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Six-Month Interns at the Green Belt Mini-Farm
by Karen Gridley

Ecology Action Headquarters

6-Month Interns Sanjana and Diego at the Green Belt Mini-Farm

Like the inland mini-farms, Green Belt Mini-Farm on the coast has a unique character with closely spaced, maze-like beds. It's situated near the village of Mendocino on a 6,000-sq-ft flat field surrounded by grazing horses and the gardens and grounds of the Stanford Inn and vegan restaurant. Inn owners Jeff and Joan Stanford graciously offered meals twice a day to Mini-Farm manager Matt Drewno and the two six-month interns from Sri Lanka and Mexico.

Diego Hernandez Fragoso, from Mexico, says he has come to appreciate how you have to stay conscious to know your new environment. For example, the soil at Green Belt is so different from the inland mini-farm soils that it may take three times the amount of labor to prepare a bed at Green Belt compared to the time spent at the Golden Rule Mini-Farm. And although Diego and Sanjana Naikaluge, from Sri Lanka, must work longer to create double-dug beds, they appreciate the cooler coastal climate compared to the inland heat. "This is all part of the learning that happens during the internship," says Diego, "knowing your soil and climate conditions and what is required to create healthy beds and a healthy farm."

Born in Mexico City, Diego nonetheless has an experience of agriculture primarily from this large metropolitan area, as his grandfather has farming acreage there. He studied Agricultural Development Planning at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and currently works for CECADESU, the Center for Education and Training for Sustainable Development, an agency of the Ministry of the Environment (SEMARNAT).

He was introduced to the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method by his colleague Oscar Luna, a Biointensive trainer. Diego is also involved with a conservation project for the traditional farming method known as "chinampa" in Tláhuac, Mexico City. This area is the famed "floating islands", where traditional Aztec agriculture is practiced by approximately 25% of farmers. The traditional practice is a year-round production of vegetables using irrigation channels. The damp mud in these channels is also used for starting seedlings, which are then transplanted into beds. The fertility of the soil is recharged through the decaying vegetation in the water channels. Unfortunately, environmental assaults on this wetland area, in the form of a subway and other incursions, are drying up the channels, and many of the approximately 800 farmers have abandoned their farms. This ancient culture is in the process of being lost.

Two women colleagues, Edith Martinez and Martha Merino, have encouraged him to work with the farmers in this area to introduce them to the GB method. A farmer on the "island" has offered him a piece of land to work. This seemed like an opportunity to have a GB demonstration garden and to simultaneously learn the ancient Aztec method of agriculture. He already has farmers intrigued by his techniques.

What he has learned from his time with Ecology Action is that in building soil and gardens, you also build community. The internship has already changed his life. He feels so much healthier eating a vegan diet from the food grown right in the garden. "It's all connected," says Diego. "A healthy soil creates healthy food, which creates healthy, happy people and communities."

Sanjana Naikaluge is the third intern from Sri Lanka to study the GB method at Ecology Action. Interested in nature from childhood, Sanjana went on to study Biology, Agriculture and Chemistry for his advanced level exams, and then pursued his study of agriculture for two years at the Sri Lankan School of Agriculture. At the school's 200-acre farm, he was introduced to all aspects of agriculture: vegetable and rice cultivation, animal husbandry, agricultural engineering, soil and crop protection, and extinction of plant species.

After graduation, he worked as an agricultural officer in soil conservation and organic gardening for the Ministry of Agriculture in mountainous areas. He worked with a lot of farmers and taught them how to deal with erosion and landslides through various soil conservation practices such as building terraces, cultivating with contour lines and soil drains.

Subsequently, he began working with Practical Action, a non-governmental organization promoting organic agriculture in the western province of Sri Lanka. In this province—which has more organic crop production than other regions of the country—he works directly with Hemantha Abeywaradhana, a 2012 EA intern at the Golden Rule Garden, to provide organic workshops and crop clinics. At crop clinics, farmers bring in their problems and questions, and Sanjana and Hemantha offer solutions that are non-chemical in nature.

Sanjana does outreach to 35 villages and more than 300 farmers and their home gardens. Sanjana, Hemantha and Practical Action have combined efforts with another non-profit called Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement (LOAM) to re-introduce indigenous rice varieties and also to encourage indigenous crops in backyard gardens.

After decades of conventional agriculture, using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid crops, the government of Sri Lanka is seeking to develop a more enduring form of agriculture and is eager for a new approach. Hemantha, the first EA intern to introduce the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method to the Sri Lankan government, has enlisted the government in collaborating with NGOs and the private sector on developing a GB demonstration project. The hope is that this Sri Lankan project will work in conjunction with Ecology Action to create a hub in Southeast Asia to offer GB basic-level training. The three Sri Lankans who have already been interns at Ecology Action (including Don Weerakkody, highlighted in EA's September 2013 Newsletter) will ensure a core group of persons knowledgeable in the GB method, to carry out this goal.

Sanjana says that what he most appreciates about the GB method is that it is agriculture primarily focused on growing soil, which is not the focus of other organic farming methods. When he came to Green Belt, he was impressed by the soil at the Mini-Farm. He had never seen soil like this: deep and friable, very alive, with so much water-holding capacity. Sanjana has learned the importance of not importing outside resources to create your soil, but to recycle everything and to maximize the resources you have. He is grateful to Matt Drewno, who, he says, is "the best teacher of agriculture."

Sanjana appreciates the opportunity to have shared experiences and knowledge with the interns from all the countries represented during the past six months. "It's like the United Nations," he exclaims: "Europe, Africa, Latin America, Mexico, Sri Lanka and India. We need to exchange our knowledge and address global challenges together."

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