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Interview with John Jeavons of Ecology Action, California

by Nikki Rose
(first published for Slow Food, April 2005)


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. Many
other people from Latin America and South America have 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:
www.growbiointensive.org

Bountiful Gardens, Ecology Action’s non-profit international mail order service,
carries Ecology Action’s publications, heirloom seeds, gardening supplies and books:
www.bountifulgardens.org
Address: Ecology Action
5798 Ridgewood Road
Willits, CA 95490
Phone: 707-459-0150
Fax: 707-459-5409

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,
educational 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.


Click Here for More Photos of Ecology Action Research Garden