Sri Lankan agricultural official, Sanjana Silva, helps cultivate food at a research garden in northern California. (Image courtesy of Sanjana Silva)
As the curtain of fog began to part, a ray of sunlight struck the small patch of earth where Sanjana Silva was replanting dozens of bright green barley seedlings. Silva lives and works in Sri Lanka, the tropical island nation that dangles from India’s southernmost tip. As part of his job as an officer with Sri Lanka’s Department of Agriculture, he searches for better ways to feed his country’s growing population.
So what is Silva doing here, digging holes in a garden in Mendocino, California, on this chilly morning?
“It’s very cold here…but I can deal with it,” he said with a laugh.
Luckily, he’s not here for the weather.
Silva is part of a group of international farmers and gardeners from countries as far flung as Senegal, Nepal, and Argentina who journey every year to a network of research gardens on the northern California coast. They come to participate in six- to twelve-month training programs where they are schooled in the art of biointensive growing.
The programs are offered through a nonprofit organization based in Willits, California called Ecology Action, dedicated to teaching people around the globe how to grow food in a sustainable way. The method they teach -- referred to as GROW BIOINTENSIVE -- is the brainchild of Yale graduate and agricultural researcher John Jeavons, who since 1972 has been studying the results of small-scale, biologically intensive farming. The technique is largely based on the work of Alan Chadwick, the British Master Gardener who pioneered organic farming methods at the University of California-Santa Cruz in the 1960s.
The goal of Jeavon’s trademarked method is to help farmers increase food yields using less land, less water, and without the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in conventional farming techniques.
“Worldwide we have a critical situation on our hands…,” Jeavons explained. “According to a recent UN [FAO] report, 75 percent of the world’s people will be at risk because they may not have enough water to grow an adequate diet. Also, so much of our agricultural land is no longer viable because farming has depleted the soil. So this method is designed -- based on millennia-old practices -- to enable people everywhere in the world to meet their own food needs and ‘grow’ their own soil using a fraction of the resources.”
So, what’s the magic formula? It’s a combination of soil that is continuously cultivated with a carbon-rich organic compost to maximize fertility, and seeds that are planted in a certain way. For example, crops are planted much closer together than usual so that more can be grown in a small space. Bunching the plants together also creates a leafy umbrella that shades the soil, which in turn reduces the need for water. It’s a recipe that can be used to grow seasonal foods year-round -- from winter squashes to summer berries -- outdoors or in greenhouses.
International trainees like Sanjana Silva spend their days engaged in hands-on fieldwork, classroom learning, and informal brainstorming sessions between farmers from different countries, all of whom face distinct challenges.
Silva enrolled in the program because he is searching for ways to support his government’s initiative to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers. “Sri Lanka is 70 percent rural, which means that they are basically all farming their own food. But the use of nationally subsidized chemical fertilizers caused the soil quality to become poor, making it harder to grow food.” Silva added that the shift away from chemical fertilizers was also spurred by their suspected link to the chronic kidney disease that plagues many Sri Lankans.
Although this brand of biointensive farming holds great promise for small community farms like those in Sri Lanka, questions remain about its scalability.
"For small-scale plots this method has proven to produce high yields," according to Christof Bernau, an instructor at the Center for Agroecology at the University of California, Santa Cruz," but if you amplify it out to the multi-acre, tractor-scale model, it may require inputs of knowledge, labor, and resources that aren’t economically sustainable.”
There's no one-size-fits-all method, acknowledged Ecology Action garden manager, Matt Drewno. Growing techniques have to be adjusted to account for variations in weather, topography, and other factors. “But we provide an adaptable toolkit and a framework,” explained Drewn, “so that no matter the climate, crop availability, and other specific local considerations, you can make it work.”
Besides two people from Sri Lanka, this year’s group of 10 international participants (stationed at one of three California training sites) also included an emissary from a Mexican government agency working to improve and expand the capacity of floating farms on the outskirts of Mexico City, and a Kenyan who has set his sights on repairing the soil damage wrought by industrial tea farming, with the hope of restoring the farmers’ ability to nourish themselves from their land.
“Most of these people really want to educate other people -- and that’s why they are coming here,” said Jeavons.
Here in the foggy Mendocino research garden, many crops are transformed into meals served at Ravens’ Restaurant, a gourmet vegan eatery. The proprietors of the restaurant and adjoining eco-resort offer free use of their land for the research, as well as food and lodging for training program participants.
The trainees also get down in the dirt to help answer a question that has been motivating Jeavons for more than 40 years: what is the smallest amount of land on which a complete and balanced diet can be grown? This year’s test plot is filled with calorically and nutritionally dense crops, such as fava beans, potatoes, and towering quinoa plants, whose protein-packed clusters of ruby red seeds glisten in the misty morning light.
Throughout the year the results from this experimental garden will be collected, analyzed, and posted online, where they can be accessed by farmers, scientists, and the public.
Once Silva and the other international participants complete their training, they will take what they learn back to their own communities, along with the hope of planting the seeds for a more sustainable farming future.
“When I’ve taught workshops in places like East Africa and I tell them about the challenging situation we face, it doesn’t freak them out,” Jeavons recounted. “They say, ‘let’s do this’ and ‘if we don’t do this, our children are going to be toast.’”