BOGOTA — There may be hope for organic farming in Colombia — a country that otherwise appears to be increasingly in the grip of big agrobusiness and vast food imports from the European Union.

Jairo Leal, a 58-year-old cultivator living outside the capital, is one of the faces of this newfound hope. "I have been a peasant all my life. I know how to farm," he says. And by that, he means "without pesticides".

When they tell him insects could harm his vegetables unless he sprays them with chemicals, he says: "so let them die."

He expands on his philosophy: "Crops are like life, at the end of the day: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But I know one thing: you can even win something from your losses." He notes that he uses spoiled crops to feed his animals, which then produce manure to allow him to replant his organic crops.

Leal has been an organic farmer for almost 12 years, cultivating 50 types of produces on five hectares he owns in the district of Fusagasugá. It may seem a lot for a small plot, but Leal uses "crop rotation" and effectively uses every inch of his land.

Leal and his wife, Judith Pineda, are now part of an initiative called La Canasta (The Basket), which helps some 30 families produce organic — pesticides and chemicals-free — food to sell in Bogota and the surrounding department of Cundinamarca.

La Canasta's approach is to help create a direct link between producers and customers, and more respectful relationships with the land.

Baskets full of organic food given by La Canasta — Photo: La Canasta

Daniel Jiménez, a spokesman for the network, says it makes weekly deliveries of organic food on Wednesday to the homes of clients, who can register by phone or through its website. The baskets distributed to clients range in prices depending on the plots they come from (the most expensive is roughly 20 euros), and include "surprise" and seasonal products. The price you pay includes the cost of transport and training for producers.

More than money

Jairo Leal says there are two ways of keeping his plants free from pests or fungus, when he finds them. One is by hand and the other by spraying the juice of other plants onto them, including horse's tail, a natural pesticide.

Still, the reality is that a relatively small minority will farm this way in Colombia: "The mentality has changed," says Leal. "Now farmers just want money and to be sure their crops come out well and in abundance, with or without chemicals."

Sitting outside their small green cottage, he declares that the Leal-Pineda family doesn't want to become "millionaires," but to live a dignified life, respecting consumers who deserve to eat healthy food. 

Judith tells me the couple used to farm with pesticides, but changed when they got tired of having to scrub everything thoroughly to cleanse it of chemicals. "It is also a question of honesty. There has to be a stricter control of what we eat. People eating fruits and salads in Bogota are often ingesting poison," she says.

The precarious conditions for farmers in Colombia are no secret, particularly after a massive rural strike in 2013 that brought to light their difficult conditions, not to mention the rock bottom prices wholesalers pay for their produce.

Adriana Chaparro, an expert in the rural economy and organic food market, says that there remains no government support for organic farming. We contacted the governor's offices in the Cundinamarca department, and were told by its agriculture department that there were "no specific projects in this area."

Another problem is the absence of a healthy eating culture among Colombian consumers, who think organic food is just pricey food. Jairo Leal accuses the government of focusing its resources on the expansion of big mining rather than organic farming. The earth, he says, is "the essence of this country, which is degraded by its own greed."

Still, despite broad support, the couple takes comfort in knowing they are doing the right thing, as La Canasta takes their produce from their basket straight into people's kitchens. This is a chain, they tell us, that is now unbreakable.