Sunday, November 18, 2012


Rain returned to our valley a few weeks ago and we've already received several inches.  Our activities change with the weather.  Most of the beds in the garden have received their nourishing winter crops - some sort of combination of grain and legume.  There are still daily tasks in the garden, and winter projects that we’ll be chipping away at when the weather allows.  Although the hard freeze that many of us experience doesn't quite penetrate this part of the planet, the cold, wet, gray that dominates the winter here provides a real sense of the cycle of seasons that is shared with the garden.  It's time to rest, reflect, read, rejuvenate!  

Mushrooms and Mold

With the rain come mushrooms!  Although I’ve not been involved in much foraging, I’ve been the recipient of some of the forest floor’s bounty through others’ efforts.  Until I become more well versed in safely acquiring these tasty morsels, I’ll rely on the expertise of others – not wise to risk novice consumption when a slight difference in color or texture can mean death instead of delight!  The dampness also provides ideal circumstances for mold which is always ready to pounce on any neglected foods that we’re blessed to have a lot of!  This regularly occurring event results in an oft-full compost bin.  Although as children we are warned of the dangers of mold, and the aforementioned toxic mushrooms, this fascinating family of fungi has a vital role in the health of our soil. Some fungi form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots that grants access for the plant to much more nutrition.  The fungi’s food source is what the plant discards, and in return, the fungi form chains that reach deep into the soil, significantly extending the range of root hairs and mining nutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible to the plant.       


Several of the Ecology Action family volunteered at a fundraising event for MESA (Multicultural Exchange in Sustainable Agriculture).  Some of my co-interns this year were able to be here in the States though a coordinated effort of MESA and Ecology Action.  We share a vision of more responsible small scale agriculture globally, so it's no surprise that our "families" are tight.  This was a substance-filled night - impressive global fare, formally shared experiences of "stewards" (interns), speeches by administration and board members, a keynote address by Eric Holt Gimenez who made his way into an earlier post of mine.  More personal highlights of the night - the acceptance speech given by co-worker Ellen for "best host" which summed up the joyful community-building nature of our work. I continue to be so touched and blessed by experiencing this important work of creation care with other passionate hearts.  The finale - a live salsa band - was equally enjoyed by Latinos and Asians and Americans.

Lost Coast

And I recently shared a few days off with co-world-savers, Ryan and Luke.  We survived the rugged Lost Coast! Click HERE to see.   

More non-coast pics: HERE

Monday, October 1, 2012

The End of the Beginning

In order to maintain the mental health of all 6-month interns, Ecology Action requires us to take a week of vacation in August. I postponed my week until the first week of September so I could witness cousin Rustin exchanging wedding vows with new cousin Amy. Co-interns Julio from Peru and Eduardo from Costa Rica joined me for what was in no way a relaxing vacation, but the invigoration that we were after was found! Bike, hike, urban garden, rural farm, Denver, Boulder, Frisco, party, dine, picnic, festival, BBQ, dance, friends, family… as seen here: PHOTOS (this album also captures the events below as well).

The 2nd annual National Heirloom Exposition was held in Santa Rosa the week after we returned from CO. Ecology Action shared a booth with our allies from Bountiful Gardens.  Thousands of people passed by, and hundreds engaged in conversation with us, some who have been farming for decades, some who claimed to possess brown thumbs. It was a pleasure to share the joy of gardening and the hope that responsible global small scale agriculture gives us. While not at the booth, we were able to attend demonstrations and workshops and heard globally popular speakers like Carlo Patrini, Eric Holt Gimenez, and Jeffrey Smith.  Our director, John Jeavons, was one of the featured speakers and was able to share with a few hundred people what EA is trying to do in light of the current world situation. 

A major component of many of the speeches and an underlying theme of the Expo was Proposition 37 which, if passed, would make the labeling of GMO's (Genetically Modified Organisms) compulsory on all foods sold in California.  This is already the case in much of the World including most of Europe and would fit nicely into the "Nutrition Facts" section that we're all familiar with.  Most surveys report that around 90% of consumers support the labeling of these products - not surprising as we're really just talking about basic  transparency of ingredients.  

But major corporations are opposing Prop 37, and have pumped millions into a campaign against the meausure.  Why would they do this?  Why would they not want people to be informed? FORBES   

I won't add more, but I urge any CA voters to carefully consider this one on November 6th, and to make a decision based on stewardship of the earth that we inhabit and the health of those we love.

Most international interns will be leaving the area in the next couple weeks.  They will be greatly missed, but a slower-paced fall and winter is a welcomed break in the action for those of us who will stick around. I’ll be transitioning into a more permanent presence here, taking on more responsibility as I continue to grow.  We have some great projects on the docket for the winter, but I do hope to spend as much time as possible tapping into the value of the extensive library on site as well as the wisdom and experience of those around me.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Later Summer

Pictured above is a table set for a banquet featuring an incredible locavore menu - a collaboration of the work and love of several Ecology Action staff and interns, using food from our gardens as well as from foodie friends in the area.  This was a celebratory farewell feast for the 2 month interns who are now back in their own zones, approaching their situations with new perspective, motivated by a couple months of engaging work, study, field trips, and conversation. It was a pleasure to have these "2-monthers" join us, the "6-monthers", adding their unique perspectives, knowledge, experience.  Very sad to see them move on!  Gratefulness for the community I will say was the general vibe of the night. There was an “end-of-summer-camp” feel as new friends said goodbye, some unlikely to connect face to face again.
And a simple but powerful example of the power (or coincidental convenience) of community:

Two Tuesdays ago, Lamine from Senegal hoped to attend a local Boy Scout meeting down in Ukiah, about 40 minutes away. He will be completing his post as the Chief Commissioner of the National Scout Association in Senegal in November and has realistic hopes of using his expansive network of Scout-folk to spread GROW BIOINTENSIVE to all corners of West Africa, thereby empowering thousands or eventually millions (whoa!) of people to grow their own food sustainably. He also is using his clout in the global scouting world to introduce the Northern California scouts to GROW BIOINTENSIVE, recognizing its value among North Americans as well as West Africans. So this meeting was important.

I volunteered to deliver him to the meeting using one of the vehicles often used for intern needs, a 1984 Honda Accord – her name is Sylvia:

Vincent (a 2-month intern who is now back in New Orleans using GROW BIOINTENSIVE in the lower ninth ward through the non-profit he works with - CSED) decided to join us. The 4 of us (Sylvia’s one of the team) sped down Pine Mountain, turned left onto the 101, heading south toward Ukiah. Several miles later, a slight shimmy became a severe wobble - a tire was almost flat. This happened to happen just as we approached the entrance to Ridgewood Ranch where an Ecology Action demonstration garden (including the managers and interns that work it) is hosted by the community that owns the land.  I pulled into the entrance and parked, our 3 minds urgently assessing the situation – donut spare but no jack – our friends might be coming back from the store, we could swap cars – several unanswered phone calls to 5 people who work and live there (cell reception is poor in the valley) – maybe if we get down to the auto shop on the ranch we can find a jack – Vincent finds a compressor (Sylvia has her secrets), plugs it into the cigarette lighter – tire barely holds air, bulbous masses protruding, drove on it too long – we jump in, creep gingerly down the curves, making ourselves as light as possible, ready for a blowout – passing the dining hall we see hope – another Ecology Action vehicle (1997 Honda Accord).  FAST!  We find our people, hurriedly explain the situation, swap keys, “We’ll be back soon!”  Back on the road, 20 minute drive, only 3 minutes late to the meeting.  Phew, sigh, relieved, success!

This is just one example of how the Ecology Action network operates – the words flexibility, support, teamwork, and patience enter my mind.  I felt somehow invincible through this silly experience.  And reflecting on it and its representation of a powerful camaraderie I imagine our potential effectiveness in deeper places – if we can together rise to these little challenges, what stops us from rising to larger – okay, massive, sometimes overwhelming challenges like  land degredationhunger, farmers’ suicides, etc.?

An idea was shared with me a couple days ago by Jake, the Assistant Director of Ecology Action – he spoke of Kaizen and its effectiveness in the business world. The incremental, analytic nature of this type of growth seems realistic and encouraging – maybe it's best to patiently chip away at those bigger issues, rather than wearing ourselves out, biting off more than we can chew?  And maybe, if enough of us take unified small bites, the underground network of responsible farmers can grow and share, improving land and life with each nibble.

Agrarian life necessitates humility. We are such a small part of the intricate processes of soil nourishment and plant growth. And based on the broad spectrum of farming methods, no one really knows how to best involve ourselves in these processes. This reminds me of religion – although some are deeply convinced that our metaphysical understanding is accurate, many of us have healthy doubts and frequent questions – as we do in garden! In both cases, though, we find peace by concentrating on what we do know, daily absorbing more, interacting humbly with others (people or plants), and joyfully embracing the mystery of it all.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

3 Months in, 3 to go!

That title suggests that there will be and end to this experience.  Yes, the official internship will only last three more months, but my involvement in the greater movement of small scale sustainable agriculture is only beginning!  Some recent reflections:

Farming is often accurately referred to as a merger of art and science. A scientific understanding of soil health and plant growth is vital to successful food raising, but there are too many nuances and unknowns for science to be the only source of direction. So there enters the need for a creativity best described as art. A perspective based on past mistakes and scientific explanations will provide a logical base for growing food, but sometimes we must go further than what logic points to as correct, and tap into a more creative, intuitive place.

Although we now have thousands of years of experience in agronomy that we reference and learn from, in my mind, bio-mimicry remains the best teacher for responsible soil and food management. By witnessing balanced systems that naturally occur without interruption, we might be able to absorb simple lessons that have been shelved because of our main focus on efficiency and high yields. Of course these are important things to focus on, but the result of leaving art out of the process is the destructive lab-science-based conventional farming that we see everywhere.  There are many ways in which this contrasts with naturally-occurring systems including mono-cropping, lack of biodiversity, planting in rows, dead soil, eroded soil.  Yes, conventional farming feeds the world, but for how long, and at what expense?

High school chemistry and an elementary biology course at college left me with a crumbly foundation on which to build when coming to agrarianism. It’s sometimes a blessing, though, to approach things as a novice. I hope I never become jaded, forgetting joyful epiphanies that I’ve been having:

  • Isn’t it amazing that there is a brain in a seed that knows where up and down are, senses warmth and moisture, and directs its parts to respond appropriately to these environmental factors? And that the genetics of a seed have been developed naturally and anthropogenically over thousands of years into a unique plant that we enjoy today?  And that some seeds will still germinate after hundreds of years of dormancy?  I even heard recently of a 2000-year-old date seed that germinated!
  • "Dead as dirt"?  Dirt is actually living soil, ideally full of water, air, minerals, and organic material, including billions of animals in a handful of the stuff.  So it's not just a medium used to support a plant, but the physical source of all that we are.  We are utterly dependent on soil health, but often only think of growing plants instead of fostering healthy soil.
  • There is no such thing as a weed or a pest - only unbalanced systems.  Might some plants choke others out, though?  Yes, and we can call that a weed, but "weeds" can cover the soil, holding in moisture while the plant we want to thrive establishes itself.  And if there were no "pests", what would the beneficial insects eat?  The idea has been shared with me that many gardeners get more excited about death in the garden than life.  Haven't we all been relieved after pulling out a "weed", or felt victorious by ridding our space of a slimy little creature?  A little backwards, maybe?     
I need to add a third element to the explanation of farming as being both science and art (as many have before) – spirituality. To gently interact with plants, to inhale the fragrance of the garden, to dig into life-giving soil, to be aware of the incomprehensible intricacies of creation, and to feel one’s place in a timeless, balanced system – is to experience the Spirit. It’s very easy to slip through unaware of these things, irreverently approaching the whole thing as a job or task. But it’s effortless to let these lessons of loftier perspective gracefully penetrate our beings, providing energy, balance, and hope.

Recent PHOTOS of the adventure!

Monday, June 4, 2012

1.5 Months

1.5 months into a 6-month internship at EcologyAction (EA) in Willits, CA, this is my “quarterly” report:

Although some combination of soil, plants, and sustainable food raising dominates my daily focus, I choose to reflect first on an even more important part of this experience – the community that I’ve been welcomed into near Willits in Northern California. 

Last October –December I volunteered here, and was able to connect with the permanent staff – men and women who contribute in their own unique ways to the farming operations, research and data collection, administrative tasks, and fundraising. It was nice to have this head-start on plugging into the community, and when I returned mid-April, I felt warmly welcomed back.

The majority of my interactions are with the different garden managers who are always willing to interrupt any task to answer a question – this is how much of my learning occurs. I have less to do with the office staff, but my perspective is broader because of my occasional visits with them. It is good to get a glimpse of how the whole organization operates. I need to single out John Jeavons, director of Ecology Action and guru to many, for his constant patience and grace in his frequent dealings with hundreds of people all over the world, selflessly giving of himself, motivated by a predicted shortage of farmable land and its result – more hungry people. I feel honored to be surrounded by this dynamic group of people, and to be a part of this organization with its admirable mission and professional presence.

I am one of about a dozen 6-month interns. We have come from all over the world (Costa Rica, Peru, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Senegal… Colorado!) to learn about the GROW BIOINTENSIVE (GB) sustainable mini-farming method with the hope of later teaching the method to others. Through our time in the gardens as well as Monday classes in the library, we've bonded well already and have melded into a solid team. It’s a pleasure to be on this diverse team, sometimes challenged bydifferences in culture, religion, and language, but more often encouraged to absorb social lessons and to grow my understanding of global agriculture.

Hours in the garden + hours in the books + hours in class + hours moving around with other interns (running errands, attending social events, etc.) = most of my waking hours. I have managed to have some mini-adventures in this spectacular remote region of thewest, though. I think this is revealed in my PHOTOS. Also, I’ve been attending St. Francis of the Redwoods Episcopal Church most Sunday mornings, each week strengthening a relationship with this unique congregation. Post-church has become a good time for further exploration of the area. I did expect this internship, often referred to as “the summer-course” to be a very intensive program, and it is certainly that, but it has been great to branch out a bit in order to better understand the area outside of our happy bubble on the mountain.

Some history, explanation of the method, and its relevance in the current world situation:

More than forty years ago, John Jeavons asked many farmers in the San Joaquin Valley how much land was required to sustainably grow enough food for one person’s diet. None of them knew, so he set out to find out an answer to his question. EA is still trying to find an answer to that question. By combining over forty years of research with very valuable lessons learned from Asian civilizations that managed to maintain fertility of their soil for 4000 years, as well as European influences of Rudolf Steiner's biodynamics and 19th century intensive gardening in France and England, GROW BIOINTENSIVE was created. In an optimal situation this system can sustainably produce one person’s food needs on less than 4000 square feet of farmable soil - just under 1/10th of an acre (there are designs being made now that potentially will do the same on much less land). This is a bold claim, considering that conventional agriculture uses around 30,000 square ft. to do the same thing. Unfortunately in many countries, 30,000 square ft. of farmable soil per person is not available. As population increases and acreage of farmable soil decreases due to poor farming practices, less and less land is available globally for the production of our food.

Over the years, EA has focused on building soil rather than depleting it. This is achieved by devoting 60% of the growing area to crops that will provide large amounts of biomass (leaves, stalks, etc.) that can be used to build compost, thereby transforming plant material into easily accessible nutrients that when returned to the soil provide for plants the food they need for healthy growth (no need to buy fertilizer). In addition, structure of the soil is improved so that it will hold more water and allow air to penetrate deeper. The remaining 40% of the growing area is shared between high calorie crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic, leeks) in at least 30% of the growing area, and 10% that is devoted to miscellaneous veggies that complete the diet by contributing necessary vitamins and minerals. Other unique aspects of GB are deep soil preparation, hexagonal plant spacing (no rows), companion planting, and only open-pollinated seed use so seed can be saved (no need to buy seed). All work is done by hand, ensuring the applicability of GB in any situation (no need to buy expensive tools or fuel).

Such a detailed, multi-faceted method certainly cannot be summed up in oneparagraph, or even fully grasped in 6 months! I hope to share more as I learn it.

Many of us have begun to hear more and more about how the connection we used to have with the soil has been lost. Many kids in the developed world have no idea that bread comes from wheat and carrots come out of the ground. Thankfully this is largely a problem only of modern culture, and people groups who are “behind” technologically or economically are still very conscious of how important the soil is. A little scary, though, is the growing dependence (or perceived dependence) that many rural farmers in developing nations have on chemical fertilizers which quickly degrade the quality of the soil. Hybrid seeds are now being used in many of these areas too, sometimes forcing farmers to buy seed every season instead of saving and using their own well-adapted seed like they have done for millennia! So there seems to be no immunity from this disease ofirresponsible farming, but there is a cure available, GB being part of it. This gives me hope, and I’m eager to share this hope with others.   

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ecology Action Internship

Just over a month into a 6-month internship at Ecology Action (  Much learning, growth, sharing, excitement.

I'll soon post more words, but some visual documentation for now: April-May