Composting in Oaxaca: To Market, To Market! (Part 3 of 3)

As any first year business student will tell you, there is a lot more to marketing than just advertising your product. The famous “Four P’s of Marketing” are; Product, Price, Place and Promotion. Here’s a quick tour of our efforts to take our compost to market.

VF compost

We originally defined our Product as, the best quality compost in Oaxaca. Our intention was to sell worm compost from worms fed thermophilic compost, since that makes the best compost. Once we had good quality thermophilic compost, we decided to take that to market to see what we could learn about marketing compost in Oaxaca. We figured it would not be long until we could offer both thermophilic and worm compost. As it turns out, worm compost took us quite a lot longer to produce reliably. In fact we only just this fall got our worm compost production line working to our satisfaction so that we can offer it for sale.

If you are going to position yourself as having the best compost in town, you want to give it the best possible appearance. So we hired our daughter and artist, Quinn Dimitroff, to design our beautiful color label. We then placed her label on a durable gallon size ziplock baggie (our bulk compost is delivered in used sugar sacks with no label).

The other aspect of giving the best possible appearance is the screening process (even though lumpy compost would work just as well for the plants). Rigo and I were happy with a single 1/4 inch screening, but that is when Sarah stepped up and became our Quality Assurance Manager. For Sarah, nothing less than two screenings would do: the first pass with a 1/4 inch screen, the second with a 1/6 inch screen. This meant screening twice and rejecting more than half of the finished product, but the resulting product stands clearly above the rest (we work the rejected compost back into beginning of the composting process so there is ultimately no waste of material).

Our QA Manager at work, screening compost before (above left) and after (above right) we built our trammel screener. Paco is now working on an electric version of the trammel, which will make Sarah’s life easier. 

To decide on Price, we researched the competition and decided to match their pricing, and beat their quality. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico, so people are generally pretty price sensitive. Rigo says most people here would rather pay less for an inferior product. But even so we decided to compete on quality, not price. This has been a challenge for us in terms of profitability. Our sales price pretty much just covers our direct costs, but contributes nothing to overhead. Sarah likes to joke that we lose money on every sale, but we make up for it in volume. But we are hopeful that we can get our direct costs down over time and become profitable.

Retail at La Cosecha
Our top retail location is at La Cosecha organic market, where Zosimo sells his organic produce.

As for Place, we have been pleasantly surprised at how open most store owners in Oaxaca are to stocking our compost. We have found Mexicans in general to be very entrepreneurial, and store owners are pretty open to trying new products. I’m sure our “consignment” sales model doesn’t hurt. We got advice from a local business man that it’s best to make the store owners pay up front for the product, otherwise they will push other products where they need the sale to recover their investment.  But in a poor state like Oaxaca, it makes it a lot easier for shop owners to accept a new product if they only have to pay for it AFTER it sells. We piloted the consignment model a few years ago, and have not looked back.

 

Valle Fértil thermophilic compost is now available in 10 retail stores. We have had our product in some other retail stores, but if a product doesn’t move the store owners give up after a while. They may not have an investment in our product, but they do have limited shelf space to consider. So not only do we need to get our compost into the stores, we need to help jumpstart demand.

About 2/3 of our compost is sold in bulk, delivered directly to customers, to feed the plants that adorn their homes, or restaurants. 

 

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A stack of 3 used tires makes a great planter for a tree

And finally, Promotion.

People in Oaxaca love their potted plants (even more than in other parts of Mexico, or so we have heard). To try to understand our market, we asked one of our first retail stores what type of person was buying our compost. They said it was mostly older Mexican women buying it as a treat for top dressing their house plants. What marvelous news that it wasn’t just gringos!

We see lots of potted plants around Oaxaca. Many of the growing containers are quite resourceful and creative. We feel we have lucked out in terms of landing in a good local market for selling compost.

 

Wicking Beds
Wicking Beds on our Rooftop Garden

But we have also discovered that many Oaxaqueños would like to grow plants, especially vegetables, but don’t know how to go about it. So, one strategy we have developed to generate interest in our compost is to offer home gardening  workshops in the locations where the compost is sold. This helps people learn to grow some of their own food, brings new people into our vendors’ stores, and gives us a forum to boast about how great our compost is. And we have found that the workshops themselves are more profitable than the compost we are trying to promote. In fact, as Sarah once pointed out, it’s the one thing we have actually made money at so far!

 

 

Above left: Sarah waiting for her ride to an interview on the local public television station to promote a Wicking Bed workshop. Above right: A Wicking Bed poster.

 

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Our first workshop was attended by gardening enthusiasts, workshop junkies and supportive friends

We have been hosting Wicking Bed workshops for about a year now. Wicking Beds are an idea that we got from the local Permaculture group. They are self-watering beds built from cheap or free materials, including fruit boxes, shopping bags, old clothing and recycled cans and bottles.

Sarah and I put on the first few workshops, me presenting in English, and Sarah translating into Spanish.

 

Katie Allen

Then along came Katie Allen, a bilingual American who lives in Oaxaca year-round, who expressed an interest in getting involved in the workshops.

Katie now is in charge of the workshops, which have been expanded to include Worm Composting and Gardening for Beginners.

Katie also brings a wealth of experience with social enterprises, helping us keep our mission in view as we make decisions along the way.

 

 

Katya

 

We have most recently added to our team Katya Caravantes, a very talented college student with tons of local knowledge about urban gardening, AND she has experience teaching workshops.

We plan to have Katya teach the workshops going forward, as well as doing garden design and maintenance consulting.

 

 

 

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Burlap Wicking Bed Garden prototype, with worm bin below to catch watering overflow.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the market. We found ourselves rethinking our whole business model. Compost is a commodity, so there is always going to be downward pressure on the price, no matter how good the product is. But a workshop is an experience, something people everywhere are increasingly willing to pay for. So we are now thinking of ourselves as moving from the Compost business to the Urban Gardening business. We will still offer the best possible compost to Oaxaqueños, but it will be combined and intermingled with Urban Gardening experiences.

So, being in the Urban Gardening business, we are now starting to think about new products like more durable, higher-end rooftop garden beds, and services like custom rooftop / in-ground garden design and consulting.

It opens up a whole new set of possibilities. And it also gives us more to talk to our customers about than just compost.

 

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Composting in Oaxaca: Got Worms if you want ’em (Part 2 of 3)

In Part 1 of this series, we introduced our new ASP (Aerated Static Pile) method of making thermophilic compost. But what do you do with thermophilic compost, anyway? Well, you can let it rest for a month (so that the nitrogen converts to a form that plants like) and feed it to your plants. Or you can right away feed it to your worms, and let the worms convert it to worm compost, with 3 to 5 times the benefits to plants as thermophilic compost.

Red wriggler worms hard at work
Red Wriggler Compost Worms

Red wrigglers, and other composting red worms, do magical things to what they eat. Through mysterious processes that happen in their guts, they actually increase the available nutrients to plants. Scientists believe they also add plant growth hormones to their castings, boosting plant health and plant growth beyond what can be accounted for by the nutritional value alone. And in their guts they neutralize human pathogens. About the only thing they can’t do is eliminate weed seeds (the thermophilic process takes care of that).

Red worms are particularly great for composting because they live and feed close to the surface (which makes them more manageable than their cousins who burrow and nest deep into the earth), they eat an incredible amount of food relative to their size (anywhere from 1/2 their weight to their full weight each day), and they multiply like crazy.

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Our rooftop worm bin

What’s more, it’s easy to keep them alive. They need moderate temperatures – around 68F-77F is ideal, but they can survive in temps anywhere from near freezing to 95F. They need a moist environment since they breathe through their skin, and they need moist skin for that to work. They don’t like light, so they need to be kept in the dark. And they need some food, but this is the least of their worries. They can go long periods without food, since they rework their castings and have evolved survival mechanisms like shrinking and becoming very lazy.  Most failed worm composting attempts are due to 1) letting the worms dry out or 2) over feeding them – if there is too much food, it goes anaerobic, and gives off gasses that are toxic to the worms.

You can feed your worms all kinds of kitchen scraps (except meat products), even including citrus (contrary to urban mythology). We feed our worms exclusively thermophilic compost, since that produces the richest finished product, and introduces no weed seeds.

There are many different worm bin systems, just do a web search and you’ll find innumerable options with catchy names. Here are a few, gathering dust in the NCSU Extension Worm Barn.

The hard part about producing worm compost, it turns out, is separating the finished worm compost from the worms. On a small scale, you can harvest your worm compost by pouring out the worm castings containing worms on a table in the sun. The worms will wriggle down into the castings to get away from the light. As the sun dries the surface of the castings, sweep away the surface material. Again the worms will go deeper. Repeat this process, saving the swept castings as your reward, and returning the small huddle of remaining worms back into your worm bin. This is very labor intensive as you can imagine. And the bigger your operation gets, the bigger that problem can be.

In Oaxaca, we have tried a few of the more popular methods of raising worms and harvesting their castings. Our first system was a worm bin made of cinder blocks, harvesting the compost using a slightly larger scale version of the sun harvest method I described above.


Above left: inside a shed where it’s dark, a worm bed framed by cinder blocks. Above right: using the solar method to extract finished compost – took hours even for this size pile, we’ll never do that again!

But our goal for a few years now has been to bring into service a homemade Continuous Flow Reactor (CFR) system, invented by Clive Edwards back in the 1970s. The CFR boasts many advantages

  • converting input material to finished compost in 2 to 3 months, as compared to 4 months or more using other methods
  • occupying the smallest square footage compared to other systems
  • providing compost harvesting with the least effort of any other system
  • producing compost in a continuous flow instead of in batches

Sounds great, right? Well, let’s continue our tour.

CF Proof of Concept 2017-02At right is a photo of our first CFR prototype, made out of mostly free, readily available materials. There is a top bin that contains worms in their castings, and this is where we feed the worms. The bottom bin is open on one side so we can remove the finished compost. Between the two bins is a floor of 2″ by 4″ wire mesh. To start the bin, a few sheets of newspaper are placed on the wire mesh floor, and worms in castings are placed on the newspaper. The worms are fed, produce more castings, and the surface level of the material in the top bin rises as the castings accumulate. The worms rise to where the fresh food and moisture is, within 6″ of the surface. When the depth of material in the top bin reaches a foot or more, the newspaper will have dissolved and only the pressure of the moist compost against the mesh floor keeps it from falling through to the lower bin. To harvest the compost, you just need to slide a thin blade into the top bin, just above the wire mesh, and finished compost drops down into the lower bin. Or so goes the theory.

Below is our first attempt at a CFR, which we affectionately call “CF1”. Built by Paco (whom you met in Part 1), it is 2.5 meters long and 1 meter wide. It had an “H” shaped blade on top of the mesh floor which could be pulled from end to end by a wire that came out holes at each end of the bin. It had it’s own roof to keep out rain, and tarps were used to keep out sun. We composted lettuce scraps to test the system, but had to scrap the project (pun intended) when our lettuce donor lost patience with our trials and errors. Too many times we had to start over because the wet lettuce fell through the newspaper. CF1 was soon inducted into our “Museum of Errors,” but is still useful for dry storage.

Our second attempt at a CFR, below, we call “CF2”. Also built by Paco, this iteration is 5 meters long and 1 meter wide, and has winches at each end to pull an “H” shaped blade back and forth along the surface of the mesh at harvest time. We used cardboard instead of newspaper this time, hoping it would not get wet, disintegrate and fall through the mesh as before. We placed the worms on the cardboard, covered them with some finished compost, and started feeding them finished thermophilic compost, and watering them regularly. As planned, the level of the compost rose inside the bin. All went well until harvest time.

Our first compost harvest from CF2 was a disaster. First we found that the blade would not move at all because the cardboard was still intact under the compost. So on our backs we pulled apart, piece by piece, the cardboard until the blade could move. But the amount of pressure needed to pull the blade was still more than the winch at first could handle, and we had to reinforce the winch mounts to handle the force. Then the blade began to move! Back and forth, cranking each winch in turn, the blade moved a few inches and the compost began to fall through the mesh! But under the weight of so much compost, the blade didn’t want to go any further. So we pulled harder, until the blade buckled. We could see from below that the blade was badly mangled, so my business partner, Rigo, dug down into the compost to remove it.

Top left: winch and winch supports. Top right: bottom view of CF2 blade at work. Bottom left: My business partner, Rigo, removing the mangled blade. Bottom right: mangled blade exposed.

It was at that point that I checked in with Rhonda Sherman, who I had met at the two US Composting Council seminars she hosted at NCSU. Rhonda pointed out a few mistakes. First, we were supposed to have used newspaper, and seeded the bed with about 6″ of finished worm compost before adding the worms. Second, we were supposed to have watered the surface lightly on a daily basis so that the surface of the bed material got wet, but not so much that the newspaper below got wet.  Third, we should have harvested long before we had so much heavy compost pressing the blade down against the mesh. And fourth, we should have had two or three blades spaced out along the winch wire so that no one blade had to travel very far.

At this point we could have unloaded the compost and started over with CF2. But it would have been a challenge to keep the worms alive outside of CF2 while we did the work. And again we would have had the challenge of removing the worms from their castings to start over with our newfound understanding.

Since we were committed to making the CFR idea work, and we knew one bin would not be enough, we decided to put CF2 in a holding pattern and to start work on CF3, basically of the same design as CF2, but with multiple blades. When CF3 was ready for service, we’d have plenty of worms and compost stored in CF2 to seed the bed. So Paco started work on CF3.

About this time Francisco (whom you met in Part 1) appeared on the scene. He said that, as much as the CFR is a great composting system, it takes an engineer to build it and to keep it going. He recommended that we instead go with a simpler, wedge method. So he incorporated a worm shelter into his design for our composting site.

We are still committed to making the CFR system work, because of all of the advantages listed above. We will continue to work on the CF3, and maybe some day the worm shelter will be full of CFR bins. But in the meantime, we need to be making and selling worm compost!

Worm Wedge March 2018

So last March, before the worm shelter was even completed (notice the shadow of the roof), we started the Worm Wedge experiment.

The foundation of the shelter is packed earth, of a type that worms will not willingly escape into. On that floor we put down a long line of finished worm compost. Then we seeded the compost with worms, and covered it with shade cloth to keep out sun and hungry birds.

Jose and Rigo fed the worms finished thermophilic compost on a weekly basis, and watered the wedge on a daily basis, all through the summer.

By the time of our return to Oaxaca this fall, the worm wedge was more than ready for harvest, more than the recommended 50 cm tall.

Removing worms

Using Francisco’s recommended method, we baited the wedge ahead of time with fresh food and water to get the worms near the surface.

When we returned a few days later, we quickly  removed the top 6″ of fresh food where almost all of the worms were now located. We set that aside to seed a next wedge.

What remained (pictured at right) was a rich, nearly worm free, pile of worm compost. It was a rich, dark, crumbly material. It smelled good all the way down to the bottom of the wedge.

We knew right then we had a harvesting method that would scale with our operation!

The next step was to remove the worm compost almost down to the dirt floor, and spread it out on a tarp to dry for a few days. Then we’ll screen and bag the worm compost, and sell it as Valle Fértil Lombricomposta.

Which leads to the question, “who wants to buy some compost?”. See Part 3, coming soon,  for the final phase of our tour, where we will attempt to answer that question.

 

Composting in Oaxaca: Got thermophilic? (Part 1 of 3)

I haven’t blogged for a while, partly because I have been busy, but partly because I have not been sure what I had to share. Well, we recently had a few different kinds of breakthroughs in our compost project down here in Oaxaca, and it occurred to me maybe it’s time to provide an update. So this post will be followed soon by parts 2 and 3. This blog post may not be for everyone, but I know Mike Larsen (our friend and one-man-advisory-board) will eat it up. I hope the rest of you enjoy the tour as well.

front gateFrom the rural gravel road where we are located, when the gate is open, this is what you see – a few shelters off in the distance, surrounded by grass, all inside a chain link fence. There’s no livestock, or so it seems, and the grass sometimes gets a bit out of control before we get around to mowing it. There is not much going on in the way of sound, except a quiet air pump that comes on for a couple of minutes a few times each hour. The neighbors don’t smell anything, except for a day or two after a manure delivery when it smells like money (as my relatives from Sioux City used to say).  But don’t stand around outside, come on in for a tour!

Jose turns the piles the old way
Jose, our landlord/helper

Let’s start our tour by introducing you to our landlord, Jose. We’ve rented this land from Jose on a month-to-month handshake “lease” since spring 2017. Jose was curious about what we were doing, and he used to come by and watch us turning compost piles until one day he asked if we had work for him. And what a worker he has turned out to be! Jose has been building and turning compost piles every Tuesday and Friday ever since. But one of the breakthroughs we have had is going to change his job considerably – the ASP (Aerated Static Pile for those who are not compost geeks), which eliminates the need to turn the piles. When we explained to Jose what the ASP was all about he asked, “Well, then what am I going to do?” (in Spanish of course). Jose has nothing to worry about, there is still plenty to do.

 

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The Old Method: compost pile assembly line

Before we talk about the ASP breakthrough, we’d like to introduce you to The Old Method. In order to meet the USDA’s standard for compost certified for organic growers, “PFRP” (Process to Further Reduce Pathogens), we had to exceed 131F for 15 days, and turn the piles 5 times to keep them aerobic.

 

Three manure donors
Our manure donors

To get the highest possible quality compost, Valle Fértil Oaxaca uses manure from organically raised cows, and ground corn stalks (also raised organically as far as we can find out). Our manure donors live two doors down the road, so you can’t get much more local than that. But since they can’t quite keep up with Jose, we occasionally have to call in a dump truck load of organic dairy cow manure to be delivered. Either way we mix organic cow manure with ground corn stalks, add water, and come up with the best thermophilic compost possible using all local ingredients.

Top left: manure arriving. Top right: stored bales of corn stalks. Bottom left: backup water supply for when (not if) municipal water shuts down. Bottom right: the corn stalk chipper that took a little piece of my finger last winter.

 

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Jose hard at work

To make our temperatures, Jose turns each pile twice a week for 3 weeks, as well as building a new pile to keep the production line moving along. That’s a lot of work, but he never seems to mind. And he puts his earnings to good use – since he has been working with us he has made wonderful home improvements – a new cement floor, windows, and he’s added two rooms to his home.

Then, along came Francisco Niembro. I met him when he was speaking at the 2017 US Compost Council’s annual Worm Composting convention. Francisco (from Aldea Verde Lombricultura based out of Queretero, Mexico) is one of the leading experts in the worm composting industry, having designed and built something like twenty large scale worm farms in Mexico, but he mostly struck me as a very warm person.

FN model ASP
Francisco Niembro’s CAD design for our ASP

Since we were both working in Mexico, Francisco told me to keep in touch. But when we here in Oaxaca ran into some technical difficulties a few months later, I was hesitant to ask for help, since our scale is so small, and we can’t really afford his services. But he would hear none of that, jumped right in, redesigned our entire operation using his state-of-the-art design tools.

Based on Francisco’s design, we hired Paco (the local hands-on engineer-genius) to build us a four bay ASP. After a failed attempt over the summer, we built our first successful pile in the ASP in October, using all of the same high-quality inputs. The PFRP requirement for ASP piles is 3 days above 131F, no problem with this system!

Above left: the front side of the ASP with removable front panels. Above right: The back side of the ASP, with separate air flow values for each bay, and Paco’s motorcycle in the background.

The secret to making aerobic compost without turning the piles – the secret to how the ASP works – is to intermittently force air into the pile from below. And the result? The best quality thermophilic compost in Oaxaca, without turning a pile.

Top left: the timer I found on Amazon (the one find that I have been able to give back to Francisco). Top right: the electric air blower. Bottom left: PVC with air holes in the floor of the bays. Bottom right: the data sheet showing our amazing results with the ASP.

In the next segment of our tour, which will come as Part 2 of this series, we will look at what Jose will do with all of his free time now that he doesn’t have to turn the piles.

 

 

The Long, Strange Week

Every now and then living in Oaxaca gets to feeling regular…routine…dare I say, boring? Part of that is by design – I like to plan, I like to have a schedule. Part of it is just by virtue of living someplace for a while – we have seen the parades, heard the bands, navigated the markets, figured out the transportation. But my strategy is to try to say “yes” to whatever new opportunities come along and every now and then things happen that remind me that our life here is full of surprises. It was one of those weeks.

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At the Tule Tree

One Saturday, just after putting our kids – and a grandkid – on a plane back to the U.S., I got a text message from a driver I sometimes hire here. He asked if I knew of anyone interested in teaching an English class at the school his girlfriend runs. Next thing I knew, I had a job at Casa de Lenguas. The students are absolutely delightful and I’m reminded that I love teaching.

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My classroom
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Night out with some students

Tuesday morning I was out of the house by 7:00, flagging down a taxi to go to San Lorenzo Cocaotepec, where I was giving a workshop to 3rd and 4th graders on worm composting. Angel, the driver, was very friendly and chatty, asking me where I was from, what I was doing here…eventually, how old I was (he said he was 28)…and finally, if I was faithful to my husband. I chewed him out for asking me such a thing and we made the rest of the ride in silence. In fact, it was as if he could no longer hear me. No sooner had I given him directions to the school than he pulled over to ask a man on the corner how to get to the school. I don’t know which was more annoying, being propositioned or being ignored.

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Nubia’s classroom

Finally at the school, my friend Nubia introduced me to her class and we went to the basketball court to work on our project. The boys sat at one table, the girls at the other. The girls sat quietly while I talked, followed directions, and kept their area quite tidy. The boys were falling off their chairs, chatting (they were impressed with my ability to whistle with my fingers), were generally satisfied with however their containers turned out, and made a huge mess. After the workshop, the kids brought me a lovely breakfast. We sat and chatted until it was time for their next class, then I packed up and decided to take the bus back to town. Sure, chances were slim I would run into Angel again, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

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Nubia keeps an eye on things
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The girls’ table

Looking at my phone on the ride home I saw a message from our friend Enrique asking me to meet him the next morning at 7:30 for our television appearance. Television appearance? Randy and I were doing a workshop at  La Cosecha (where Enrique is a director) and he had arranged a spot on the local morning news for us to talk about it. So the next morning there I was, in the television studio, feeling sick to my stomach. We took our seats and before the cameras started rolling one of the anchors turned to me and said “Fskllkdjiticyngpeiusn.” At least that’s what I heard. Once I caught my breath, things went fine but I told Enrique that would be my last TV appearance.

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Enrique waiting in the lobby at CORTV
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My smart-aleck husband put a star on my door.
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The Wicking Bed Workshop, as featured on CORTV!

On Thursday morning my English student Diana, knowing that I used to be an RN, asked if I could give her mother injections over the next 5 days. It had been several years since I’d given anyone an injection but hey, how much could it change? I will admit, I spent some time that afternoon watching YouTube videos to refresh my memory on how to locate the ventrogluteal site . Margarita showed up with syringes and ampules filled with the medication and the next thing I knew I was not only giving her shots, I was also giving her English lessons on Monday nights.

But the creme de la creme was the temazcal in Teotitlán. A temazcal is a Mesoamerican sweat lodge that was used by the indigenous people of the Oaxaca valley. I’ve done it twice. The first time was the boutique version, offered by a local hotel. It was lovely and relaxing but nothing that made me think “Oh my God, how did I get here?” The second time made me think just that.

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Entrance to the boutique temazcal

Friends Mica and Susan and I were looking for a more rustic version for a special En Vía tour. One of our borrowers, María, had a temazcal on her property and it was…more rustic. As we stood in the middle of the walled property we were instructed to take off all our clothes and crawl through the small opening into the temazcal. All modesty gone, we followed instructions and found ourselves in an adobe structure that was about 6 x 10 x 4. The dirt floor was covered with leaves, branches and straw mats. Soon the room was filled with steam. We were lying on our stomachs and María began the flogging portion of the experience. The boutique version had been very gently dragging eucalyptus leaves across the back; this was outright whacking with entire branches. We were none too excited to turn onto our backs for the second half of this, but in the spirit of investigation we did. Shortly, however, the temazcal filled with smoke and after arguing a bit with María about the difference between smoke and steam, we all crawled out into the fresh air. María collapsed on the mats provided, as Mica, Susan and I watched in shock – was she dying? But no, it was just part of the experience and she soon crawled back into the steam/smoke bath and waited for us to join her. She wasn’t done flogging us yet.

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The entrance to María’s temazcal

After a couple rounds of this, we thanked María and told her we were ready for the final cool down. We lay down on the mats just outside the temazcal and María’s sister covered us with sheets. Suddenly I was very aware that I was lying naked in someone’s backyard in a pueblo in the middle of México, looking at more stars than I’d ever seen at one time, and listening to a fiesta (right on the other side of the wall) with the band playing Cielito Lindo while everyone sang along. And I thought to myself “Oh my God, how did I get here?”

And really, that’s why I’m here – to have experiences that add up to long, strange weeks that make me wonder where I’ll be next. The secret is to keep saying “yes.”

A Year in Signs

2017 found Randy and me crossing a lot of borders – geographic and otherwise –  and reading a lot of signs along the way. They provide a nice template for themes of the year.

El Desfile de Mujeres or The Women’s March

In January over 2000 people in Oaxaca – U.S. citizens, Mexicans, Canadians, Brits, Australians and more – took to the streets to express our distress over the results of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Our Mexican neighbors wondered how we could elect a man who referred to them as “rapists…and probably a few good people.” Our Canadian friends were gracious but I could tell most of them felt superior. One of the best signs was carried by our Canadian friend Bill, which read “Make the Bad Man Stop.” Bill has had the sign for years and has carried it in several protests because, let’s face it, it’s usually about a bad man who needs to stop.

The Project Tour

In February En Vía (envia.org) hosted the Second Annual Judson Project Tour. Seven friends from our church in Minneapolis (judsonchurch.org) spent 5 days learning about our micro-finance program, working on projects with some of our women borrowers, and soaking up Oaxacan culture. A smoke-venting stove was built for Lucia in San Miguel del Valle, and the Soto sisters in Santo Domingo Tomaltepec had their storefronts painted with new logos and designs. Participants also took a regular En Vía tour, a Zapotec cooking class in Teotitlán, and a hike above the tree-line in the Sierras. One morning at breakfast I spotted this bumper sticker on the kitchen door of our B&B. After spending a bit of time trying to figure out why “God” was misspelled, the 16-year-old on the tour, Seneca, asked “Isn’t that supposed to be short for Guadalupe?” Oh, yeah, and there’s her picture! By the way, if you have a group that would be interested in a private Project Tour, contact Eda at En Vía.

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Butterflies!

One of my Bucket List items while in México was to see the Monarch migration and this was the year. Randy and I, along with friends Mica and Will, headed off for the state of Michoacán, Butterfly Central. Ironically, although we stayed in Angangueo, Michoacán, the sanctuary we visited, Sierra Chincua,  was just across the border in the state of México. Our second stop was Macheros, México, home of the Cerro Pelón Sanctuary. So we didn’t actually see any butterflies in Michoacán, but we did see butterflies! The life-cycle of the Monarch is amazing. In late summer, butterflies in the Great Lakes area somehow know it’s time to head south; and not just south, but specifically to the biosphere in south-central México. This generation (Generation 4) arrives in Mexico after a few weeks and spends the winter there. In the spring, they mate and the males die. The females head north. They stop in northern México or the southern U.S. to lay their eggs, then the females die. What is technically Generation 1 hatches and somehow knows to keep heading north, arriving in – among other places – my home state of Minnesota. This generation mates, lays eggs, and dies in about June. Generations 2 and 3 hang out in the upper midwest for their lifespans. Generation 4 somehow knows it’s time to head to México…and on, and on.

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The Year of the Misericordia

Pope Francis declared 2017 “El Año de la Misericordia.” Just what is the Misericordia, you ask? It is a Latin word meaning mercy, a broad term that refers to benevolence, forgiveness, and kindness in a variety of ethical, religious, social, and legal contexts. The concept of a “Merciful God” appears in various religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Some of the suggestions on the tarp below, which was hanging in a Catholic church, include: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; give shelter to someone homeless or on a pilgrimage. How are we doing?

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Temporary Residents

As temporary residents of México, Randy and I are able to participate in the government-run health care system (IMSS). For about $225 each, we have comprehensive coverage. That’s $225 a year. My two favorite things about being in the system so far have been buying the sterile specimen cup from a street vendor outside the hospital (this is the official place to buy them) and the signs at the main office where we went to register. After completing the process, which took a couple of days, I could understand why they had to remind people not to run, push, or scream.

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Wicking Bed Workshops

As an off-shoot of the compost business, Valle Fértil Oaxaca, Randy and I have started offering workshops on how to make container gardens out of recyclable materials. We’ve partnered with a couple of different shops that sell Valle Fértil compost and have had good turn outs and a lot of fun. These posters were made by the talented Diana, daughter of the vivacious Lupita, owner of the fabulous Bambú Naturalmente Orgánico.

Not in México Anymore

We made several trips to the U.S. during the year to see family and friends and tend to Randy’s summer job, Organic Bob Lawn Care.

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Olive

A Trip to Puebla

Puebla is a charming town just southeast of México City. It suffered a magnitude 7.1 earthquake on September 19, 2017 (coincidentally, the 32nd anniversary of a quake in Mexico City that killed over 10,000 people). Although the city seemed to be functioning normally when we were there just before Christmas, several buildings were damaged and closed. On a lighter note, there seems to be a serious problem with people trying to sneak children into public pay toilets. Even if you do not speak one single word of Spanish I’ll bet you can answer the following questions: What is the entrance fee? What is the fee for an adult? What is the fee for a child? What is the fee for one adult and one child? Do children get in free?

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And a Few Random Favorites

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                   The recipe for success is buying on credit. A celebrity chef (hence the reference to a recipe) fist-bumping a poor, impressionable student.  
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Save your spit, I don’t sell on credit. Apparently the recipe for success is not available everywhere.
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NEIGHBORS UNITED AGAINST CRIME…WE ARE WATCHING YOU…IF WE CATCH YOU, WE WILL LYNCH YOU…TOURISTS: IF YOU FEEL YOU ARE IN DANGER, SCREAM…SIGNED NEIGHBORS OF THE XOCHIMILCO ARCHES. So much to love about this one…First, we hope the bad guys can – and take the time to – read; second, we hope that the tourists can – and take the time to – read Spanish. Welcome to Oaxaca!

Farewell to 2017

Families in the neighborhood painted this message on the side of their house, wishing everyone a merry Christmas, and peace and prosperity in the new year.  Although not exactly a sign, I’ve included it because it conjures up such a great image of all these people working together, naming all the family members, and sending goodwill and wishes to random passers-by. The perfect way to end the year, and this post. ¡Prospero Año Nuevo!

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As the Worm Turns

The first year we lived in Oaxaca, Randy would occasionally remind me that it wasn’t his dream to live in Mexico and learn Spanish (usually after a frustrating Spanish lesson). But that hardly ever happens anymore; as a matter of fact, it was his idea to keep this Minnesota-México revolving door going indefinitely. After 30 years of Corporate America he got a taste of freedom and now it seems there’s no turning back. I will admit I sometimes miss things about the days when Randy was having his soul sucked dry by The Bank – the reliable income, the employee health care, the frequent flyer miles – but, as I said, he was having his soul sucked dry by the demands, overtime, politics, travel, etc. What Randy really likes to do is come up with ideas and manifest them and he managed to do some of that over the past 25 years, despite The Bank. He and partner Doug Harvey started an IT consulting firm in 1997 and he currently has an organic lawn care business with his partner Bob Dahm (organicbob.com) But now he is pursuing his true dream…Valle Fértil (vallefertil.com).

IMG_2498Before we even came to Oaxaca, Randy was thinking about making compost in México. My first reaction (which I kept to myself) was “That seems like a stupid idea.” I mean, you throw your food scrapes in a bucket and a few months later, viola, you have compost. Why would anyone pay for it? But likewise, why would I stand in the way of Randy trying something new? After all, he’d be making the best of my dream…

And it turns out I was so, so, wrong about how to make real compost. It involves dump trucks of cow manure, pick-up trucks full of corn stalks; it requires watering, turning, resting, and screening. And if you want worm compost – and around here you do – you need California Red Wigglers, a raised bed, and lots of cardboard. And all of this calls for land. Randy started out using our friend Victor’s land, a bit north of the city, but eventually outgrew it. Through a stroke of luck, for both sides, we found José and are renting land from him in the Etla Valley. José seemed a bit down on his luck and was thrilled when we proposed renting. It wasn’t long before he offered to help work with Randy and Rigo twice a week and now he’s constructing a galera (open-sided shelter) to keep the compost dry(ish) during the rains. I’ve only spent one afternoon “working” at Worm Central (and I spent about an hour of it lying in Rigo’s truck, talking to son Evan on the phone). It’s hot and it’s hard work. When the work was done, Jose invited us to join his family for dinner. Their home is incredibly humble but they were so generous and it was clear that they were very grateful to have the income. When I wonder if we’ll ever make a profit at this business, I add what we pay José to the price of Randy having a dream.

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The view from José’s land in Etla

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I was also wrong about the demand for compost. We started out selling 2Kg. bags at Victor and Rebecca’s store, La Miscelánea (facebook.com/LaMiscelaneaOax) and I had a stall at the local organic market, La Cosecha (facebook.com/LaCosechaOaxaca). We hired our friend Marianna to sell around town and now we have accounts at various shops and restaurants. And lots of friends and acquaintances who, perhaps, at first bought a bag to be supportive, are now regular customers. Although we are still spending more than we’re making, we are benefitting in other ways: meeting new people, improving growing conditions, and creating a few jobs.

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The Matadamas family welcomed us to participate at La Cosecha Organic Market

And, apparently, compost is fascinating. I was recently at a party where few people knew each other, so we went around the room introducing ourselves. I said that I was working with a non-profit that gave interest-free microloans to women with small businesses in the Tlacolula Valley and my husband was making compost. “Compost?” said everyone. “How interesting! Tell us more about the compost!” Variations on this story have happened several times.

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See? Fascinating.

The best part, though, is being able to see Randy throw himself into this project so whole-heartedly. The man who used to be heat-intolerant is now doing physical labor for hours under the hot Mexican sun; who used to have to eat lunch at 11:55 everyday can now get so immersed he forgets about lunch altogether; who used to refuse to conjugate verbs in Spanish now chatting with co-workers and customers. Over the past 25 years, I’ve had it good. I got to stay home with our kids while they were young, do volunteer work, and go to graduate school. When I went back to work, I was able to choose a job I liked and found fulfilling without worrying about the salary (more-empowerment.org). Randy pulled the financial weight of our family. Now it’s his turn to do what interests him and I’m glad to help. Because, as fun as it is, it was never my dream to turn compost and water worms.

 

 

 

Four Weddings and, Luckily, No Funerals

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Flower girl in Tule
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Receiving line in Teotitlán
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Braided hair and winter jackets in Tierra Colorada
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The bride and broom

As we get to know people here in Oaxaca, we find ourselves being included in their celebrations – quinceañeras, birthdays, company Christmas parties (well, one), and weddings. The funny thing about the four weddings we’ve been to is that we have not known a single bride or groom. Even at the wedding where we were asked to be the witnesses. Although it can feel a bit awkward, we accept the invitations from the aunts, mothers, and friends of los novios because they seem to genuinely want us to be there (maybe there is a “gringo lottery” that we don’t know about…) and because each one has been a great glimpse into Mexican culture.

We started at the top – Santo Domingo. Our friend Helen, who we’d met only a couple weeks earlier, invited us to her niece’s wedding. At first we told her we couldn’t attend because we would have guests staying with us. They were invited, too. The church of Santo Domingo is at the heart of the city of Oaxaca, geographically and culturally. The former monastery, which is attached, is now the Cultural Center of Oaxaca, and the grounds are an impressive ethnobotanical garden. The church itself has been completely restored and boasts use of more than 60,000 sheets of 23.5 karat gold leaf. To say it is opulent is no exaggeration.

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Santo Domingo
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Photos outside the church

We were to meet Helen outside the church but at 5:55 she was nowhere in sight and the entire wedding party was lined up in the plaza, so we decided to just take a seat. As we watched the participants process down the nave I realized that we could very well be at the wrong wedding…We knew no one, Helen wasn’t there…But finally there was a tap on my shoulder and Helen and her friend Rosalía slid into the pew behind us. The wedding was over-the-top, with a choir, an orchestra, probably a dozen attendants (only for the bride). After the ceremony, everyone gathered in the plaza for a band, traditional dancers and fireworks. Then, off to the reception at a nearby hotel. The reception was quite like any in the U.S., although the first order of business was to perform the civil ceremony. Then there was dinner, dancing, and a lot of mezcal-drinking. Among the highlights: a choreographed dance for the bride and her father to the unlikely Bee Gee’s song “More Than a Woman.”

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Does it seem like she doesn’t recognize us?

The next wedding was as different as it could be. Enedina, one of the weavers who has been with En Vía for years (www.envia.org), invited several of us to her daughter Yanet’s wedding in Teotitlán. It was a traditional pueblo wedding, with a mass at 8:00 in the morning (Randy and I missed that part), followed by hours of eating and drinking at the bride’s home. A band played as we were plied with loaves of bread (and bags so we could take home the loaves we couldn’t eat), hot chocolate, higadito soup, and of course, mezcal. Around noon, the men started moving the gifts (stored at the bride’s house) onto trucks to be taken to the couple’s new home – with the groom’s parents. All the gifts, except ours, were wrapped in clear plastic so people could see them. There were dish sets, pots and pans, brooms and mops, tables and chairs, a washing machine, a refrigerator, several large pieces of furniture. It was all loaded onto the trucks. Then we all paraded to Manuel’s parents’ home, where there was more bread, more mezcal, more music, and a fabulous barbecue. Because the last bus leaves Teotitlán at 6:30, and because we had been eating, drinking, and socializing for 10 hours already, we did not stay for the dancing. On the way to the bus, a big black SUV pulled up next to us. The window rolled down and someone asked “Do you need a ride back to Oaxaca?” Our friends Tanya and Ralph, who have a tour business (http://www.gowelltours.com/), just happened to be driving by. It’s a small world, alright.

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The Teotitlán band
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Yanet and Manuel lead the procession from her home to theirs
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It’s a good idea to invite young, strong people to the wedding
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They must have received at least 60 place settings
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Yanet’s new loom on the truck

We were invited to Wedding #3 by our friend, Abram, who not only invited us, but asked us to be witnesses for the groom. Apparently, he was a U.S. citizen who would not have any family or friends present. After ascertaining that this would not involve buying the couple a house or raising their children, we agreed. Abram needed copies of our passports so that our names would be written correctly on all the documents. This was VERY important.

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Abram and Randy killing time (2 hours, actually) before the wedding
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Perfect

The day of the wedding, we arrived a bit early, met the bride and groom, then waited for 2 hours for the judge to show up. The ceremony finally begins. Randy and I, the bride and groom, and the bride’s witnesses, stand in front of all the guests. The judge turns to me and says “Sarah Bowen Cox?” Um, well, not exactly…didn’t I give them a copy of my passport so they would get it exactly right? Sarah Bowen Cox Baker. Should I correct her? I mean, this was VERY important! I ponder all this for a bit, giving everyone a chance to wonder what the hell is wrong with the gringa. Then I just say “Sí.” Sighs of relief. Then the judge asks if I’ve known the groom for a long time. What do I say to that – “Well, thanks to you I’ve known him for a couple of hours?” Now I see Abram frantically nodding his head, as if I hadn’t understood the question. I don’t like to lie, but I can see that this is not the day to take the moral high ground. “Sí, claro,” I reply. But the judge just can’t stop – So, you would know if there were some reason he couldn’t get married, wouldn’t you? I know I’m going straight to hell as I again reply “Sí.” Randy and the other witnesses get through their parts with no problem, the bride and groom say “I Do,” I write the wrong name on each of 4 copies of official documents, and Carlitos and Itandehui  are pronounced Hombre y Mujer.

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Los Novios
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Lots of kids and dancing

The last wedding (and Randy says it will be the last) was another pueblo wedding, this time the niece of our friend Serghio. Neither Serghio nor his wife Alicia could remember the niece’s name, which we thought was odd, until we arrived at the wedding and saw that everyone was someone’s aunt, uncle, niece, or nephew. Who can keep track of that? There was the usual bread-soup-and-mole-eating and mezcal-drinking but after about 7 hours of that, we got to dance around with the gifts on our heads, before walking about a mile down a mountain road to deliver them to the couple’s new home. Waiting there were cake, music, mezcal, and although I didn’t see it, I suspect more bread. By now it was dark and we realized that there wasn’t really a plan for getting home. We waited by the side of the road for a while, hoping a taxi or colectivo would pass by, but it was pretty deserted. But we were with Alicia, a woman who knows how to get things done, so before long we found ourselves piling into the back of another guest’s pick-up truck and being whisked down the mountain into Oaxaca. I have to admit, I’ve come to really enjoy riding in the back of a pick-up truck, and this ride, with the smell of pine, the rising moon, and the silhouette of mountains on all sides, was the best.

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Hot chocolate on a chilly morning
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Two bands ensured non-stop music
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Alicia and Serghio with their son, Marcos
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Delivering the gifts

When I compare what I know about weddings in México to those in the U.S. – although my knowledge is very limited and there is plenty of variety within each country – I’m struck by the difference in inclusivity.  In the U.S., it seems that quality and cost are most important. Guest lists get whittled away, people are left out, your cousin can’t bring a guest, etc., in favor of a fancy venue. According to a survey by The Knot, the average cost of a wedding day in the U.S. in 2016 was $35,329, up $2,688 from 2015, while the number of guests dropped from 149 to 141 (http://fortune.com/2017/02/03/wedding-cost-spending-usa-average/).  In México, you can bring a guest (or four) and in our case, at least, they will be treated like friends of the family. The venue and food may be humble (or maybe not) but what’s important is welcoming your community – and sometimes your community’s community. Randy and I have been honored to be a part of it.