holes.

On the most recent occasion, there was (thankfully) another volunteer – a guy from Germany – who together with Ned did the bulk of the back-breaking work: digging the holes.

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  • Planting and harvesting yucas (cassava)

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Again, this involves digging holes and putting manure and the “seeds” into each hole. For yuca, it’s parts of the plant stem with little buds – two in each hole, again. We cut the yuca stem into the chunks below using a machete.

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I tried cutting the stems and it’s a lot more difficult than it sounds (and looks)!  The stems are quite thick and you need to cut from both sides of the stem. I have issues with my aim, so I often ended up hacking at the stem 5 or 6 times before a chunk finally fell off.

Harvesting yucas isn’t easy either. They’re the roots of the plant so you basically uproot the entire plant – which is sizeable. I usually can’t do it on my own. And when you’ve uprooted the plant, often some roots remain in the ground so you have to dig around for them (with a machete, preferably, failing which bare hands also work).

  • shelling porotos (kidney beans)

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There are a few ways to do this – in a bag with a stick (like the corn), by hand (much easer than corn), and in this case, they simply laid out all the porotos on the ground and then flattened them using the car.

Afterwards, we manually checked through the shells to make sure that all the beans had been extracted and then separated the beans from the shells.

When I work with Ned and Patricia, they always give me something to bring home from what we’ve worked on that day – be it shelling peas, harvesting potatoes, or making panela.

I’m convinced that I end up bringing back more than I actually contributed, so this arrangement doesn’t make a whole lot of economic sense for them. Not to mention the fact that they give me lunch as well! I’m truly humbled by their generosity.

Shots from around the farm

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A nesting chicken (I think)
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naranjillas (not sure if it has an English name): very prickly but the juice is delicious
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Banana tree
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The extremely scenic walk to Snra Rosa Maria’s farm 
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