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
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.
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 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.
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.