Last Thursday Jeff and I were visiting our neighbors and some how we got to talking about culantro, the local cash crop. It tastes a lot like cilantro, but looks very different. Jose offered to take us up to see his parcel of land where he farms culantro with his two sons.
So we set off at eight the next morning. We start by walking down to the creek near our house. Then we walking up, pretty soon we are really walking/climbing up a really big hill. Having grown up in the plain states I would call it a mountain, a really lush green mountain. We pass through a hillside of cattle before making a final ascension. I am much relieved to realize we are almost at the top, I‘m still not sure where the farm is, but it can‘t be much higher. Then we cut over across a field of corn, and suddenly I realize I am standing in a slash and burn field of culantro.
The soil is black in a way that the soil in town and near our house is not. I can see why slash and burn is so beneficial, all that ash and organic matter gets worked into the soil and it is black. Of course I realize slash and burn is only a temporary augmentation to the soil, but never the less it makes an impression on me.
The hill side is at an angle between 40 and 60 degrees depending on where you are standing. There are stumps and huge fallen tree trunks everywhere and in between are bright green low growing plants of culantro. We walk along the edge and cross a steep culvert caused by erosion. I can hear the soil I am knocking loose bounce its way down the culvert. At this point Jose tells me to stay where I am and he cuts a sapling down with his machette to make me a walking stick for me. I am grateful. Jeff is left to fend for himself.
We pick our way down the side of the hill to where his two sons are cleaning the culantro. They use an insecticide and herbicide to keep out the grass type weeds and grillos (their name for any grasshopper or katydid type bug). However, they clean out the broad leaf weeds, cut off the flowers and remove the older leaves to control fungus all by hand. The only benefit I can see for working on the side of the mountain, is that you can more or less stand up when you clean the culantro.
We asked a lot of questions and learned they began farming culantro only three years ago. The first person to start farming culantro was someone in the neighboring community about five years ago. Right now they take about 120 lbs of culantro into Panama City every week to sell. They earn about $160. For a family of six that is about $18 per person per week. Jeff and I receive about $70 a piece per week from Peace Corps. Granted we have to pay rent and buy all our food, where as our neighbors own their wood plank house, do not pay taxes, and grow all lot of their own food. In addition to culantro they also grow corn, ñame, yuka and tomatoes. Also, they pay no electricity, water or gas bills. All the cooking is done over a fagón (raised cook fire), and at night a single kerosene lamp provides light.
It’s definitely a different way of life. On our way back down the mountain, I was holding a bunch of culantro, and my new walking stick, looking out over a beautiful vista of cattle with the valley spreading out below me like a map. It was one of those “Wow, I am here, in Panama. How did I wind up here?” Then I snapped out of it and continued my muddy decent along a cow trail and headed home to put the culantro in water before it started to wilt.