Vanilla, horses, dairy, and final reflections

MARL Class XI started its last morning in Ecuador with COVID-19 testing at the hotel in tropical Santo Domingo dos Colorados, before departing for the nearby Vainuz vanilla farm. A negative result is currently required for returning trips to the U.S.. Fortunately, all received a negative result later that day.

Founder/owner Dr. Eduardo Uzcategui, Ph.D.  has spent time in the U.S. for his doctorate degree in Animal Science, then worked as Dean of the school of agriculture at the University of San Francisco in Quito. Has worked on/owned this vanilla farm for 23 years. The entire operation started with one vanilla plant, now spread throughout 7 greenhouses and 24 employees. They now produce 1 ton of vanilla of a Tahitian variety annually.

We first viewed the pollination greenhouse. Only women work in this greenhouse as it is a tedious task done by hand (small hands work well) and is done daily. Up to 2,500 hand pollinated plants per day per employee. Harvest will take place 9 months after pollination and flowering.

We then viewed a 1,000 sq meter greenhouse which models what one person could take care of on their own. They use this as an educational area to teach people how they could do this at their farm. Vanilla is not commonly grown in Ecuador, and Dr. Uzcategui is passionate about teaching vanilla farming to others.

The last greenhouse we walked through we were shown how the fertilizer is prepared. Dr. Uzcategui also raises quail, and uses their eggshells in the fertilizer. Finally, special vanilla products were offered for sale. The friendly welcome of Dr. Eduardo Uzcategui and his staff will not soon be forgotten.

On our way from the province of Santo Domingo dos Tsachilas to the province of Pichincha for our next tour, we were delayed about 2 hours due to a mud slide that had wiped out part of the E20 highway. We finally arrived at the Hacienda la Alegria in Aloag; a working dairy- and horse farm since 1910. Since 20 years, it has also specialized in tourism. The beautiful historical colonial Spanish style hacienda offers lodging, meals, horseback riding trips in the area, including to the famous Cotopaxi National Park; the volcano in its view. Owner Gabriel Espinosa welcomed us with a warm cooked lunch, and a brief overview of the history of his family dairy farm.

Cows have been milked at Hacienda la Alegria over 90 years. Gabriel is a prominent leader in the dairy industry, but has also broadened his operation to agro-tourism with an emphasis on horseback riding. Hacienda la Alegria owns 90 horses, and is known for its breeding. Approx. 35 animals serve for horseback riding. The dairy cows of the hacienda graze year round. Gabriel shared his desire to become certified organic soon. The farm renews its pastures every 2-5 years. Chicken manure is used in addition as fertilizer.

Espinosa has served as the president of the Ecuadorian cattle- and dairy association, representing 6,000 farmers throughout 6 provinces. The association works with the state to get milk to children in the schools, and promote dairy consumption. Due to the delay caused by the landslide, our visit to the hacienda was cut much shorter than planned. For more info about this agro-tourism destination, we can refer to its website:, or its captivating video on YouTube:

We said our goodbyes and shared our gratitude with Gabriel Espinosa and family, and resumed our travels back to the airport in Quito. An Eco Lodge near the airport provided us with hot showers and a chance to change clothes for the return flight, as well as a place to share final reflections. Educators Toby Spanier and Christy Kallevig facilitated a brief session where we could share stories, and more.

During the farewell dinner, we said goodbye to the beautiful country and people of Ecuador, and thanked our tourguide Ivan, his assistant Mateo, and incredible bus driver Fernando.  We boarded our 11:30pm flight back to the states. Tired, but more importantly grateful for this unique opportunity to expand our horizons as leaders.

Submitted by Seminar Management Team Green: Sarah McConnell, Joel Dorn, Haley Ammann-Ekstrom and Jessica Miller. Edited by Olga Brouwer.

Pineapples, Plantains

The class enjoyed breakfast at the Sisakuna Lodge in Mindo, and departed for a 2.5 hour bus ride to the San Fransisco Farm (a medium sized operation) to learn about the production of pineapples. They operate 750 hectors of land of which 210 are pineapple and they also have cattle, cocoa and reforest some of their land.

The tour began at the plant where we watched employees unload trailers of the fruit. Each trailer transports 2,000 (1 MT) pineapples and the front line employees are responsible for checking the quality of the fruit and load on the belt to be disinfected. Any ripe produce that can’t be exported is sold to local markets. At San Fransisco Farm their main clients include France, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.  France is a newer client for them and they ship 2 containers a week with plans to increase to 4 containers.

Following the disinfection process the pineapple is sealed in an organic wax. They randomly select fruit to send to the lab to do quality control where they test the water, acidity and brix for sugar content before they ship the containers. The pineapples then move to the cold room to reduce the temp (7 degrees Celsius). The cold room helps kill any potential fungal infections.  Each week they completely empty and disinfect the cold rooms to prevent mushrooms.

Before any containers are sent to Chile workers are required to inspect every pineapple to look for snails. If just one snail is found they will reject the container, get a fine, lose their fruit and potentially lose their permit to ship to Chile.

Next the class moved out to the fields to better understand the growing process. All pineapple crops are planted and harvested by hand. The class learned about the sampling process and field production utilizing pesticides. The apply pesticides using a drone. The class learned about the growing process which entailed harvest 14 months from planting to first harvest. After the first harvest, they keep 40% of the mother plants which can produce two pineapples in the next harvest.

Emilio our farm tour host shared his leadership experience and that he has over 13 years experience in pineapple production and is one of the youngest technicians in the field. When asked what his biggest management challenge was he describe the trouble with change as a result of new practices.When asked what the best thing about growing pineapples he shared that he grew up surrounded by pineapples and likes the challenges of the plant. He attended school to focus on pineapple management and said it’s in his nature and he cannot be out of the fields.

Following the tour the class had the opportunity to harvest a pineapple from the field and Emilio sliced up what Class XI agreed was the freshest pineapple any of us have ever enjoyed.

After the Pineapple farm tour the class headed out to enjoy a traditional Ecuadorian lunch at a nearby restaurant.

Next, we headed to a plantain farm in El Carmen which is the largest producer of plantains in South America and visited Corpicupal. The plantains produced here make plantain chips, cakes and flour. This operation also has beef cattle.

We learned that plantains are produced all year long. There are specific size requirements as well for exports the plantain needs to have a diameter of 52mm and be 9-12 inches long. They discussed the various box and container sizes used at the facility. Depending on where the fruit is shipped, there are different weight requirements. The longer the plantain has to travel the less they pack into the boxes in the container to allow for more air. After boxing the pallet goes into cold room so it doesn’t turn black.

Some of the of the challenges they have with plantains are small beetles, so they treat the fruit with a solution that kills the insects. To ensure quality, they randomly select boxes to inspect for the insects. Another challenge they described is drug dealers that try to bribe staff and managers to smuggle drugs in the plantain boxes. They shared they had someone stop the previous day offering $10k to place drugs in a box. This is why they have strict requirements about who they let into the facility and the names of any visitors is controlled by the government.

Many plantain producers are part of the National Federation of Plantain Growers. The class had the opportunity to meet with the former president of the federation. The federation has worked with the government to help provide funding for the plantain facilities and helped provide connections with USDA for certifications and helped with GMPs. The government helped with building of roads for the farmers and put in safety technologies in place on the road as well. The federation has also worked to cut out the middle man, so essentially the farmers are directly exporting their own products and are helping in the factory to clean and maintain their own products to be exported.

As we headed into the field the class learned that the region and production of plantains uses a low level of technology and it’s a very manual process. All farmers harvest every week. And depending on the location the product is being exported, it changes the amount of time to harvest. For example, to Chile they want a plantain that was harvested between 9-10 weeks as they like a sweet fruit. While Ecuador prefers a saltier fruit. And for Europe and Japan it’s harvested between 7-8 weeks.

We learned that it’s actually a plant and not a tree. Once they bloom they cover with plastic bags and the color of bag and ribbons are a coding system for them to measure the time until harvest. The plastic bags serve as a micro climate that speeds up the process of growing and helps produce more sugars and also acts as a mosquito net. They find the quality has been much higher when wrapped vs when it isn’t. They use different plastic bags in dry and wet season. Workers use a ladder to put he bags on and on a typical day they wrap 300-500 a day. To better understand how difficult this work is, Dylan, one of the MARL classmates had the opportunity to try to wrap plantains with a plastic bag and quickly learned it’s not an easy task.

Both farms brought new perspectives to the class, as they have never had the opportunity to immerse themselves into these two fruit operations. It was an amazing experience to compare and contrast the products that we grow in Minnesota.

Fun Fact:

-Ecuador produces 60% of the worlds pineapples.

Submitted by Seminar Management Team Red: Kaelyn Rahe, Brad Schloesser, Jana Stangler

Day 7 – from Tree to Bar

Ecuador’s great variety of geographies allowed the group to stay in a true cloud forest, in the small community of Mindo. Day 7 started with a mid-point reflective session with the entire cohort at the hotel. Participants shared and discussed their personal reflections on the journey. The transformative impact of the trip quickly became apparent. To conclude the session, gratitude was shared with those at home, who allowed us to have the experience.

After this leadership session, a quick 2-block walk took the group to a local artisan chocolate factory: Yumbos Chocolate. An excursion of the garden with cocoa trees, processing of the cocoa, and a 101-class in different types of chocolate, helped to understand the Tree to Bar process. One of the tastiest tours this week.

The itinerary included an afternoon “on your own”. The cloud forest village proofed not to be a bad location for that, despite the pouring rain. A wide range of activities was offered, from hikes to zip-lining, rafting, canyoning, bird- and butterfly watching, and more. Although at their own expense, nobody hesitated to take this special opportunity to have some fun together. And in some cases, get far outside their comfort zone. Class XI is not afraid of some adventure!

I myself joined a group for a cable car/cloud forest hike. Although soaking wet, we thoroughly enjoyed seeing huge centipedes, toucans, and impressive scenery, under guidance of our Apprentice-guide Mateo. Added benefit: the driver of the pickup truck who got us to our destination, shared photos about his fishing hobby. His favorite fish is found in a local river, and called lisa. I’ve been told lisa are full of bones, and has little meat. We did not try.

Grateful for an active, reflective day with an adventurous bunch.

Submitted by Olga Brouwer, Executive Director MARL

Our Monday morning began with presentations from USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, US Grains Council, US Soybean Export Council and Ambassador of Aquaculture, as well as the Ecuadorian Chambers of Poultry and Aquaculture.  The class was impressed with the amount of US commodities that are exported to Ecuador as well as what Ecuador provides the United States. A very special connection was shared with the class from US Grains Council Regional Director for Latin America, Marri Tejada whose father is a MARL Class 1 alumnus.  All of the information provided to the class today was very informative and provided the class many opportunities for continued discussion throughout the day.

USDA Foreign Ag Service’s Ecuadorian Ag experts: Andres Barahona, Esteban Espinoza. Joining remotely: US Grains’ regional director Marri Tejada, USSEC’s regional director Carlos Salinas, and USSEC’s Ecuador expert Gerardo Luna.

We arrived at a beautiful specialty coffee farm- Frajares. This farm has been in production since 2014. The owner gave us an amazing demonstration on the growing, harvest, processing, roasting and grinding. Here at this elevation there is more caffeine in pulp than in beans. The process of fermentation of some of the beans is performed three different ways; anaerobic, dry and wet, which gives the coffee different characteristics. Then the beans is dried in open air (12 days in open air- no heat). When it is dried the husk if the beans is removed, sized for even roasting, roasted, blended and bagged. It is bagged in special bags that allow for breathing.
Coffee is very labor intensive. Med roast is best balance of bitter, sweet and acidic.
Coffee was first product that was “fair trade “.

Class XI’s men, posing with their coffee sample

The ladies of Class XI’s Ecuador tour, posing proudly.

The MARL staff team: Toby Spanier, Olga Brouwer and Christy Kallevig

How to brew the perfect French roast: When French pressing do not use boiling water. 92 c.4 min for optimum flavor. There is more caffeine in French press than espresso.
How to brew propped Drip coffee:

  1. Filter is wetted prior to adding the coffee. 2. Wetten the grounds. Aromas show up first. 3. Drip for 4 minutes.

Cold press has ever more longer contact with water, which means more caffeine.
It was suggested to pair chocolate with coffee. It is like wine and cheese.

Coffee beans in different processing stages, on the African bed

After the coffee class and -tasting, the group was taken on a tour of the processing and roasting facility. Exactly as predicted by this week’s tour guide Ivan, it started pouring mid-afternoon. The rubber boots provided by him, were definitely useful. Before returning to the bus and resuming our travels, Shannon thanked Fernando, the Colombian owner of Frajares, for his hospitality.

Submitted by Seminar Management Team “Black”: Shannon Gegner, Holly Hatlewick, Austin Ludowese, Chelsea Honnette

Today’s adventure was amazing. We traveled from Otavalo to the capital of Ecuador: Quito. The old city center is historically rich, relevant and beautiful.  The team had discussion assignments that helped them dive deeper into cultural norms and how we observe difference. Weather was absolutely perfect ..warm sunny and cool breeze. It was comforting to have police around us at times.

Class XI utilized our time in Quito exploring the historic downtown district to utilize our network, social intelligence, problem solving, and communication skills to achieve aquiring almuerzo and leadership tasks without translators or guides.  The experience was fantastico and pushed us all out of our comfort zones.

After a scenic bus tour, the group was first taken on a walking tour of the Old Town. In small groups, everyone went to explore in “Amazing Race” style. The challenges were themed around: Customer Service, Fashion, Personal Service, Personal Property, Traffic, Communication, Roles, Technology. Every group received an envelope with their theme and three questions, related to observations, a specific challenge, and a discussion.

A sunny day concluded with a thunderstorm, and an early evening visit to the Virgin Mary Monument, overlooking the city of Quito.

Submitted by Cheryal Hills