We are thrilled to finally announce that Andrea Catalina Mesa is our Mitti Hero of May! Catalina is a passionate environmentalist and is working on her agroforestry project in Colombia. After setting up a successful small-scale organic farm in Florida, USA, she returned to her home country determined to restore an ecosystem once lost at her family’s cattle farm. We caught up with her last month to have a chat about her project, the struggles she faced working in Colombia, and the rewarding feeling of watching nature taking the reins on her farm. 

Catalina is also a member of The Mitti Collective, and we are very proud to be her colleagues. Please check out her Instagram, where she shares amazing updates from her farm. If you are based in Colombia and are willing to help Catalina out with her project, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us by emailing info@themitticollective.com.

This is Catalina, our Mitti Hero for May, on her agroforestry farm in Colombia with Maggie – the oldest cow they have.

Catalina on her professional and academic background:

“I studied International Relations in Colombia. When I graduated, I started working in the diplomatic sector, but quickly realized I didn’t like it because of the corruption. So I switched to working for an environmental agency, where at first I worked in an administrative role. I soon realized that working there, in that role, I couldn’t actually help the people and the planet. And that’s something I’ve been wanting to do my whole life – help people. So I quit – I moved to the US to get my Master’s degree in Environmental Policy and Management. I loved studying there, and it reinforced my desire to do all these little things for the environment: reforestation projects, teaching people how to improve their ways of living, etc.”

On how she came up with an idea of setting up an organic farm in Miami, Florida:

“When the pandemic hit, I was living on a ranch in Florida. I decided to set up a little plot there and plant vegetables and fruits. I also bought 25 chickens. Then, people started coming to me asking for eggs and spinach – because there weren’t any in the shops. I realized local people actually really liked organically grown food. And I really enjoyed growing it – it was one of the ways to help people, in a pretty easy way! People who purchased my produce weren’t rich – they were just working around the ranch. They told me that organic food was very expensive in the US and that my produce was the cheapest they had seen. I decided that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life – growing organic food and making it available for people who can’t afford it normally.”

“This was the plot in Miami before we transplanted all the food. We used to apply horse and chicken manure mixed with sawdust to the soil as a fertilizer.”

On the first steps in farming:

“The guy who owns the ranch I was living on was actually the one who first taught me how to farm. He grew some peppers, and at first, I started helping him with that. He told me that I had a very good hand because everything I planted was growing even if it wasn’t a good time for sowing. My brother also influenced my farming preferences – he gave me the Almanac and the concept of planting by the moon immediately fascinated me. I even did my little experiments, sowing in different moon phases, and it turned out that the moon method actually worked!”

“This was all the food grown on the plot in Miami during the quarantine.”
“The first harvest at the plot in Miami.”

On the story behind her agroforestry project in Colombia:

“As I got more interested in the topic, I started learning about agroforestry. Then it was time for me to go back to Colombia. Here, my father has a farm with cattle. When I arrived there, there was nothing – the soil was dry, there was no water. The previous owners cultivated dragonfruit there. Twenty years ago, it was full of dragonfruit and other exotic trees – there was a whole forest of them. Then all of them were cut in order to clear the area for housing. However, the local authorities did not give a construction permit, because that land was part of a forestry reserve. So instead the land was used for monoculture farming (growing forage grass for the cattle). Apart from that, the water source was cut – the course of the nearby river was moved to accommodate the expansion of a local golf club. A couple of years ago, La Niña brought horrible drought and strong winds, which exacerbated the problem – and the soil dried out completely.

I realized it would be very difficult to restore soil health there – it was in a tropical climate, and all the trees were cut, so it amplified the heat. After months of negotiating, I convinced my dad to leave the farm to me, and I promised to restore the local ecosystem there with the help of agroforestry. I knew it would take a long time for a project like this to finally work – 5 to 7 years at least.”

“This was the first lake we implemented in the farm in Colombia to be able to have water for the entire system, especially for the dry seasons. Yesterday, we introduced 1000 Tilapia trees to see if we can use them as a natural filter for the lake.”
“This is how the mountain looks today after applying the compost, manure and humus. We are currently waiting for trees to grow a little bit more to be able to transplant them in this paddock.”

On how the trees are planted and soil health is restored:

“I start by planting seeds in a small base. When they grow to 5-6cm, I transport them into bags with soil. Then, when they reach 20cm or so I transport them to their spot on the farm.

To restore the soil, first I planted tall trees like Ceiba (Kapok Tree) and Saman (Monkey Pod Tree). Then in February, I started planting all the plants that would be around the trees, like passionfruit and goldenberries, and most recently – in May – I planted ginger, potatoes, coriander, lettuce, parsley, and cucumbers (I have a lot of those!). There are also 50 free-ranging chickens and cattle which help me improve soil health.

I use manure and compost – right now we are aerating it, as well as preparing humus for the soil. Working with soil is very tricky on this farm because it’s on a mountain, so sometimes you need to literally climb like a mountain goat to get around here. I want to create some sort of balconies, or levels and plant shrubbery there to prevent topsoil runoff during rainy seasons.”

“This was the first Yellow Ceiba that we planted in the agroforestry system to start with the reforestation.”
“Those are Tamarinds that in the future will be planted to have shadow for some crops.”

On challenges to her work so far:

“It’s really hard for me to do all this as a woman. I don’t have enough physical strength to deal with all the manual labor that’s required to run an agroforestry farm. I only have one man helping me from time to time. Here in Colombia machismo is a big part of the culture. Men in the farming community really don’t like being told what to do by a woman. People don’t believe in me or in my project because I’m a woman.

Another thing I’m struggling with at the moment is pest control. Pests ate four Pomarosa trees and rocket plants on my farm. So now I’m learning all about possible organic pesticides. I’m particularly interested in companion planting. I know that in the long term when my farm becomes a well-functioning ecosystem, I won’t have to worry about pests and plant diseases. In a healthy ecosystem, everything is part of a bigger picture, and nature takes care of everything without human intervention. An agronomist I work with told me that building a system like that on my farm, it will take me 5-7 years. I am in year 1! But I am hopeful for the future and I’m sure everything will work out for me.”

On protests in Colombia and how they affected farmers:

“A lot of my family members live in the city, and when the protests started it became challenging for them to get food. I grew and gave them a lot of coriander, parsley, and goldenberries. Because of road closures, supply chains were disturbed and food became very expensive. Producers started experiencing great losses because they couldn’t deliver anything. That was devastating. Dairy farmers had to dump all their milk because it didn’t get sold. Recently my cattle got sick, but because of road closures, veterinarians couldn’t get to my farm, so three of my cows died. On the other hand, I have been selling eggs from my Colombian farm to my neighbors for two months now. They like buying from me because they are able to see hens grazing freely on the farm. In February, I also sold all the cucumbers I had.”

“Our happy free range chickens!”
“We recycle plastic cans to make the hen nests.”

On her future plans and whether she is returning to the States:

“I don’t think so. If I had a piece of land there that was my own and I could do a similar kind of project there, then maybe. But only after my project here in Colombia is finished, so not in the next five years! I can also see myself working in the policy sector there.

Right now I’m working on a business plan to help convince people that although it’s a long-term project, I know what I’m doing and I know that it will work in the end. I’m hoping this will help me find some volunteers to come and help me because it’s very difficult to do all the work by myself.”

– An interview article by Daria Eremenko

If you found inspiration in Catalina’s journey, check out The Mitti Heroes of April – Abdel and Jennifer, here. Also, make sure to follow our Instagram @themitticollective to get up-to-date posts from our featured series #themittihero.

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