Expat Life

What was I thinking when I decided to move from the U.S. to Ecuador?

Editor’s note: Rob Gray’s life-long passion for gardening led him from California, to Costa Rica and finally to Ecuador’s fertile Yunguilla Valley, where he established Gran Roca farm. This is the first in a series of articles by Rob about his quest to produce the best, most nutritious organic fruits and vegetables.

By Rob Gray

chl Rob Headshot
Rob Gray

There are nights after a long day of working on the farm, especially in the rainy season when I’m knee deep in mud, that I wonder what I was thinking when I decided to take on such a huge project in the Yunguilla Valley of Ecuador. I lived with my family in a beautiful townhouse on a landmark block in New York City surrounded by pretty much everything you could imagine. So, how the heck did I get here? As I think back, I realize my decision was both serendipitous and a lifetime in the making.

I grew up in the Southern California suburbs where there were acres and acres of orange and avocado trees. My mom had grown up on a farm in New Jersey during the Great Depression, had an uncanny ability to select and use the best food ingredients, and by anyone’s estimation was an excellent cook. She made a wonderful garden in our backyard. So, at a young age, I learned and loved growing and picking vegetables, and according to my mom, especially when it was muddy. I think I was about 12 when I started to work for other families in the neighborhood, doing yard care and a variety of landscape work.

Rob in Costa Rica.
Rob in Costa Rica.

My college years added two other points of light: one, I became a vegetarian that necessitated study to better understand the macro and micro-nutrients in food, and two, I came home over one summer to design and put in both front and back yards in my parents’ new house. My mom and dad said it became the showplace of the neighborhood.

As a parent, I fondly remember taking my kids berry, cherry, apple, and you name it picking in both California and the northeast. However, one of the real turning points in my life came when I discovered that my children had serious food intolerances and immune system challenges. (Navigating these challenges is a whole ‘nother story.)

The "roca" at Gran Roca Farm.
The “roca” at Gran Roca Farm.

The serious health issues led me on a wild goose chase spanning several years that included starting a school for children with special needs and becoming familiar with “Permaculture,” a sustainable way to produce food in concert with nature.

More than 10 years ago, I started thinking about what I might do as my children left the nest. My older boy, Jourdan, after leaving the nest, started a business in Miami supplying produce to Whole Foods. This interested me and coupled with my interest in healthy food, I thought why not buy some land and produce food of the highest quality. Stuff I would want to eat.

So, after a long career in the financial services industry, I decided to do a commercial sustainable farming project. Initially, I had thought to do it in California as my side of the family lived there. Unfortunately, after researching and talking with a variety of people, it became clear to me that California would not be suitable for what I had in mind. So, I began to research other possibilities like Hawaii, but it too had its drawbacks. In 2010 I took my kids to Costa Rica, thinking that would work, but after visiting, (and we really liked Costa Rica), we determined that the infrastructure and demographics were not the best match for the project. Ditto Panama. So, I started looking further south, specifically, Chile and Ecuador.

The berry patch at Gran Roca.
The berry patch at Gran Roca.

For Ecuador, I read on-line about Vilcabamba which sounded like paradise, but I had some concerns. I then read an article in CuencaHighLife by David Morrill that said that if you liked Vilcabamba, you should also look at the Yunguilla Valley, about an hour southwest of Cuenca. I made my first trip to Ecuador in 2011 and between the people, the infrastructure, and the land, it didn’t take long for me to know, especially after visiting Yunguilla, that this would be where I would do my project. It then took two more long years to finally find the right property (with the awe inspiring landmark, “Gran Roca”) and I have not seen a property I would want more since.

At this thought, even after a long day in the mud, a smile breaks onto my face.

 

  • Patritzia

    I look forward to the continuation of this story….

  • ken

    Its a nice story. May be it will encourage others…

  • lucila

    Wonderful! Wehave been in Ec 8 years and may be moving to Yungilla , your story helped alot!

  • Nancy Thornton

    Great story. i too look forward to more from you. I wish i enjoyed gardening. i do not. but I love to see the handiwork of others.

  • Thank you all for your kind words. I certainly hope it will encourage others to grow healthy, delicious food. Not everyone is made for farming, but everyone can help by voting with their wallets and choose high quality foods for themselves and their families, even if they are a bit more costly. (This is not so easy to do in Ecuador as there is not much available. We are working to change that!) And yes, there is much more to the story.

  • fernandoc correa ponce

    MR. GRAY, I would like to meet with you if you come to Quito. I have a long experience with produce for export. I was in the business of fresh fruits and vegetrables for almos 15 years. My markets were the US, Europe and Russia.
    cel number: 0993045697
    Fernando Correa Ponce

    • Sr. Fernando,
      I appreciate your interest, but my son Jourdan who I mentioned in the article is already exporting produce (not from Gran Roca) from Ecuador to North America and Europe. The Gran Roca Farm is set up to produce high quality food for Ecuadorians (and Expats like me). We grow many different varieties of fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs in quantities too small to export. Farms that export typically produce many hectares of a single fruit, like bananas, mangoes, cacao, etc.
      Also, my son and I have observed that Ecuador seems to export most all of the good stuff to North America and Europe and that what remains in country often looks like #2s, are picked under-ripe (or over-ripe), and are usually old. We hope to change that!

  • Texas Belle

    I have visited Cuenca and loved it. As an ND, I loved all the fresh…fresh vine ripened!! I want to move there, but as a widow,,,I am not sure if that would be prudent….Any ideas? I am Christian gal,,,and wish I could find a good Christian gent,,but hasn’t happened.
    I live in Texas. I envy you expats there..

    • Grassroots Citizen

      Texas Belle, Your short reply has gotten my interest! I visited Loja last summer for 2 1/2 weeks and fell in love with the climate, culture, people, healthy food and environment. The one thing missing was a Christian church that is not Roman Catholic, and is English speaking. I understand there is an strong English-speaking Christian church in Cuenca, as well as a good size ex-pat community, but I am intrigued with Yungilla, and especially with what Mr. Gray is doing there! I would love to move there, too, but cannot afford to solely on my own. We need to talk! Please contact me by email if you are interested in furthering this conversation! BlessednContent@gmail.com

    • Erika Keira

      Dear Texas Belle, I would love to encourage you to come to Cuenca maybe with an extended 6 month visa and visit some of the local English speaking Christian churches. Hubby and I live in the El Descanso / Ayancay area (just a bit of North-East of Cuenca). We have a couple of non-denominational churches here like Calvary Chapel, you might enjoy them. Have you read the GringoPost? Churches advertise their get-together on a weekly basis including the pastor’s email address. Maybe you can start a conversation with them to find out things. This country is absolutely beautiful. The other day I sat on a bench with my little Chihuahua in Cuenca and did a quick test, when I smiled at people 9 out of 10 smiled back at me including a little girl maybe 5 years old and a teen-age boy maybe 17. People are warm hearted, welcoming and friendly. Com’n darling, jump in, the water is just fine. Sending you hugs across the miles! Erika the Hungarian

  • Lannie Loeks

    Love your story! Are those blueberry bushes?
    Wondering where in Cali you come from?
    My husband was born and raised in Santa Barbara back when it was known as a ‘cow town’. My oldest daughter now lives in the Capay Valley on the family run, 32 year old Full Belly Farm (large organic farm). We are very interested in the Yunguilla Valley…Looking forward to your next posts! Lannie Loeks

    • Hi Lannie,

      No, we cannot grow blueberries with our year around subtropical climate. You are seeing backberries (moras) and strawberries (fresas). From what I have seen, blueberries don’t do well in Ecuador. However, there are fruits that grow in Ecuador that are the best in the world. Unfortunately, as I said above, most of them are eaten in North America and Europe.
      Santa Barbara is a beautiful city. I was there not too many years ago as my family now lives in Ventura County. I grew up in Orange County (hence the orange trees) and then went to U.C. Berkeley before going to New York and starting my own family.

      • Lannie Loeks

        Of course they are Mora! What Was I thinking?
        We have explored (3 trips of 3 weeks each) moving to both Cuenca and the Cotacachi areas…Just before reading your article I got a response about a rental in Yunguilla. Also, was Skyping with a girlfriend in Cuenca yesterday who went to look/take photos of a house I like.
        So I only know one couple who have a place in Cuenca and Yunguilla. Asked us to go out there with them but we had another commitment…
        So…Maybe you will be covering this in a future post, ~~~ what am I wondering is about is ‘community’. Specifically, expat community in the Yunguilla valley? Hoping you can give some insight on that topic.

        Our experience of a farming community has been outside Santa Fe in a small valley called La Cienega. We moved there when we were 29 onto 10 acres of acequia irrigated alfalfa fields in 1979…ended up with 2 kids, 45 fruit trees, vegetable and flower gardens, irrigation pond with fish in it (now 31 year old son is a fly fishing guide). Left there just after my 3rd arrived. We were home builders until the crash…our business now is http://www.carvedcabinet.com. We live now in Tesuque, NM…Chris is the mayor domo on our acequia.
        PS Full Belly Farm mentioned above also supplies some things to Whole Foods ~ And that daughter went to UCLA undergrad. We went to Westmont College in SB.
        Kind Regards, Lannie

        • Hi Lannie,
          Sounds like a great life!

          If you want to check out property in Yunguilla, I would recommend visiting for a few days. I stayed at http://www.santuariohibiscus.com run by expat friends Fran and Dan. They are very knowledgeable about the area and the expat community. Of course they would be happy to bring you over for a visit with us should you be interested.

          Altitude matters a lot in Ecuador in terms of what you can grow. Both Cotacachi and Cuenca are too cold for many of the things we want to grow. Yunguilla, I feel has weather that is both good for people and good for plants. It has dry subtropical weather.