By Darío Aranda
Guaminí means in Mapuche language "island inside”(From the large lagoon that exists in the area). It is located in the extreme west of Buenos Aires, almost on the border with La Pampa. 2800 inhabitants, wide streets, low houses and tranquility that cannot be achieved in cities. The bicycles sleep on the sidewalk without chains or locks. Even the cars are left open and nothing is ever missing.
But the most important thing is a local public policy that challenges a global model: the municipality brought together, and supported, eight producers to make a transition towards agroecology, produce healthy food, free of GMOs and pesticides. They started with 100 hectares and, in just three years, they lowered costs, maintained good production levels and already cultivate 1,500 hectares of healthy food, free of poisons.
On the defensive:
The trigger was the same suffering of hundreds of towns in the country. Agrochemical spraying surrounded homes and even entire neighborhoods in Guaminí. In 2012 the initiative to regulate distances began to take shape. Marcelo Schwerdt, director of Environment of the Municipality, was among the promoters. They surveyed rural schools and confirmed that 80 percent were suffering from the rain of agrochemicals, even with children during school hours.
In the town, the well-known polarization began to occur between those who demand health care and the environment, and those who emphasize the need to produce.
A table was formed with different actors and the idea of talks-debates arose to advance a regulation ordinance. This is how they reached Guaminí, referents of agribusiness, who affirmed that “it cannot be produced without chemicals”, researchers who warned about the effects on health and producer sectors.
Marcelo Schwerdt observed a video on YouTube by Eduardo Cerdá, agronomist, promoter of extensive agroecology (production without chemicals or GMOs on a medium and large scale, not just small areas). Without much expectation of success, he contacted via Facebook and invited him to an open talk in Guaminí.
Cerdá responded within a few hours. The answer was affirmative and proposed on April 14.
"It was impressive," sums up Marcelo Schwerdt, without hiding his admiration.
Cerdá reviewed agroecological experiences and detailed the experience of La Aurora (see here), a Buenos Aires enterprise that has been producing without chemicals for twenty years.
A group of producers was enthusiastic and proposed to Cerdá to carry out a pilot experience. He thought about it and only asked that the Municipality get involved. And he marked his limits: he could only visit the fields every two months.
The agroecological experience began in the west of Buenos Aires.
“It was an awakening. See something different, with a whole range of possibilities ”, remembers Rafael Bilotta, in his centenary house in the center of Guaminí. It was the home of his grandparents, his mother and since the 1980s he has lived there. He shares a 700 hectare field with his brothers, and he always produced as is done in the area, with chemicals and more chemicals.
Fabián Soracio was there on the day of Cerdá's talk and is also part of the group. He was the one who asked the most uncomfortable question that day: "And what do you do with the grass (a weed that tends to mistreat agronomists and resists liters and liters of herbicides)?"
Cerdá was sincere: “It hasn't happened to me yet. When it touches me, I tell you how we do it ”.
There were eight producers, with a small portion of plots each. In total it was about 100 hectares, in which they stopped pouring poisons and planted oats, vetch, red clover, sorghum, wheat, among others.
Fabián Soracio graphic one of the pillars of agribusiness. “I didn't want to apply so much (herbicides), but when I saw some weeds, I called the agronomist, who is 'the one who knows,' and he told me to apply more. And I did it for something very basic, I was afraid of not getting a good performance, and if I do not produce what I planned, I cannot pay the debts, and I get into debt, and I lose everything. The fear was in all that chain ".
Mauricio Bleynat is a dairy farmer and agricultural producer. 75-hectare field that he works with his father and 14-year-old daughter. “They put it into your head that without application you don't produce. And if you don't produce… you lose the field ”.
Marcelo Schwerdt, who in addition to being Director of Environment is a doctor in Biology, nods his head. He is the son of an agricultural producer and he lived it since he was a boy. “You start by applying two liters per hectare, then three. More weeds appear and they already tell you a little more. And so you end up pouring more than ten liters. It is an agriculture of drums (of chemicals) ”, graph.
The first thing they did was make collective diagnoses of the fields. It happened with the first tour with Eduardo Cerdá. They all went to the fields together, listened, looked, proposed. Concrete changes were underway: each one was no longer alone in his field, but with peers. Second: it was not the agronomist who decided what to do. Cerdá did not have the truth revealed, she only suggested and, above all, asked. How many years do you grow the same? Do you have animals (cattle)? How many? When do they come to eat this lot? Why do you apply? And countless more questions.
Anecdotes arise with other "advisers" (as agronomists are often told). Everyone has experience of cases in which "the professional" (another way of calling them / himself) did not even get out of the truck. It said what (and how much) chemical to apply without even stopping the vehicle.
Fabián Soracio goes further: “It is common that they do not even visit the field. They tell you how much to apply over the phone ”.
Mauricio Bleynat is tougher: “It is a model that is handled from a desk. They don't even live in the country. What's more, they want to kick out those of us who do live and work in the fields ”.
Stop applying chemicals and return to crop rotation (even some that had not sown for years). Oats, vetch, red clover, sorghum, wheat, barley, corn. Make wheat, even if there are weeds in the middle and it seems like a sin. They called Cerdá and conveyed the fear of weeds in the wheat. On the other end of the phone, Cerdá calmed them down. He told them to wait two weeks (until the next meeting), he insisted that they not apply. When it was time to run, the weeds had already given way. One of the keys is that the weed (actually it is an unwanted plant) has competition, and that makes it give way, lose strength, even disappear.
“And it harvested well. Perhaps whoever was operating the machine was whoring a bit because of some thistle, but it gave a very good production ”, smiles Rafael Bilotta.
It was also essential to take advantage of the animals, that they enter, eat, and yawn in the same place (fertilizes the soil, enriches, conserves nutrients). Another key: stop deworming all cattle according to the calendar. The dominant veterinary approach is to supply the well-known ivermectin (a potent cattle drug). The unintended consequence is that it affects the dung, and it is not used to fertilize the soils.
Fabián Soracio explains that you have to look at the animals and deworm according to each case, seeing if necessary, not by calendar and in general at all.
The year passed, half a dozen visits from Cerdá and the results were positive: good production (equal to or just below the fields with chemicals), but much lower cost of production.
Clarification (they do it themselves): there were particular lots where the results were not as expected, where they still have to test options, but in general they were good in production and positive profitability.
Another fundamental event was the visit to La Aurora pond, in Benito Juárez. There they learned about the 650 hectares of Erna Bloti and Juan Kiehr, their twenty-year work in agroecology. It shocked them.
“The floor caught my attention, I had never seen it with such consistency and smell. It was pure fertility. Also the animals (cows), the marvelous physical state, even in their fur you could see it ”, remembers Rafael Bilotta and lists a list of positive facts, but tries to summarize them in two points:“ You breathe another air, and I want my field to go on that road. Second, in La Aurora I saw that something different was possible, it was not just theory, we lived it traveling the countryside. It's a party".
Wide dirt road. Homes close to the wiring. Dogs that cuddle up angry. Mauricio Bleynat receives a strong handshake and invites him to visit the little dairy farm. Six drops in line, between 20 and 30 cows for milking. The price of milk is very low, 3.10 pesos per liter (they ask for at least 5 pesos). He explains that small dairy farms, like his, survive (they have no workers in charge and lower tax burdens), but the medium ones are in trouble (with more than 150 cows and up to 1000).
As in other branches of production, the large ones dominate the market and set low prices for the producer. In dairy, two companies define the market (and prices): La Serenísima and Sáncor.
Mauricio Bleynat knows that luck will change with some capital: not to sell more milk, but to process it and market the cheeses. The profit margin will be higher. It is on that road.
Above the car and a few blocks to a cultivated lot. You show progress, he says that he had grass for animals as he had not produced for years (even his uncle harvested him and was so convinced that he also began to make hectares without chemicals).
She has the support of her father (who has had a chemical-free garden for years) and her daughter, who studies at an agrotechnics and where she also fights agribusiness: “She discusses with the teachers because almost everyone has the cassette to produce with GMOs and poisons. And she tells him that there is another way, that many of us produce in another way ”. Bleynat advises you not to argue too much, not to get angry, and at the same time (without saying it) pride is on the surface.
Five minutes by car, gate open, and under a tree Rafael Bilotta waits in his truck. Show some plots. Oats, vetch, wheat. In a plot the famous “black branch” (a “weed” that tends to mistreat agribusiness) can be seen. There is not much, but some are observed. Bilotta smiles: “Before it drove me crazy when they showed up. No longer". And he explains that what is sown will compete for space with unwanted plants. In these two years he has had good experiences.
His son was studying agronomy. He left the degree, largely disgusted because they only showed him the option of agriculture-chemistry. "One day he told me‘ Dad, you know what you’re doing, ’" he remembers.
He was left without an answer. He knew what he was doing and its consequences. That April 2014 talk by Eduardo Cerdá was the way out I didn't see.
He tested a few hectares, while still using chemicals in most of the field. The second year he expanded the agroecological hectares and is on the way to leaving the chemicals completely. He plans to do three years of agriculture, that the cattle eat, leave manure and urine on the ground, enrich the soil.
“It is a productive change, but also a change in the way of seeing the soil, food, nature and life. It becomes a philosophy of life, we are in that process and very happy ”, says Bilotta.
He works the parts of the field that correspond to three brothers. They support him, but he also knows that they have to give him the numbers. And he does not hesitate: “I'm sure it will give. What's more, it is already giving and it will be better in the coming years ”. And he explains that he lowered costs between 30 and 40 percent.
It may be by ideology, by choice of life, by caring for the environment and favoring health. And agroecology is also an option to obtain greater profitability.
The car again. Marcelo Schwerdt at the wheel. Take internal roads, then the route, a roundabout and another narrower route, made of asphalt. Right hand, open gate and a house in the distance, surrounded by trees. Postcard image.
Fabián Soracio works the field with his father, who raised doubts about the change of model. Even today, when he sees some weed, he asks why not add some herbicides. A tour of the field, the different stages of the lots and a moment of talk in the cow pen. It also highlights the importance of livestock, which contributes to recovering soil fertility.
And he clarifies: he is not considered an agroecological producer. “I am an agricultural producer. Those who have to change their names are the others ... they are agro-oncological producers. It is strong, I know, but the chemicals have their consequences and they have to take charge ”.
He admits that he had his doubts, but shortly after he was convinced. It was also very important to know La Aurora.
Combat the prejudices of other producers, who still believe that quitting chemicals is going back to hoeing and carving up the land. His key: “Stop looking at the field from the chemical point of view. And see it as a system, not isolated things. Recover things from the past, but also appropriate and modern technology. And, above all, they don't believe in the magic recipes that companies sell you ”.
"Fundamental". This is how producers define the role of the State. In Guaminí's experience it was the Municipality. Powered by Marcelo Schwerdt, but with the backing of Mayor Néstor Alvarez (Front for Victory).
In case you have doubts, Fabián Soracio remarks: “It has to be the State, not an NGO that takes its place. No. The State has to occupy the central role ”.
The government of Buenos Aires does not promote agroecology projects. On the contrary, the Buenos Aires Senate, with the support of the government of María Eugenia Vidal, gave half a sanction to a bill that allows spraying up to only ten meters from homes. It would be (if approved), the most favorable (to chemists) in the country.
Mauricio Bleynat sums up: "It seems to me that the national government is more concerned about Monsanto than anything else."
The other producers smile in approval.
“La Clara”, the emblem of Guaminí flour mill was called. It employed hundreds of people and marked the history of the city. Its fire, in the 1950s, was a blow that marked a breakdown in the population. In all families there are members who have memories and anecdotes of La Clara.
The producer group collected agroecological wheat. And, with the impulse of Schwerdt from the municipality, the idea of a small mill was born. They sought financing with the Nation and embassies. They were out of luck. They raised it with the Mayor. And he confirmed that the Municipality would make the investment. 36 thousand pesos. A mill made in Río Negro, handcrafted, custom built and a process that took many months. In parallel, they set up a municipal hall, about ten meters wide and the same long.
A kilo of whole wheat flour (and free of chemicals) started at a price of ten pesos (cheaper than the commercial brands of large companies). Half of the value was for producers and packaging expenses. The other 50 percent for three public welfare institutions: hospital, School of Special Education 502 and the Center for Agrarian Education. Last year the price increased a few pesos, and the distribution remained the same. In addition, students from the school do their work internships at the mill.
Fair price for producers, added value, healthy food for the consumer, and benefits for local institutions.
In Guaminí, whole wheat flour was not consumed. Now more than 500 kilos are sold per month and it has orders from Trenque Lauquen, Chacabuco and Bahía Blanca. They plan to increase production (they only need the investment to purchase a larger mill).
On behalf of the enterprise (and the chemical-free flour): “La Clarita”.
“70 years have passed since the fire of the great mill. It was never possible to resume a project to add agricultural value. In just two years, this group made it possible ”, explained Schwerdt, who has already left the post in the municipality (he took office in an Agrarian Education Center), but continues to accompany the group of producers.
In all the fields they reduced the use of agrochemicals, minimized costs and kept production without major changes. They also began a process of soil recovery. Rafael Bilotta went ahead with studies and they gave him better indicators of phosphorus, nutrients and organic matter.
Sample of the improvement is the sum of land. From the initial 100 (2014), they went to 970 (2015) and 1500 today. A geometric increase in just three years.
But it was not just the increase in hectares. An ordinance was also approved for the benefit of family farming. It promotes trade fairs for agroecological products and, in article two, it promotes "access to (fiscal) land or to the required natural resources for family entrepreneurs who carry out productive projects."
Within the production of food without chemicals and transgenics, there are "certifiers", which are large companies that charge high fees for delivering a quality seal (it works a lot in organic products). Within the world of agroecology, the role of these companies is much questioned.
The Guaminí ordinance takes sides in favor of local producers and constitutes a system of “participatory certification of the agroecological market”. With the participation of farmers, professionals, the municipality, the chamber of commerce, food science and consumers, among others, it promotes that the certification that guarantees health and quality is free and with multiple actors. Participatory certification accounts for a form of food production that "promotes the commitment to health, ecology, equity and environmental certainty."
It is the second city in Argentina that has participatory certification (after Goya, Corrientes).
Guaminí's experience was presented last May in the town of Rojas, when the National Network of Municipalities and Communities that promote Agroecology (Renama) was formed, where a score of municipalities and more than 200 agricultural producers attended, some already produce agroecological way, many others want to start the path of producing without poisons and look to the west of Buenos Aires. In October, it hosted the second Renama meeting. Agroecological producers were the protagonists: Guaminí is already part of the concrete experiences that show that another agriculture is possible.