Ecology Action Goal: Act as a catalyst, teach teachers, and train students
The Common Ground Garden was started in California in 1972 to determine what agricultural techniques would make food-raising by small farmers and gardeners more efficient. We call the results "mini-farming." Mini-farms can flourish in nonagricultural areas such as mountainous regions, arid areas, and in and around urban centers. Food can be produced where people live. With knowledge and skill, the yield per hour can be high without using the expensive machinery that is the preoccupation of our current agriculture. Mini-farming is available to everyone.
We began by concentrating on the exciting possibilities presented by the Biointensive method—does this method really produce four times the yield, as Alan Chadwick claimed? If so, does it take more water? Does it consume vast amounts of fertilizer and organic matter? Does it exhaust the soil? Or the people working? The only way to answer these questions was to plunge in and try it. Initially, we worked mainly on the quantitative aspects, developing the tools and data to maximize yields within the framework of Biointensive's life-giving approach. This involved experimentation with and evaluation of plant spacings, fertilizer inputs, various watering methods, and other variables.
The work has always been worthwhile despite the continuing challenge of attracting strong, ongoing support. The biggest single asset to this undertaking is John Jeavons' unfailing stamina and dedication. Over and over, when we all ask, "Can it work?" he answers, "How are we going to make it work?" It is becoming increasingly clear that sustainable grow biointensive mini-farming will be an important part of the solution to starvation and malnutrition, dwindling energy supplies, unemployment, and exhaustion and loss of arable land, if the social and political challenges can be met.
After 30 years of testing, grow biointensive farming has produced amazing benefits, but a lot of work is still to be done.
Yields can average 2 to 6 times those of U.S. agriculture and a few range up to 31 times as high. The full potential for all areas has probably not yet been reached. We are still working to develop an optimally healthy soil system. Calorie and compost crops present the most challenges because they are crucial in meeting the nutritional needs of people and the soil. Experiments include soybeans, alfalfa, fava beans, wheat, oats, cardoon, and comfrey. So far our yields are from 1 to 5 times the U.S. average for these crops. Water use is well below that of commercial agriculture per pound of food produced, and is about 33% to 12% that of conventional techniques per unit of land area.
Energy expenditure, expressed in kilocalories of input, is 1% of that used by commercial agriculture. The human body is still more efficient than any machine we have been able to invent. Several factors contradict the popular conception that this is a labor-intensive method. Using hand tools may seem to be more work, but the yields more than compensate. Even at 250 a pound wholesale, zucchini can bring as much as $9 to $16 per hour depending on the harvest timing because it is easy to grow, maintain, and harvest. Time spent in soil preparation is more than offset later in less need for weeding, thinning, cultivation, and other chores per unit of area and per unit of yield. Hand watering and harvesting appear to take the most time. Initial soil preparation, including fertilization and planting, may take 5 to 9V2 hours per 100-square-foot raised bed. Thereafter, the time spent decreases dramatically. A new digging tool, the U-bar, has reduced subsequent bed preparation time to as little as 20 minutes when that is desirable. A new hand watering tool that waters more quickly and more gently is also being developed.
Nature has answered our original queries with an abundance even greater than expected, and we have narrowed our research to the most important question that can be asked of any agricultural system: Is it sustainable? The grow biointensive method currently uses V2 or less the purchased fertilizer that commercial farmers use. Can we maintain all nutrient levels on site, once they have been built up and balanced? Or is some outside additive always necessary? We need to look more closely at all nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, potash, calcium, and trace minerals. Anyone can grow good crops on good soil, cashing in on nature's accumulated riches. The GROW BIOINTENSIVE method appears to allow anyone to take "the worst possible soil" (Alan Chadwick's appraisal of our original Palo Alto research site) and turn it into a bountiful garden or minifarm. Preliminary monitoring of our soil-building process by a University of California soil scientist was probably the most important information garnered about our initial site. Continued monitoring will unlock new secrets and provide hope for people with marginal, worn-out, or desertified soils. However, a complete answer to the long-term question of sustainable soil fertility will require at least 50 years of observation as the living soil system changes and grows! We continue to work on that issue.
Nine years of growing and testing in Ecology Action's urban garden mini-farm came to an end in 1980 due to the termination of our lease and new construction on that land. Like so much other agricultural land in the United States, our lovingly tended beds succumbed to the press of urbanization. The city growing area prepared us for a rural site. The facilities of grocery store and electric lines were exchanged for open skies and room to grow more herbs, flowers, vegetables, beans, grains, and compost crops than we ever imagined. At the Common Ground mini-farm in Willits, California, we are enjoying a permanent site where we can grow trees of all kinds—for food, fuel, and beauty. Other projects include a self-fertilizing lawn composed of fragrant herbs and clovers, and a working mini-farm. In 1973, we initially estimated that a one-person small holding (V8 to V2 acre) could grow crops bringing in a net income of $5,000 to $20,000 a year (about $100 to $400 a week) after 4 to 5 years. However, one woman in Vancouver, British Columbia, was later earning about $400 a week growing gourmet vegetables for restaurants on V16 of an acre 20 years after we began. At first she thought it could not be done, but when she tried growing crops for income it worked. She then passed her skills on to 12 other women. Crops grown may include collards, chard, beets, mangels, spinach, green onions, garlic, radishes, romaine and Bibb lettuce, zucchini, patty pan squash, cucumbers, and lavender. Rather than solely looking to Ecology Action for answers, we hope you will dig in and try grow biointensive for yourself! The techniques are simple to use, as this book shows. No large capital expenses are necessary to get started. The techniques work in varied climates and soils. American farmers are feeding the world, but mini-farming can give people the knowledge to feed themselves.
Posted on the wall of our local environmental center, there once was a tongue-in-cheek guide called "50 Really Difficult Things You Can Do to Save the Earth." The second item was to "grow all your own vegetables." We had to laugh. We moved up to our new mini-farm in Willits with a plan for short-term food self-sufficiency. That was about 20 years ago. We still take a neighborly ribbing for racing down to the farmers' markets to buy sweet corn, carrots, and other vegetables and fruits to feed an extended family of staff, apprentices, interns, and friends at our research site. Research priorities often interfere with growing all our vegetables and fruits, but we are attempting to grow significant amounts of calories and compost crops. It is difficult to research, write, publish, teach, do outreach around the world, and farm—all at the same time!
Robin Leler Jeavons said, "My first garden was a total failure. I planned, dug, and planted, but I had not really learned how to garden yet. Now my favorite class to teach is compost. I bring a glass jar of waste—a slimy brew of potato peels, coffee grounds, and last week's rotting roses. The other jar has compost—sweet smelling, earthy, and alive and, by the way, nothing like the sifted and homogenized product sold at garden centers. These two jars remind me of the magical transformation of a garden: health from garbage, riches out of waste. I can 'see' that magic immediately, though it may take me years to fully comprehend it!"
Betsy Jeavons Bruneau, a senior staff person at Ecology Action, has an affinity for tiny life-forms. She taught us to appreciate the infinitely variable lichens that cling to bare rock and fallen trees, creating soil for larger life-forms to follow. People used to bring insects into our store for identification. Betsy's first response was usually a hushed "How beautiful!" She still marvels at the intensely colorful tomato hornworms, the intricate markings on the shells of wise old snails, and the fact that earwigs are wonderful mothers.
We live in an age of consumption, when we are constantly exhorted to measure ourselves by our possessions. Yet no matter how rich we manage to become, something human in us says our true worth is reflected by what we ourselves create. Why not make it full of life and beauty rather than pollution? Our neighbor Ellen spent all day putting up jars of string beans and picalilli, then worked until midnight to finish up a batch of raspberries. One of her notes reads, "There is no rest for the gardener... but there is always dessert!"
Gardening is not always easy, but the rewards are personal and fun. For most of us, the environment is what is around us, separate from human activity. Gardening offers the chance to become partners with nature. The reward is not just a salad from the backyard or a gleaming jar of peaches. Gardening is the process of digging the soil, starting small seeds, watching an apple tree grow. Gardening is an education in observation, harmony, honesty, and humility—in knowing and understanding our place in the world.
But the impact is also global. Alan Chadwick felt that gardening was the only way to prevent another world war—to bring a living, active peace on Earth by working with healthy, creative, positive life forces. In doing this, we become one with those life forces. The homegrown tomato requires no fuel for transportation, no packaging to be sent to the landfill, no political decisions about who will be allowed to work the fields or what level of pollutants is acceptable in our groundwater. Nature is not always a Garden of Eden. Some partnership is required to bring out the best in both nature and people. "Give to Nature, and she will repay you in glorious abundance," was one of Chadwick's favorite sayings. Gardening and mini-farming give us the opportunity to participate in the subtle transformation of desert to "dessert." All we need to do is to start with one growing bed and tend it well, and we have begun the exciting, expansive, giving process of enlivening and healing the earth and ourselves.
Ecology Action Staff January 2, 2002
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