The Most Remote Greenhouses on Earth? New Pilot Program in the Works to Help Park Guards Grow Food

Around Conservacion Patagonica, we often discuss the relationship between food production and wilderness conservation.  We focus on the creation of new national parks–strictly protected wilderness areas–but we also think about how humans can grow the food (and other materials) we need to thrive, in more ecological and thoughtful ways.  As we often say, “conservation should be the consequence of production.” That is, we as a species must find ways to meet our needs that do not take such a heavy toll on the planet that conservation is impossible.

At the future Patagonia National Park, we realized that most of our food came from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.  Until a few years ago, vegetables arrived by truck from Chile’s central valley.  So, although the growing season is short and the climate harsh, several park employees came up with the idea of building greenhouses at the headquarters.  A few years in, we’re churning out greens for everyone living and visiting the Chacabuco Valley.  Not only do the greenhouses reduce the footprint of our food, they also inject much-needed vegetables and vitamins into the mutton-based tradition Patagonian diet.

Now our team is taking this effort of local food production to a new level.  With the help of Josh Metten, a new greenhouse intern, the guardaparques (park guards) will design, build, and tend small greenhouses at their remote puestos in different areas of the park.

Josh came to Patagonia from Jackson, Wyoming to join our brand-new internship program at the future park. This program had its trial run last year when a handful of volunteers, instead of participating in the traditional program, got to work exclusively and consistently with particular teams at the park for months at a time: one worked with the trailbuilders, one with the landscaping crew, one was a chef at the lodge, and one taught English in the schoolhouse. This year, the program grew into something more official, complete with a competitive application process. Josh comes to us with a wealth of experience in horticulture and permaculture in cold-weather climates.

Justin, our other fantastic greenhouse intern, is responsible for maintaining the greenhouse and gardens at the park headquarters

The idea for this new greenhouse project originally came from Luigi Solís (who, among many other things, helps manage the volunteers during the summer; for more about Luigi, see our recent interview). The guardaparques live year-round in relative seclusion; each is responsible for tracking a different population of fauna on the park grounds. Currently, the guardaparques do not have much variety when it comes to their food, as their food arrives by resupply fairly infrequently.

Soon after his arrival, Josh got to work determining how this idea would work in practice. He reports, “in permaculture we call this a probortunity, where the problem becomes the solution.” Where many would simply see a lack of fresh food as the inevitable cost of isolated living, Luigi and Josh see the situation as an opportunity to jumpstart autonomously-driven sustainable farming.

Luigi (left) sharing mate with guardaparque Eduard Castro (right)

So far, Josh relishes his new role, both because of the creativity it requires and the chance to dramatically affect the quality of life for the guardaparques. He has taken considerable time to get to know them and their land individually, which helps him think more broadly about the potential of this infrastructure.  He writes:

I’ve met three of the five guardaparques so far–Edward Castro, who monitors the Aviles Valley area, René, who runs the pilot sheep/ sheepdog program, and Daniel, who tracks huemuls. They are all excited about the opportunity to have fresh produce.  Involvement of the rangers is going to be essential for this to be successful as they will be the ones maintaining the plants after the greenhouses are complete.  Importing fertility is also something that will be difficult so I would like to incorporate a good-quality composting program with each greenhouse using only onsite materials. As all of the rangers work with some sort of livestock I am hopeful for a good deal of success.

The immediate challenge will be working on a tight schedule with limited materials. The plan is to have the 2×3-meter mini-greenhouses finished in time for summer, which is just around the corner.  They should last at least four years, assuming the plastic will be replaced every year. Josh and the guardaparques will have to work resourcefully with the materials at hand, as getting lumber into these remote areas is close to impossible.

The home of guardaparque Daniel Velazquez, near Lago Cochrane, which will soon be equipped with its own greehouse

Attitude is everything when it comes to an experimental new project like this. And fortunately, Josh seems ready to embrace the unexpected and the unfamiliar.  He reflects that:

One of the things I have been learning in my short time in Chile so far is what type of role I am going to have here.  It is easy for people to come to another country knowing what the ‘right’ answer to a supposed ‘problem’ is and then tell the locals exactly what it is they are doing wrong.  It is much more difficult however, to listen and understand the exact desires of a different culture.  Once this is done, aid and teaching, if still relevant, can occur.  From the responses I have been getting from the park rangers and the fact that its origin was from a Patagonian, I feel good about helping to incorporate my ideas on localized agricultural production into this area.

So it sounds like everyone involved, from Josh to the guardaparques, will find this experience both educational and rewarding. We look forward to hearing further updates as the project continues through the summer ahead!

2 thoughts on “The Most Remote Greenhouses on Earth? New Pilot Program in the Works to Help Park Guards Grow Food

  1. Thursday December 15th, 2011 at 07:09 PM

    A perfect marriage — wildlife conservation with intentional, ecological food production… For the past two years…I have co-led a yoga/backpack trip in Yosemite. I love going into the backcountry — so beautiful… However, when going into the Valley…I see the trash cans are filled with debris from cheap grocery store processed foods…and in the small grocery store/cafe — they only sell things like pringles and gummy worms. Horrifying! To me, you can’t preserve a forest…without going further in changing our way of life so that one day we can return to living WITH the forest again. I feel that parks have a key role in re-educating people on how this can be done. So — good job — very inspiring…what you all are doing!

  2. Summer Singletary
    Friday December 23rd, 2011 at 08:15 AM

    This is so great! I am very interested in learning more about the Permaculture design of the greenhouses. Please share if you have the chance. Would love to learn more, and maybe even help out with this project in the future. Beautiful work!

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