Ann Bond/Special to the Herald
As Southwest Colorado slips into winter, the southern hemisphere is enjoying springtime, and the Albergue Farm is greening up to supply organic produce to the hotel of the same name in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Not long after the ancestral Puebloans of the Four Corners abandoned their cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, the Incas had established Ollantaytambo as a royal estate, ceremonial center and, later, a fortress to fight off the Spanish. Like Mesa Verde, Ollantaytambo today is an important archaeological site and tourist attraction. The town, known as the most well-preserved Inca village in Peru, is on the tourist trail to Machu Picchu, but the Sacred Valley’s most important use for thousands of years has been agricultural.
Originally opened in 1925 under the name of Hotel Santa Rosa, El Albergue was purchased and updated in 1976 by Americans Wendy Weeks and Robert Randall. Today, their sons operate the quaint and popular hotel on the rail line to Machu Picchu. They became interested in organic farming after beginning full restaurant service at the hotel four years ago.
“We leased a few acres of farmland on original Inca terraces adjacent to the hotel,” said Joaquin Randall-Weeks. “It’s been quite a challenge, but we now have a nice selection of produce, and our workers are beginning to appreciate it.”
Most of the hotel’s 30 office workers, cooks and housekeepers (many of whom are also farmers at home) work on the hotel farm two to three times a week. To oversee the effort, Gemma McNeill moved to Peru from Canada eight months ago after graduating from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Global Resource Systems, Sustainable Agriculture and Latin American Studies. Fellow student, Lourdes Niehaus, of Costa Rica, soon joined her.
Together they have faced many agricultural and cultural challenges.
“We both speak Spanish, but the locals speak their native tongue of Quechua,” Niehaus said. “At first they wouldn’t even work with me.”
That didn’t last.
“What’s exciting is that I started working with 30 skeptical guys who thought I was crazy, and in a short period of time,we’ve seen their mentality change, which is exciting,” McNeill said. “It’s been a transfer of ideas both ways.”
The women said climate change is a hot topic among native farmers in the Sacred Valley, who typically grow potatoes and corn.
“Rain is coming at different times, affecting their crop schedules,” Niehaus said. “Communities are instituting water restrictions during the dry season, and temperatures are getting hotter.”
Peru’s growing season is reversed from the northern hemisphere; August is planting time, and March through May is harvest time. During the dry winter months of May to July, farms typically are dormant.
“They call it ‘resting the soil,’ but leaving the fields bare causes problems – the sun bakes the soil and kills the biota, and the wind causes erosion,” McNeill said.
Instead, in the off season the Albergue team plants cover crops – oats, vetch and clover – to stabilize the soil and reintroduce nutrients. They also installed an irrigation system -- another new idea to local farmers. Dry-season water is delivered through the original Inca acequias, which channel snowmelt from rivers and glaciers high in the Andes.
“Local farmers use flood irrigation, and they lose a lot of topsoil, especially when their land is bare,” Niehaus said. “It also can cause issues for some vegetables, and just walking through a flooded field adds to compaction.”
Albergue Farm is growing collards, chards, onions, leeks, salad mix, arugula, mustards, lettuce, radicchio, salad mix, beets, carrots, zucchinis and herbs. Native crops include 13 varieties of heritage potatoes; native varieties of white, yellow and purple corn, and awaymanto, a ground husk-cherry dating back to the time of the Incas. An experiment in growing gladiolas failed, because the non-native flowers could not thrive without chemical intervention, which goes against their organic commitment.
“Chemicals are a crutch the locals use,” Niehaus said. “When their crops aren’t growing or they have a bug infestation, they turn to pesticides or herbicides, or synthetic nitrogen as a fertilizer. Part of that reaction comes from a culture where agricultural success is a measure of ability. If a farmer has a crop failure, it somehow reflects on him as a man. But these people have been working in agriculture for thousands of years, and it’s just been in the past few decades that they’ve turned to this crutch.”
To combat the common pests, which include grasshoppers and aphids, the Albergue team treats its crops with soaps and oils, chili potions and garlic purees. Fertilizer comes from pigs, sheep and two bulls, which graze the fields. The bulls are owned by a local farmer who, in return for the grazing opportunity, plows their fields with the beasts the old-fashioned way (they use no machinery).
“We strive for a closed nutrient system,” McNeill said. “Harvested cornstalks are fed to the bulls, which turn it into manure. The pigs eat the kitchen scraps, and we’ll eventually eat them. What the pigs don’t eat gets composted.”
Randall-Weeks said that routine is part of the farm’s waste-management system.
“Our goal is zero waste,” he said.
The hotel also discourages its guests from using the ubiquitous scourge of foreign travel, the plastic water bottle, instead serving filtered water in glass bottles, while offering fill ups at a discount from a water cooler in the front office.
Albergue Farm holds organic workshops for hotel staff and local farmers to share its methods, and the farm is quickly becoming a central focus of the family business.
“Our guests love the farm-to-table experience, and we’ve started a community supported agriculture program,” Randall-Weeks said. “My hope is that our guests will come here because of the farm and possibly to volunteer on the farm in the near future.”
Ann Bond is a Durango resident who recently returned from a trip to Peru.