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.