N&M: Jose, you are well known throughout Chile for your organic production. How did you get involved in organic?
Jose: 25 years ago, I was in Switzerland and I went to look at a supermarket. I saw Chilean fruit displayed. It looked beautiful, firm, fresh, without blemishes. Next to it was a pile of organic fruit that did not look nearly so attractive and was twice the price. When I saw a woman buying the organic fruit, I approached her and asked her "Why are you not choosing that beautiful fruit from my country?" She replied: "These organic apples look rustic and natural, so pesticides must not have been used on them. I think that is healthier for me." That was an eye-opener for me, that European consumers bought fruit not based on perfect appearance, but on a quality called 'organic'.
N&M: Did you begin conversion to organic right away?
Jose: No, because I did not know how. First, I studied as much as I could find about organic. There was not much available then. It also took another visit to Switzerland, where I noticed the beautiful corn of a friend of mine. It turned out that he used a fertilizer with a much higher percentage of organic matter than those we used in Chile. Of course I knew about organic matter from my studies but had not been convinced of its importance in terms of fertilization. Seeing my friend's corn changed that.
N&M: And did that convince you to change?
Yes. When I got home, I started to experiment on my farm. One of these tests showed drastic differences in corn grown with conventional fertilizer compared with that which was grown with crude compost. I say ‘crude’ now, because I have learned a lot more about compost since. When the corn with the compost application turned out a lot better, I knew that organic farming was the way of the future. I continued to experiment.
N&M: What made the most dramatic impact on your farm?
Jose: Definitely the compost applications. This allowed me, in kiwi for example, to get by with fewer plants per acre. Increasing soil fertility allowed the remaining plants to develop more naturally and produce more fruit. I believe that there is a direct relationship between what happens under ground and what happens above ground. I have a higher yield now than before with more trees.
N&M: Were there any other benefits?
Jose: Yes, fewer plants per acre resulted in more light and air in the orchard, which meant that we had less of a fungus problem. That meant that I did not have to apply fungicides. I never liked handling those chemical sprays. So organic provided a healthy alternative for many agricultural practices. It was a natural decision to change. I converted step-by-step and by 1991 my entire farm was organic.
N&M: Do you still grow the same crops that you grew before you changed to organic agriculture?
Jose: In principle, yes. But, of course, we have introduced new crops. We keep experimenting. A few years ago, we started with pumpkin and this year we have planted blueberries for the first time. They were difficult to get in Chile, so we started with just a few and increased them in our own nursery.
N&M: Are you proud of your achievement?
Jose: Yes, of course. I wish more growers in Chile would grow organically. I do my best to tell them about it. Each year there are several classes of young students from the university in Santiago who come to my farm to learn about organic. I think there is a lot of interest, but not all of them have an opportunity to practice organic agriculture because hardly any of them own a farm. You see, that is another problem. Those who own the land are not yet interested in organic and those who are enthusiastic about organic don't own the land. That needs to be changed, too.