Originally from the US, Jake Kheel has lived and worked in the Dominican Republic since 2005, although he first visited as a student in 1994. He is the environmental director of the Puntacana Ecological Foundation, which runs several projects, including an organic farm. The vegetables and fruit grown on the farm are fertilized with worm compost produced from the organic waste generated by the Puntacana Resort & Club, which consists of two hotels, several residential communities and the Punta Cana International Airport.
I started off by asking Jake how organics have evolved in recent years.
– In the last decade or so, organics have gone mainstream in a big way in North America and Europe. This means that organic producers, which traditionally had always been small scale, were faced with a mass-market demand while conventional producers are faced with the challenge of producing organically.
In our previous articles about organics (about 10 years ago) we discussed the challenges of producing some crops organically, and the consensus was that organic cultivation was to say the least challenging on a large scale – how is that tackled in the light of the mass-market demand?
– Organic can mean a lot of things. Some growers still use chemical fertilizers, albeit less, and large-scale cultivation means monocultures, which is never a good thing for the environment, along with all the machinery, factory processing, packaging and shipping. From the consumer’s point of view more emphasis is being placed on buying local produce – which means less fuel is used when transporting produce, while at the same time supporting local producers. The emphasis on local in the US means better margins for farmers.
A major issue that the food industry has to tackle is waste. It’s estimated that 50% is lost on the process, on the vine, in the selection and processing, transport and retail – right up to the consumer him or herself. This is combined with all the resources wasted along the line – oil, water, gas: there is very little composting in the US or the DR.
What about organics in the Dominican Republic?
– In the DR, on the production side, certain export crops are being grown organically with great success, the main ones being coffee, cacao and bananas, and now mangoes too. Some of these were being grown organically anyway, like cacao. The Dominican Republic is now the world’s first or second main cacao exporter.
The US is a huge country so food often has to travel vast distances. Is buying local an issue in the DR, where distances between producer and consumer are not that large?
– Distance is still an issue if one considers the hours it takes to travel from a major food producing area like Constanza to outlying parts of the DR like Punta Cana, where the hotel industry consumes huge amounts of food.
There is an untapped market for organics in the Dominican Republic, according to Jake.
– There is a segment among the hundreds of thousands of tourists in the country’s hotels that might demand organics. The tourism authorities could even create this demand with the right strategy – if the country were promoted as a ‘natural’ destination in the way that countries like Costa Rica are. At present the country is promoted as a place with beautiful beaches.
What has been the experience of the Puntacana Ecological Foundation’s organic gardening project, what were the challenges and achievements, and what lessons have been learned?
– There is not much agriculture in the east because of the climate and the soil, but the Puntacana Ecological Foundation’s organic farm has demonstrated that this should not be an obstacle. Worm composting is the logical use of the immense volume of organic waste generated by the hotels, and the resulting compost provides the solution to the relatively poor quality soil in the eastern region of the country. There is also an increasing expertise in greenhouse cultivation in the Dominican Republic, which could be applied in the eastern region.
The Punta Cana experience has been largely successful. As mentioned, it goes against logic to have a farm here because of the climate and the soil, but the idea was to use waste, create soil and grow crops. The farm is very popular with homeowners in Puntacana Resort & Club who love coming to buy their produce from the farm.
We also sell fresh produce to the restaurants and hotel kitchens in Puntacana Resort & Club and Punta Cana Village, and some of our clients come from the wider Bávaro area. Greenhouse production has been fairly successful because you can grow more of a crop but then it is difficult to find a large enough market
Is this a profitable enterprise?
– Our honey and vegetable sales are profitable, but the important thing is to show it can be done and that it is sustainable. It complements our other environmental and social initiatives and is in the spirit of Punta Cana.
What new ideas are in process?
– One idea for the future is to process part of the crop so we could see tomato canning or pepper sauce soon. Our latest innovation has been fruit production; we now have papaya, zapote and bananas and tubers as well as lettuce, green peppers, arugula, fresh herbs, eggplants, tomatoes, celery. The worms/organic compost process has improved and the plan is to sell the organic fertilizer to the golf courses. This is a large market because of the expanses of grass involved, but it is also very difficult because they have very high standards and the greatest challenge is consistency of quality.
On a more personal note, and as this is a Dominican Cooking website, what are your favourite Dominican foods?
What was your first impression of Dominican food?
– On my first visit as a student we had to make domplines – using a wood stove, everyone had to make the batter, make the dumplings and add them to the pot, so my first experience was a lot of fun, combined with everyone drinking, talking, listening to music, dancing and having a great time together.
How has Aunt Clara helped you in this process?
– The cookbook makes a great gift for foreigners – it shows them how things are here.
What would you advise a visitor to the country?