The spark that started Navitas Naturals back in 2003 was food curiosity, and that fire is still alive and burning today. Do you ever wonder where your superfoods come from, such as the organic goldenberries in the bright yellow Navitas bag? To shed light on superfoods sourcing, globetrotting Navitas Naturals founder Zach Adelman reported about his journey to Colombia this month to meet our goldenberry suppliers.
Navitas Naturals (NN): What part of Colombia did you visit?
Zach Adelman (ZA): I met with our goldenberry partners in the capitol city of Bogota and toured their processing operations with Mike Schwering, our Director of Sales and Purchasing. In Bogota, our partners perform quality control on the harvested goldenberries that come in from small family farms, they dry them at low temperatures, and then ship them to us from the port.
Then we traveled to the department (province) of Narino in southwest Colombia, near the border with Ecuador and Peru. Most of the time we were traveling on dirt roads visiting a variety of small farms in the rolling hills around the municipalities of Pasto and Ipiales.
NN: How long has Navitas been working with the supplier there, and how is goldenberry business?
ZA: Navitas Naturals has partnered with our goldenberry suppliers in Colombia for more than five years. We try to meet all of our suppliers in person and to visit their operations. I have met with them in the U.S. before, but this was my first time visiting them and the farmers in Colombia, so it was very special after all these years doing business with them.
Founder Zach Adelman (R) meets with a farmer and his family near Ipiales, Colombia.
Our goldenberry sales have been growing steadily, and it was apparent that farmers have been adding more goldenberries to their crop rotations and that it is becoming the number one cash crop for them. Growing conditions have been ideal so far in 2012, and the goldenberry plants looked healthy and vibrant.
NN: What do they use goldenberries for there, and what recipes are popular?
ZA: They eat primarily fresh, plump goldenberries, which have a much milder flavor than the dried form. They are the size and shape of cherry tomatoes, and have the same texture, too. Navitas Naturals might start importing the un-dried goldenberries soon.
The locals add them to salads, and to various dishes like people use cherry tomatoes in North America. They also just snack on them right off the vine, and add them to juices, which I especially enjoyed.
NN: What kind of conditions do they grow well in, is Narino a hot and tropical place?
ZA: Narino is a region near the equator, and is at about 8,500 feet elevation in the Andes Mountains. So, the climate is temperate year-round and that allows the farmers to cultivate a series of staggered goldenberry crops throughout the year. It is warm during the day, in the 60’s, and it is quite lush from rain. It cools off at night, in large part due to the high altitude, but it never snows. The Narino region is beautiful, and the climate is pleasant, so I can understand why the people that we met there are so friendly and happy.
Goldenberries grow on hardy vine-like bushes that are about 6 to 8 feet tall at maturity, but can reach 9 feet. The soils are rich and get ample rain in this region, so it was apparent that there is no or minimal need for added organic fertilizers or irrigation. The goldenberry fruit is covered in a paper-like husk, like a chinese lantern. It is a beautiful plant, and the farms grow complementary crops that discourage pests.
NN: Are goldenberries part of the history and culture there, or is it a specialty crop that only a small fraction of the farmers produce?
ZA: The goldenberries we import are grown on small family farms in mountainous rural areas. The farms are typically between 1 acre and 10 acres in size. Goldenberries are an important crop, but they’re just one of many diverse agricultural items produced on those little farms. Although goldenberries are a popular crop in this region, I’m not aware that there is a cultural tradition for them like other products we offer, such as the maca culture in Peru.
Our goldenberry crops are not produced on monoculture plantations. They are mixed in with many other crops for commercial and domestic use that support the family farmers. They are certified organic, and rotated with other crops to provide agricultural diversity that has many advantages including pest resistance and soil nourishment.
Goldenberry seedlings ready to be planted and added to crop rotation.
NN: What kind of food do the locals eat?
ZA: In the country outside the towns of Pasto and Ipiales, most of the people are indigenous with native roots going way back. They eat a relatively simple diet of hearty foods typical to the Andes cultures including potatoes, corn, chicken, rice, pork, eggs, rice, avocado, milk and herbs. It is good basic food prepared in a simple manner, so I have nothing especially ‘foodie’ to report. Locals eat many of their meals in a soup form, and also depending on the village, they consumed a wide variety of fruits. Where we visited they added goldenberries to their recipes, too.
The most interesting local, traditional cuisine is a fondness for Cuy, or as we know them, Guinea Pigs. Cuy is more than a food, it’s also an important part of the culture in the Andes region, especially over the border in Peru. They’re a very popular food, and it seems that every family farm we visited was raising Cuy for domestic consumption and to sell. I understand that as far as meat goes, it’s a healthy protein source that is low in fat and cholesterol. It is a key part of their diet.
NN: What was your highlight of this trip to Colombia?
ZA: There were two. First, was the conference that Mike and I had with an association formed by 22 goldenberry farmers in the countryside of Narino. The association members cultivate the crops on small family farms on the side of rolling hills. Like most small farms in this region of the Andes, they grow a wide variety of crops for commercial and household purposes. With our partnership, goldenberries have become a stable and profitable cash crop for them, and we comprise about 70% of their overall goldenberry sales.
There was a very special energy and sense of excitement in the crowded room we were gathered in, you could just feel that it was a very important moment. Mike and I were a bit surprised, but very impressed that they had all traveled from their scattered farms to meet us. I will never forget the emotion in their thoughtful expression of questions and concerns.
The personal connections are what make these trips so special. It’s clear that they are thankful for our steady ongoing business, and we expressed our satisfaction with the quality of their crops. We explored ways to help expand their business, and make it more profitable, suggesting potential value-added processing and products.
The second highlight was an amazing sustainable family farm we toured in a very rural , beautiful area. They had been working this dynamic, self-sustaining farm for a long time and had perfected some clever agricultural methods for this region. They didn’t use any external inputs to their operation, and they didn’t need to discharge or dispose of any waste, it was all re-used. Most impressive was their waste management system, which collected and broke down the organic waste from the farm using algae and a series of settling ponds. They were even capturing methane from their pig and livestock waste in a creative manner, and piping the gas to their stove for heat.
NN: Colombia has a reputation of being a dangerous place to visit, did you feel safe traveling around there?
ZA: I felt very safe in Bogota, and out in the countryside. I felt secure enough in Colombia that I hope to take my family there for vacation. The people were extremely friendly and polite, and there was no sign of crime or violence. Bogota is a very modern, worldly city, and even at night walking the streets I didn’t feel danger. Although the region we visited is specifically ‘not recommended’ for travel by foreigners, we only encountered friendly, courteous people.
NN: Some people have this vision that a sourcing trip in South America would be fun and adventurous, but is there a lot of hardship traveling about?
ZA: This trip reminded me how these trips are physically challenging. We’re only there for a limited time, so we have to pack in a lot of activity. We travel all over treacherous mountain terrain, on bumpy dirt roads often in the back of beat-up pickup trucks. You never quite know what, when or where you will eat. One trick I have learned on these trips is to bring along my own water in the countryside, just to be sure it’s clean. The days usually begin around 6 AM and we get back to our lodgings after dark. I can’t complain as the adventure and business value is worth the hassles, but it is grueling and takes time to recover once back home.
NN: What is your favorite thing about goldenberries, why did you add them to the Navitas Naturals line?
ZA: The first time I tasted a goldenberry, I knew I wanted to add them to the Navitas line-up. They have such a unique flavor, and the nutrition profile is very well-balanced, including protein and micronutrients like beta-carotene. They are one of my favorite products, even more so after meeting the farmers.