The concept of sustainable organic agriculture may be new to most of us, but to John Jeavons, it’s been his life’s work. In 1972, he began the GROW BIOINTENSIVE sustainable mini-farming program of Ecology Action, a non-profit environmental research and education organization based in Willits, California, to “teach people worldwide to better feed themselves while feeding the soil and conserving resources.”
Action is the operative word here. Rather than talking about his mission, Jeavons is busy making it happen.
Jeavons shares decades of sustainable, organic farming solutions with farmers around the world through his publications, videos, international conferences and workshops. His GROW BIOINTENSIVE—biologically intensive—method is now used in 130 countries and is based on the work of Alan Chadwick, a renowned horticulturalist.
The GROW BIOINTENSIVE method combines viable techniques of ancient civilizations with modern ingenuity. The general idea is to produce high yields of food in a small area of land, while maintaining healthy soil and using a minimal amount of water.
According to Jeavons, conventional agricultural practices deplete our soil 18 to 80 times more rapidly than it is built up in nature. A key to the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method is that it can build the soil up to 60 times faster than in nature. Each region of the world requires a tailored formula. Drought-ridden and impoverished areas are obvious beneficiaries of this method, with its use of much less water per pound of food produced, but Jeavons warns that GROW BIOINTENSIVE, or similarly effective agricultural approaches should be implemented now, before it’s too late.
When I visited Mr. Jeavons in Willits this June for a workshop on soil preparation, composting and seed propagation, his research garden was thriving with familiar and not-so-familiar plants. The property is on a gorgeous ridge surrounded by a cooling forest. Workshop participants were from varied backgrounds – career farmers and avid home gardeners, as well as teachers, researchers and students of nutrition, alternative medicine, agriculture and ecology.
During his introduction, Jeavons emphasized the need for all of us to implement GROW BIOINTENSIVE techniques. He covered the big picture of potential world hunger, soil depletion and diminishing natural resources due to unsustainable development and farming practices. This workshop would provide participants with the foundation to maintain their own food sources (mini-farms) and become a part of the solution.
Using low tech visuals — a small bowl of applesauce and big bowl of soil — Jeavons demonstrated the amount of fertile soil it takes to make a measure of food by using a symbolic tablespoon of applesauce: 6 to 24 tablespoons of soil lost equals 1 tablespoon of applesauce, depending on regional factors. “At the rate we’re depleting our soil with most agricultural techniques, the amount of fertile soil left on the planet may not be enough to sustain all the persons in developing counties—where 90% of the world’s people will live—much beyond the year 2014, if we are to also preserve the essential plant and animal genetic diversity of the world ecosystems,” he said.
Using an apple to represent Earth, he sliced it down to 1/48th of its original size. “This is what’s left of the earth’s farmable land surface,” he said. The discarded slices represented our polluted, over-fished waters and our overdeveloped and desertified land.
Charged for action, we went to the garden for more information. The garden is shaped like an amphitheatre, with tiers of plants clinging to steep slopes and walkways leading to crops, compost heaps, greenhouses and water tanks. Carol Cox, Ecology Action’s Research Garden Manager, met us at the upper knoll to introduce us to the Design Models. A maze of small raised beds bursting with winter crops of wheat and fava beans alternated with new shoots of corn, lettuce, onions and garlic, among many other plants. A mini-greenhouse, set right in the middle of one bed, contained tomatoes and cucumbers.
Ms. Cox’s knowledge, enthusiasm and deep connection to the garden was impossible to miss. Each tier leading down a circular garden held a different type of vegetable, grain or flower and played a role in the cycle of feeding the soil and the farmers. Cox described the reasons for planting each variety in specific locations and the successes and failures throughout the years, resulting in new trials and often surprisingly positive results. Vegetable beds had identification markers and care instructions, while beds filled with soil and mini-farm crop residues were calendared for later use in the intricate compost system.
The medicinal herb bed was packed with a kaleidoscopic spray of colors. Twenty different types of plants: chamomile, lavender, St. John’s Wort, Thyme, Lemon Balm, to name of few, shared a small space. The garden was developed by Louisa Lenz, author of Growing Medicinal Herbs in as Little as Fifty Square Feet: Uses and Recipes (an Ecology Action publication, 1995).
After the tour, mini-classes were presented by Ecology Action interns from around the world. Even at their young age of 20-something, most interns have already had extensive training in related fields at universities in their respective countries. They have great plans to share their expertise when they return home. It’s encouraging to know that young, ecologically-minded people are preparing to move mountains.
Itai Hauben of southern Israel, taught us how to build a compost, while Oscar Valbuena from Colombia demonstrated seed propagation techniques. Margaret Lloyd, a second-year apprentice from the area, demonstrated how the double-digging system works. Meanwhile, Adriana Rodriguez of Costa Rica and Patricia de Oliveira of Brazil were busy harvesting the wheat crops. Adriana, Patricia and Oscar recently graduated from EARTH University in Costa Rica, an institution focusing on alternative agriculture in the tropics.
During our lunch break under the trees, I met with Kenneth Nortey-Mensah, who was visiting from Accra, Ghana. He operates a school founded by his father, teaching 700 children and adults general academics, organic farming and traditional trades. His school is affiliated with the World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms organization based in the U.K. Joining us for lunch was Charles Martin, a dear friend of Kenneth’s father and an Ecology Action board member. Charles is a retired biodynamic farmer from the area, whose products were sought after by notable Bay Area chefs. He now consults on sustainable agriculture and alternative health. Charles was helping Kenneth find funding for his school.
Our group had two choices for the finale of our tour: A diet gardening perspective or solar/haybox cooking. I chose the solar cooking class presented by Carol Cox. She showed us how to build a solar oven with foil, glass, cardboard, non-toxic glue and ingenuity.
Solar ovens have been used throughout the world and range in design and capacity. The small, basic models are similar to crock-pot cooking. Aside from being an energy-saving, environmentally-friendly appliance, solar cookers have been beneficial in rural areas in the developing world and in refugee camps, where there is minimal or no access to cooking fuels. They can also be used to boil potentially harmful water.
Judging from the conversations and types of Ecology Action reference materials our group was perusing, it’s clear that, although it seemed we were here for different reasons, ecology engulfs every aspect of our lives. “The plants in the garden grow separately but work together. If only our doctors, farmers and environmentalists could work together,” said a nurse in the group. “That’s what we need to break the toxic chains. Our health is directly related to our environment and if it’s toxic, then what are we?”
How can those of us who don’t have any outdoor space support these initiatives? “They can mini-farm in community gardens, raise food in window boxes or in containers on porches, and can donate publications to others who cannot afford them,” said Jeavons. “One project we currently need help with is getting 8,000 copies of the Spanish version of How To Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops to Spanish-speaking countries. Ecology Action’s future plans are to catalyze the initiation of 50-Bed Demonstration/Teaching Mini-Ag Center/Soil Test Stations in each country in the world, so others can participate in and learn from this biologically-alive farming process.”
Examples of what former students are currently doing :
Emmanuel Omundi is the Director of the Manor House Agricultural Center in Kenya and Uganda. Manor House has directly and indirectly trained tens of thousands of Kenyans in the Biointensive Method and over 40 Kenyan non-profit organizations in Kenya are also teaching these techniques throughout the country.
Juan Manuel Martinez Valdez is Director of ECOPOL in Mexico and is Ecology Action’s Associate for GROW BIOINTENSIVE in the 21 Spanish-speaking countries in the world. To date over 2 million people in Mexico are using Biointensive practices as a result of his initiatives.
Ricardo Romero is Director and Karla Arroyo Rizo is Garden Manager of a demonstration/teaching 10,000 square foot mini-farm in Veracruz, Mexico. People from other Spanish-speaking countries are also trained at this site.
Fernando Pia is Director of CIESA and its demonstration/teaching/marketing Biointensive farm in the Patagonia region of Argentina. Fernando has received a key award from the International Federation of International Organic Agricultural
Movements for this work.
John Jeavons is the author and/or co-author of over 30 Ecology Action publications. His most notable book, How To Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine, has been translated into Spanish, French, German, Russian, Arabic, Hindi and Braille.
Another Ecology Action project is the Common Ground Garden Supply and Education Center, a non-profit retail outlet in Palo Alto, California, offering classes, heirloom seeds by the spoonful, organically grown seedlings, plants and supplies. www.commongroundinpaloalto.org
Classes and workshops are held in Palo Alto and Willits, California throughout the year:
Bountiful Gardens, Ecology Action’s non-profit international mail order service, carries Ecology Action’s publications, heirloom seeds, gardening supplies and books:
Address: Ecology Action
5798 Ridgewood Road
Willits, CA 95490
Other organizations mentioned in this article:
Solar Cookers International: www.solarcooking.org
World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms www.wwoof.org
Nikki Rose is a professional chef, writer and founder of ‘Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries, travel programs to preserve our culinary history’. She works directly with local chefs, farmers and scientists in Crete to support traditional trades and sustainable organic agriculture. Her published articles and upcoming book focus on these issues and have appeared in Slow Food publications, Athens News and Stigmes Magazine (Crete), among others.