In Pursuit of the Year-Round Harvest: A visit to Topara Organico in Peru

This is one in a series of re-posts from past travels by Culinary Collective founders Betsy Power and Pere Selles to Spain and Peru. Culinary Collective travels the world to find the very best gourmet traditional foods, supporting small producers who have strong ties to their lands and their communities. We hope you enjoy the journey as much as the ultimate destination – delicious food! 

by Betsy 

10/17/11

From the dingy-window vantage point of our VW bug, the coastline of Peru appears to be a never-ending stretch of dirt-like brown sand. Yet interspersed in this lifeless landscape, verdant valleys, appearing unexpectedly, form around the wide rivers that run from the Andes to the Pacific. Farmers coax the land to give life to an amazing diversity of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. One of these oases, the Topara Valley about 2 hours south of Lima, is the home to the first organic farm and the only organic nursery in Peru.

The drive from the harsh coastline desert to the abundance of the Topara Valley is an unexpected almost surreal transition. Having experienced it once before some four years ago did not diminish the surprise on this second visit, as we rounded one last dusty dune to find ourselves surrounded by the vibrant green of the extraordinary Topara Organico farm.

This time I had come to explore the farm’s exciting new innovation in aji production devised by Stefan Bedersky, Topara owner and master farmer. As in all things Bedersky, this new innovation has been a patient practice of trial by error. But the effort will allow the farm to grow ajis, or native Peruvian peppers, year round instead of having to rely on just one harvest a year.

Traditionally in this region, the ajis are planted in August, harvested in April thru May and tilled back into the land in June, preparing the soil for the next year’s planting. But this process creates several challenges: considerable amounts of fertilizer, albeit organic, are needed as year-after-year planting depletes the soil; only one harvest a year forces the farmer to process much of the crop into paste, dried pods, or powder for preservation; and relentless fruit flies attracted by the aji plants wreak havoc on other nearby crops.

After mulling over these challenges for years, Stefan put his musings to the test last December in the form of an experimental “greenhouse”. This is not the typical glass enclosed structure, but one made of a fine mesh that keeps rain and insects at bay, while increasing inside temperature sufficiently during the relatively mild Peruvian coastal winters.

Fifty trial aji plants were each cultivated in black “bags”, a technology that the family has perfected in their organic nursery. Each bag was then placed on a handmade bamboo mat and lined up in rows. The plants grew strong in their new home and were harvested in April. But instead of replacing the plants with newly seeded ones as is the norm, Stefan cut the plants down to their nubs, leaving the root system in place, and watched another crop come in a couple of months later.

Stefan began construction on a half hectare greenhouse in March, allowing the first large scale trial during the Peruvian winter months, a major hurdle for year round crops. But construction did not move along fast enough, and the partially enclosed seedlings got caught in one of the worst winters Peru has seen in decades – nonstop rain, colder than usual temperatures, and wind.  The soil in the lower portion of the growing bags became compacted, stunting the root growth, and the first crop was all but lost. But Stefan, never to give up, had his team cut the stems back and is now watching the plants successfully re-bud.
Plans are in the place for three more greenhouses in the near future. If all goes well, Topara will soon be able to harvest ajis year round, processing them as needed for the demanding market. Another hardMeanwhile back at the experimental greenhouse, the plants live on and continue to produce. Stefan believes he will be able to keep the plants alive through several crops, replacing older unproductive plants with fresh new seedlings as necessary. Within the greenhouse system, every plant can receive custom care, from watering to nutrition and pruning. Each plant uses less fertilizer, needs less maintenance and less spraying with organic biocides, bringing down overall costs.

As always, hard won success at the Topara farm.