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Six-Month Interns at Ecology Action Headquarters Mini-Farm
by Karen Gridley

Ecology Action Headquarters

Six-month Interns at EAH Mini-Farm. From left: Fatou, Tanushree, David and Alejo

Six-month interns from four corners of the world converged at the EAH Mini-Farm in April 2013 to be introduced to, or in two cases, to deepen their knowledge of, the GROW BIOINTENSIVE (GB) method. These interns—from Argentina, Kenya, India and Senegal—worked together to apply the system's eight components under the patient tutelage of the team at the Mini-Farm, which includes Mini-Farm Manager Eric Buteyn, Hunter Flynn, Jes Pearce and Renee Bussenger, all of whom are studying the apprentice curriculum. Learning was enhanced for the whole group by one day each week spent in class with John Jeavons, who wove together the design of a way to farm for the 21st century.

For Karanja David Gathuka (David) from Kenya, the GROW BIOINTENSIVE (GB) system is not new. He was first introduced to it at Manor House in Kenya. Since 2003, he has been employed by Organic Agricultural Center of Kenya (OACK) to teach organic farming practices to small-scale tea and coffee farmers in Kargare, Muranga County. Inspired by his mother, a market gardener in his childhood, David attended college to study sustainable agriculture..

At OACK, no one knew GB, and through the influence of Sandra Mardigian, Samuel and Peris N'deritu came and provided training for all the staff and a group of local farmers. David said that at first he didn't believe it possible to have a sustainable farming system without outside inputs to improve the soil, but now he has a broader understanding from his internship. He sees the method is real.

David explained that OACK is situated in the heart of a tea-farming area, with steep slopes at a high elevation. He said the current method of tea growing depletes the soil, and farmers do not grow other crops. Most small farmers have about 2 acres of land and are provided with seeds and commercial fertilizers by the tea factory, with the costs of these inputs coming out of the farmers' tea profits at the end of the growing season. A farmer doesn't make enough money from selling his tea to feed his extended family.

David feels that the local farmers are "brain-washed" by the tea factories, which supply them with hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers. They don't see any alternatives. OACK's goal is to change the mentality of the local farmers and to enlist them in the growing of their own crops, in addition to tea, which will mean getting other family members involved in building terraced gardens on slopes. David wants to encourage the farmers to become independent. In addition to growing their own food, he would like to see them use sustainable methods and save their own seed.

When he goes back to Kenya, David's plan is to share the GB method he's learned here with colleagues and the farming communities around OACK. He hopes to make some changes within OACK and to look for a more permanent demonstration garden.

Two things stand out for David from his time spent at the Mini-Farm. First, he sees that the GB system requires a much closer and deeper relationship between the farmer, the plants and the soil than current forms of agriculture in Kenya. Second, he feels that the experience of coming to the EAH Mini-Farm and creating a home with people of different nationalities and backgrounds helps him to see that we are one big community of people with shared values. Now he feels he is not alone on this journey, and that gives him courage and hope.

N'deye Fatou Sene Diawara (Fatou), from a small coastal village in Senegal, loved agriculture as a child, working with her mother in her grandparents' fields. So she felt fortunate in 2000, when she met and married Lamine Diawara. He wanted to return to agriculture after his years working as a teacher and in the field of scouting. Ten years ago Lamine bought a parcel of land 50 km outside of Dakar. He has now implemented aspects of the GB system at "Fankanta", their demonstration garden, and hopes to influence the surrounding population to see the effectiveness of moving away from using chemicals.

Fatou says observers to the garden are curious and interested in seeding in flats and composting. She points out that traditional agriculture was somewhat more similar to the GB method than current industrial agriculture: soil was dug by hand with a hoe, open-pollinated seeds were broadcast by hand, and organic manures were added to replenish the soil. She says the younger generation only knows chemical agriculture, and "the chemicals poison us." What is needed, she claims, is a return to a "modernized traditional system." She is grateful that Lamine encouraged her to receive the six-month training at Ecology Action.

Fatou believes that if you can tell a Senegalese woman that she can grow her own rice, you might make a farmer of her, because although rice is a traditional staple, many women cannot afford to eat it now, and the government currently must import rice.

When asked what challenges face her in relation to introducing the GB system, she admits that growing crops for compost will be a difficult concept, as farmers now use grain stalks and other plant material as fodder for animals. Also water is a limited resource in this arid country.

When Fatou returns to Fankanta, she will work with Lamine and his brother N'famara (see EA's September 2013 Newsletter) to teach what she has learned. She also hopes to reach out to children and to start mini-farms in schools. She feels growing their own food will become more of a reality when children learn to love agriculture early in their lives.

Fatou came to the EAH Mini-Farm speaking very little English, but everyone has been her English teacher, especially Alejo Guerin from Argentina, who also practiced French with her. She says the trip here to the US has been a very big experience for her, and she is grateful to all the people, especially Eric Buteyn, who have helped her along the way, both with the language and with learning the GB method.

For Alejo Mendez Guerin of Buenos Aires, Argentina, coming to the EAH Mini-Farm has been an opportunity not only to deepen his existing knowledge of the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method from its original source, but also to assist him in setting a new direction for his belief in this method.

Interested in agriculture from the age of 21, Alejo studied Farm Management at the University of Buenos Aires. The program was organized around conventional agriculture, but there were courses in organic gardening. His pursuit of a more organic approach led him to study for two summers in Patagonia with Fernando Pia, who had attended EA workshops in 1993, 1994 and 1997.

Alejo began teaching courses with Fernando, and also started to demonstrate the Biointensive method at his 8-bed garden in La Plata, an hour and a half outside of Buenos Aires. Alejo went on to work with the Argentinean Movement of Organic Producers (MAPO). His job was to promote the value of organic agriculture primarily to the urban population, giving workshops in hotel conference rooms. "Urban people weren't interested in the whole system," Alejo says. He felt somewhat discouraged at this point by the realization that the Argentinean people had lost a connection to producing their own food. So last year he shifted his focus away from Buenos Aires and spent more time with farmers in rural areas, which also proved a challenge because farmers have long-established techniques of producing food, and it is difficult to find a farmer who is willing to put in experimental beds.

At this point in Alejo's life, Juan Manuel Martinez, Director of ECOPOL, invited him to renew his knowledge and enthusiasm with a six-month internship at Ecology Action. The work here at the Mini-Farm has made him realize that successful gardening/farming is about building community, as well as producing food in a sustainable manner.

Ultimately he plans to return to his La Plata site to develop a larger demonstration garden and to consider starting his own seed company. There are no seed companies in Buenos Aires and not a great variety of vegetables in the country as a whole. But first, Alejo will spend a year in France (where his French wife is a student) and study with the Kokopeli Foundation, a group that works to recover old heirloom varieties. For Alejo, who says that playing with packets of seeds excites him like "trading cards for kids," his newfound direction offers hope, renewal and the promise of community.

For Tanushree Bhushan, born in Jamnagar, India, the route to agriculture began from a childhood desire for greater economic parity for Indian people and meandered through a period of researching internal rural-urban migration in her country.

Growing up in the big cities of India (Mumbai and Delhi), Tanushree said she was always affected by the poverty of beggars and homeless people. She wanted to be a part of the solution to this problem. She studied economics both as an undergraduate and in graduate school. With a desire to spend time in rural India, she sought employment in the micro-finance branch of the largest private-sector bank in India. Her work focused on financial services for the poor, including migrant workers and people living in remote rural areas.

Over time, she discovered that micro-finance serves only a certain segment of the poor and, as practiced, was not a holistic way to address the complex issue of poverty. She thus moved to a grass-roots organization focused on rural livelihoods and facilitating internal migration in India. This unique organization provided her with the opportunity to interview migrant families and to learn the challenges they face.

She moved to the US after getting married, and her first job was on an agricultural research project focused on land preservation issues in Montana. The questions raised in this study were "Can the larger Missoula area feed its population today and 20 years hence? How does the nature of the diets affect this question, and how economically and environmentally feasible are these diets?" This was her first exposure to how intimately agriculture impacts nutrition, poverty and the environment we live in. This study was instrumental in narrowing her focus.

Tanushree started sitting in on all the agricultural classes at Stanford (where she was based) and began to learn to grow food herself at the student farm. She wanted to pursue the study of agriculture, with the aim of securing more equitable development. She applied to UC Davis to get a Master's Degree in International Agricultural Development. While attending UC Davis, she learned as much as she could about sustainable agriculture and also worked at a community garden. When she read How to Grow More Vegetables, she realized that the GB system is particularly well designed to help small farmers, ideal for India, where the average farm is 3 acres. Everything pointed to GROW BIOINTENSIVE and Ecology Action, which led finally to this six-month internship.

As the first EA intern from India, she looks forward to the opportunity to make her own mark in agriculture with the GB system. She is fortunate that her father recently bought a one-acre parcel of land near New Delhi. Her plan is to return to farm and set it up as a laboratory/demonstration site. The second aspect of her plan is to reach children by bringing school classes to tour her farm. And lastly, Tanushree wants to explore cooperatives, which will add economic benefits to farmers using the GB method, while simultaneously strengthening the community.

For Tanushree, all the stages on her journey seem to have been stepping-stones to her plan for a demonstration/research garden in this area near New Delhi, which is at the interface of rural and urban India.

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