Text: Eva Breukink
Photography: Studiorootz | Berber van Beek
Henny Barbolina (1964) was a chemical engineer and was still working in the petroleum industry when he first became familiar with new growing methods for fruits and vegetables. He was sold instantly. In 2011 he built his first aquaponics installation, right behind his house. What started as a hobby turned into his life’s work. This did not happen overnight, however. From an early age Henny worked on the family farm, as a seven-year-old boy he helped his grandmother with her herd of hundreds of goats. He fed them, took them back from the mondi, but also witnessed the slaughter for their meat. For ten years, until the age of seventeen, he was introduced to the ins and outs of farm life and getting to know what it takes to cultivate fruits and vegetables. After all those years his knowledge was almost gone, though, and he had to start from scratch. At this point his scientific background came in handy. He built up Nos Kunuku in the same manner as he approached his work as an engineer, calm and thoughtful.
Here we import 90 percent of our food
Step by step. Everything appears to fall into place. On his property at Ronde Klip he can satisfy his appetite for innovation and sustainable developments. Here the bon vivant is completely in his element. Fishing in the ocean, cooking tasty food with a beer, he loves nothing less. Obviously, the ingredients are locally sourced. This is the whole idea behind Nos Kunuku: it goes so much further than a single agriculture business, this is the solution to make Curaçao less dependent on the import of food. Giving up is not an option. Barba is a man on a mission.
This is really important for Curaçao. It will work out, no matter what! Currently we import ninety percent of our food. That all has to be transported into the island by air or sea. When the price of fuel rises, the prices of produce immediately follow. This is why we have to produce more ourselves. It is feasible through modern growing methods, such as aquaponics and hydroponics, based on the philosophy of permaculture in which the ecosystem maintains itself. Modern and organic, those are the key words. I have given this careful consideration. I choose mainly vegetables from abroad, as I don’t want to compete with other farmers on the island. This way more variety and choice of local produce is created.
Organic and modern, those are the starting points
Nos Kunuku is my retirement plan. I have managed to set aside some money to build this up. Bit by bit, with ups and downs. Farm life is in my blood, I grew up in the kunuku, in the country. My grandmother had goats and grew vegetables, maize, beans, and melons. Very traditional. Plow in August, sow in October and harvest in March. That’s how it went and that’s how it goes. It never occurred to me that I could be a farmer myself. To work the land? That was something for people without learning capacity. An education and a decent job, that’s what mattered. I chose to study chemistry as I happened to have a talent for it. In the Netherlands I also saw that you can have a good life as a farmer.
Back on Curaçao the itch started immediately. The property where I lived with my wife had only room for some fruit trees. After my divorce I ended up in Ronde Klip. I leased the property from a friend’s family. In 2011 I saw a pilot of an aquaponics installation on Aruba. A video of the Australian aquaponics guru Murray Hallam really fascinated me. That man is so inspiring, I was immediately energized. Under this roof I built my first small setup. I am keen to get to know everything. I looked up information online and enrolled myself in courses in the US and Curaçao. That way I mastered the basic techniques. Having a license does not mean that you are a good driver, though. That type of learning happens after, through practice.
“It is not easy to find someone suitable for this line of work. You need to have the right touch and to continuously monitor whether the plants are doing well. Microgreens require precise monitoring of watering amounts, for instance. You should be able to harvest within seven days to deliver in time to the customer. There is no room for error. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. From the moment a seed is planted until the order has been delivered, it has to run smoothly. Curaçao does not have professional horticultural and agricultural education so it is difficult to find qualified personnel.”
Good seed makes a good crop. Barbolina needed at least a year to find out which works best in Curaçao. In a small greenhouse at the back of the yard he grows the microgreens: vegetables which are harvested when they are still small. Here, on a 200 square meter patch, he grows rucola as well. Grown in soil, but on a special Hugelkultur substrate. In a shallow ditch, organic matter is piled up in layers: twigs and branches, garden waste, fruit and vegetable scraps; kept moist and covered with soil. This is usually done as a raised bed, but Barbolina digs it into the ground. On this compost substrate, fully natural, he grows his rucola.
Nos Kunuku’s power crop is lettuce
But the power crop of Nos Kunuku is lettuce. Hundreds of heads of lettuce per week are harvested from the containers, in the 1,000 square meter area that has been dedicated to aquaponics production. After six weeks the young heads can be harvested. The picking, peeling, washing, spinning in the salad spinner and drying, this is all done by hand. Followed by packing, sealing and labeling. Barbolina would like to gradually raise salad production to 3,000 heads a week. The handling of rucola and herbs is still more labor intensive. Herbs have to be bundled up. Mint and basil also grow in containers without soil, on 300 square meters, but this time with the hydroponics technique.
No pesticides but natural combatants
On a tropical island such as Curaçao, with its rainy and dry season, the biggest challenge to the farmer is the affordable and sufficient supply of water. At Nos Kunuku, this is shown how it can be done. Rainwater collected by roof gutters along roofs and shade canopies is captured in containers and basins. On the 2.4 hectares lot, nearly 170 cubic meters of water storage is available, plenty of water to get through the dry season. With these modern cultivation methods relatively little water is needed. At first sight it is a maze of basins, pvc pipes and faucets. Water drips, bubbles and gurgles. Looks can be deceiving, since this is a well thought-out system that has been developed through ten years of experimentation by Barbolina. In each of the 5,000 liter basins, 250 to 300 fish are providing nutrients to the plants. The fish are fed, excrete waste, and bacteria convert the ammonia in the fish waste to nitrogen. The fertilized water is pumped to the tables with room for 3,200 heads of lettuce. That is the recipe for aquaponics in a nut-shell, for dummies, as it were, as it is a little more complicated than this.
Hydroponics is based on a similar principle in the sense that no soil is used, but instead of fish acting as fertilizers, synthetic nutrients are added to the water. Such a system with all its pipes, pumps and valves requires plenty of attention. Barbolina checks daily if everything is in order. Faucets are opened and closed to prevent blockages and spills. Ultimately, most attention is paid to the plants. Paying close attention, that’s where it’s at. How are they doing? Are they healthy? Not too dry, not too wet? The harvest is what matters, it must not fail.
We use basins to collect water
Henny Barbolina is convinced that Curaçao needs to become less dependent on food imports. At Nos Kunuku he chooses consciously for cultivation methods that are in harmony with nature. Barbolina collects rainwater and produces as little waste as possible. His approach fits in perfectly with the philosophy of Permaculture. Key is by example to enhance biodiversity, to reuse and to be self-sustainable. An ecosystem that is balanced and cyclical, as it is originally in undisturbed nature. The need for pesticides against disease and pests than falls away. Permaculture, however, is more than any system of agriculture, it is a lifestyle. It is the conscious decision to live a life with a small footprint, less consumption and as little impact to the environment as possible. Inspired by the knowledge that biological cycles need to be closed. A life centered around the care of the earth and people, and fair sharing of the surplus.
After more than ten years Barbolina is ready for next steps. Each Saturday a dedicated clientele of thirty to forty pick up their orders of fruits and vegetables. Nos Kunuku also supplies to restaurants and supermarkets. They require guarantees. To miss an order often means the end of a relationship. Therefor Barbolina only increases production gradually. He keeps a lookout for alternative streams of income. Nos Kunuku’s property, with its vegetation of luscious trees and bushes, surrounded by the planted beds and containers with vegetables, breathes an air of calm, health and nature. This could be the ideal place for a party. One can even see people exchanging their vows here. Barbolina hopes that his dream may come true: a restaurant where people enjoy the produce from his plantation. A terrace and building have been built, all made of wood. He would hope to be in the kitchen himself because cooking is his passion. What could be more beautiful than cooking something delicious from ingredients that you have nurtured and grown with so much love?