Latin America producing all the food it needs for its people, plus an equalamount for export – that’s the dream that brought John Jeavons of Ecology Action, a nonprofit environmental consultancy in northern California, to Costa Rica in March to teach a Grow Biointensive workshop.
About 130 participants from nearly every country in the western hemisphere attended the six-day event in Vásquez de Coronado, northeast of San José. Fifteen officials from Costa Rica’s Ministry of Agriculture also attended.
The workshop was part of a plan to establish a demonstration center in each country to reach small-scale, low-income farmers of today with sustainable agriculture principles discovered thousands of years ago.
Jeavons’ results from his 34 years of experience on several continents show that greatly increased yields – two to six times higher than yields from conventional practices – are possible using these methods. He obtains these results without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, or the bioengineering of plants’ DNA. By applying these principles, Latin American countries could produce more than enough food on the land presently in use, while preserving all of the remaining wild areas.
Each day, workshop participants received classroom-type instruction followed by hands-on experience at various garden sites in Coronado. Jeavons demonstrated special deep digging techniques, effective for loosening even highly compacted soil.
“Roots are the controlling part of the plant,” he explained. “The soil and roots need to breathe. We need to create a good home for the roots.”
The process of composting to return nutrients to the soil is essential for a sustainable system. Healthy soil produces healthy plants, better able to resist insect and disease attacks.
“In order to eat, we need to feed the microbes,” Jeavons said.
Workshop participants built long, onemeter-high compost piles with alternating layers of dry plant material, green plant material, soil and water, topped off with a cover of banana leaves. During the week, they also planted seeds and seedlings in beds they had prepared at the sites.
One of the sites is the CoronadoSecondary School, where Ecology Action staff and workshop participants demonstrated the Grow Biointensive techniques to students and their teacher. A return visit to the school a few months later showed the corn to be thriving, a second crop of vegetables to be growing where the first crop had been harvested and some new beds growing squash.
One of the most successful sites is the garden at Coronado’s Centro Diurno Tercera Edad, a daily care center serving 41 senior citizens. The huge yields and high quality of the produce convinced director Vera Méndez to enthusiastically continue and expand the project and to give instructions to follow Jeavons’ method with precision.
Méndez explained that four of the center’s clients tend the garden each day, and a larger group works on it once a week. William Guillermo, an official with the Ministry of Agriculture, also visits once a week to give his support. The fresh, pesticide-free vegetables are prepared onsite, then served to clients in the center’s dining room.
In the months following the six-day workshop, two regional events for local organic producers were held in Costa Rica, one in the northwestern province of Guanacaste and one in Cartago, east of San José. A three-day workshop for producers from all over the country is planned for 2007.
Jack Perella, a resident of Coronado and the local coordinator for the Grow Biointensive workshops, advises interested readers to visit the Web site of the Costa Rican Organic Agriculture Movement (MAOCO) at www.agriculturaorganica.org for more information. Perella explained that MAOCO is an umbrella organization representing the interests of Costa Rica’s organic growers to the government and providing information and support for its members. Perella also recommends that readers seeking more information visit www.growbiointesive.org and www.thenewdawncenter.org (Tico Times gardening columnist Ed Bernhardt’s Web site).
Jeavons wrote: “Generally, the challenges of world hunger, soil depletion and diminishing resources seem so overwhelming that we tend to look for big solutions … These solutions create long-term dependency.”
He advocates local solutions to answer the question, “How do we enable ourselves to take care of our own needs?” In writing about the work of Ecology Action, he says,
“Our work is one way for people to begin to develop those solutions.”
He claims that mini-farming can be available to everyone and urges people to produce food where they live.
“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,” Jeavons said
What is Grow Biointensive?
Grow Biointensive is a registered trademark of the group Ecology Action, and refers to the integrated use of the following features of a system of sustainable mini-farming:
–Initially digging beds to a depth of 24 inches to develop good soil structure – a “living sponge cake” in which plants can thrive;
–Building and then maintaining sustainable soil fertility by composting and returning the non-edible parts of plants to the soil;
–Spacing plants very close together so their leaves touch when mature, which increases yields, reduces the need for water and reduces weed growth;
–Companion planting, which is mixing certain species together in the same bed, such as carrots and tomatoes, because some groups of plants have beneficial effects on others;
–Planning a mix of crops to provide enough calories, complete nutrients, compost and income; and
–Growing and saving one’s own seeds.