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Foreword By Alice Waters
In the early days at Chez Panisse, forty years ago, we had to scrounge for decent beans, pick lemons from neighbors’ trees, and hunt far and wide for a variety of produce of any quality whatsoever. But farming has evolved in California. We now work with, at last count, nearly fifty local, small-scale, family-run farms that grow—organically and sustainably—the seasonal fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of our cooking. In large part, we have John Jeavons to thank for this.
I met John on the twentieth birthday of Chez Panisse just as he was preparing for the twentieth anniversary of Ecology Action. We both had a lot to celebrate. The work that John had begun in a small garden at Stanford had inspired small farms on nearly every continent; he had already worked with the Peace Corps in Togo, helped found an agricultural center in Kenya, taught in Mexico, and supported programs in Russia and the Philippines. His work has gone right on inspiring, and at a pace that is fast enough to give us real hope that we will be able to grow sustainable communities around the world.
John’s methods are nothing short of miraculous. He has shown that almost any soil can be prepared for the planting of food, and that astonishing quantities of high-quality produce can be grown on even the most devastated land. He has worked tirelessly to bring self-sufficiency to the poorest people in the poorest parts of the world. As I write, he’s preparing to share his methods with the five thousand small-scale farmers from one hundred and thirty-one countries who are expected at Terra Madre, the biannual gathering of farmers in Turin, Italy, organized by the eco-gastronomes of Slow Food International. I can think of no more appropriate place for the dissemination of his ideas.
Vandana Shiva, the outspoken Indian food activist, has said that farms are zones of peace on this planet. A peaceful revolution in agriculture—what I like to call the delicious revolution—has begun, and John is one of its most brilliant leaders. How to Grow More Vegetables may be one of the most important how-to guides ever written.
Ecology Action and the Common Ground Project
by the Ecology Action Staff
Ecology Action Goal: Act as a catalyst, instruct teachers, and train students
The work has always been worthwhile despite the continuing challenge of attracting strong, ongoing support. The biggest single asset to this undertaking is John Jeavons’s unfailing stamina and dedication. Over and over, when we all ask, “Can it work?” he answers, “How are we going to make it work?” It is becoming increasingly clear that GROW BIOINTENSIVE3 Sustainable Mini-Farming will be an important part of the solution to starvation and malnutrition, dwindling energy supplies, unemployment, and exhaustion and loss of arable land, if the social and political challenges can be met.
After forty years of testing, GROW BIOINTENSIVE food-raising has produced amazing benefits. Yields can average 2 to 6 times those of U.S. agriculture, and a few range up to 31 times higher—a plus at a time of peak food. But there’s still more to learn; for example, we are still working to develop an optimally healthy soil system. Compost and calorie crops present the most challenges because they are crucial in meeting the nutritional needs of people and the soil. Experiments include alfalfa, fava beans, wheat, oats, cardoon, and comfrey. So far our yields are from one to five times the U.S. average for these crops. Water use is well below that of commercial agriculture per pound of food produced, and is about 33% to 12% that of conventional techniques per unit of land area. This is especially important in a world that has reached a point of peak water.
Energy expenditure, expressed in kilocalories of input, is 6% to 1% of that used by commercial agriculture, and this helps meet the challenge of peak oil. The human body is still more efficient than any machine we have been able to invent. Several factors contradict the popular conception that this is a labor-intensive method. Using hand tools may seem to be more work, but the yields more than compensate. Even at 50¢ a pound wholesale, zucchini can bring as much as $18 to $32 per hour depending on the harvest timing because it is easy to grow, maintain, and harvest. Time spent in soil preparation is more than offset later in less need for weeding, thinning, cultivation, and other chores per unit of area and per unit of yield. Hand watering and harvesting appear to take the most time. Initial soil preparation, including fertilization and planting, may take 5 to 91/2 hours per 100-square-foot raised bed. Thereafter, the time spent decreases dramatically. A new digging tool, the U-bar, has reduced subsequent bed preparation time to as little as 20 minutes. A new hand watering tool that waters more quickly and more gently is also being developed.
Nature has answered our original queries with an abundance even greater than expected, and we have narrowed our research to the most important question that can be asked of any agricultural system: Is it sustainable? The GROW BIOINTENSIVE1 method currently uses 50% or less of the purchased fertilizer that commercial farmers use. Can we maintain all nutrient levels on site, once they have been built up and balanced? Or is some outside additive always necessary? We need to look more closely at all nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, potash, calcium, and trace minerals. Anyone can grow good crops on good soil, cashing in on nature’s accumulated riches. The GROW BIOINTENSIVE method appears to allow anyone to take “the worst possible soil” (Alan Chadwick’s appraisal of our original Palo Alto research site) and turn it into a bountiful garden or mini-farm. Preliminary monitoring of our soil-building process by a University of California soil scientist was probably the most important information garnered about our initial site. Continued monitoring will unlock new secrets and provide hope for people with marginal, worn-out, or desertified soils. However, a complete answer to the long-term question of sustainable soil fertility will require at least fifty years of observation as the living soil system changes and grows! We continue to work on that opportunity. Why not create ecosystems of hope?
Nine years of growing and testing in Ecology Action’s urban garden mini-farm came to an end in 1980 due to the termination of our lease and new construction on that land. Like so much other agricultural land in the United States, our lovingly tended beds succumbed to the press of urbanization. The city growing area prepared us for a rural site. The facilities of grocery store and electric lines were exchanged for open skies and room to grow more herbs, flowers, vegetables, beans, grains, and compost crops than we ever imagined.
At the Common Ground Mini-Farm in Willits, California, we are enjoying a permanent site where we can grow trees of all kinds—for food, fuel, and beauty. Other projects include a self-fertilizing lawn composed of fragrant herbs and clovers, and a working mini-farm. In 1973, we initially estimated that a one-person small holding (1/8 to 1/2 acre) could grow crops bringing in a net income of $5,000 to $20,000 a year (about $100 to $400 a week) after four to five years. However, one woman on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, was earning about $400 a week growing gourmet vegetables for restaurants on 1/16 of an acre twenty years after we began. At first she thought it could not be done, but when she tried growing crops for income it worked. She then passed her skills on to twelve other women. Crops grown may include collards, chard, beets, mangels, spinach, green onions, garlic, radishes, romaine and Bibb lettuce, zucchini, pattypan squash, cucumbers, and lavender. Rather than solely looking to Ecology Action for answers, we hope you will dig in and try GROW BIOINTENSIVE for yourself! The techniques are simple to use, as this book shows. No large capital expenses are necessary to get started. The techniques work in varied climates and soils. American farmers are feeding the world, but mini-farming can give people the knowledge and empowerment to feed themselves.
Posted on the wall of our local environmental center, there once was a tongue-in-cheek guide called 50 Really Difficult Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. The second item was “Grow all your own vegetables.” We had to laugh. We moved up to our new mini-farm in Willits with a plan for short-term food self-sufficiency. That was forty years ago. We still take a neighborly ribbing for racing down to the farmers’ markets to buy sweet corn, carrots, and other vegetables and fruits to feed an extended family of staff, apprentices, interns, and friends at our research site. Research priorities often interfere with growing all our vegetables and fruits. It is difficult to research, write, publish, teach, do outreach around the world—and farm—all at the same time!
Rachael Leler said, “My first garden was a total failure. I planned, dug, and planted, but I had not really learned how to garden yet. Now my favorite class to teach is compost. I bring a glass jar of waste—a slimy brew of potato peels, coffee grounds, and last week’s rotting roses. The other jar has compost—sweet smelling, earthy, and alive, and, by the way, nothing like the sifted and homogenized product sold at garden centers. These two jars remind me of the magical transformation of a garden: health from garbage, riches out of waste. I can ‘see’ that magic immediately, though it may take me years to fully comprehend it!”
Betsy Bruneau, a senior staff person, has an affinity for tiny life-forms. She taught us to appreciate the infinitely variable lichens that cling to bare rock and fallen trees, creating soil for larger life-forms to follow. People used to bring insects into our store for identification. Betsy’s first response was usually a hushed “How beautiful!” She marvels at the intensely colorful tomato hornworms, the intricate markings on the shells of wise old snails, and the fact that earwigs are wonderful mothers.
We live in an age of consumption, when we are constantly exhorted to measure ourselves by our possessions. Yet no matter how rich we manage to become, something human in us says our true worth is reflected by what we ourselves create. Why not make it full of life and beauty rather than pollution? Our neighbor Ellen spent all day putting up jars of string beans and piccalilli, then worked until midnight to finish up a batch of raspberries. One of her notes reads, “There is no rest for the gardener . . . but there is always dessert!”
Gardening is not always easy, but the rewards are personal and fun. For most of us, the environment is what is around us, separate from human activity. Gardening offers the chance to become partners with nature. The reward is not just a salad from the backyard or a gleaming jar of peaches. Gardening is the process of digging the soil, starting small seeds, watching an apple tree grow. Gardening is an education in observation, harmony, honesty, and humility—in knowing and understanding our place in the world.
But the impact is also global. Alan Chadwick felt that gardening was the only way to prevent another world war—to bring a living, active peace on Earth by working with healthy, creative, positive life forces. In doing this, we become one with those life forces. He felt that, “as we breathe life back into the soil, we breathe life back into ourselves.” 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. Nature is not always a Garden of Eden. Some partnership is required to bring out the best in both nature and people. “Give to Nature, and she will repay you in glorious abundance” was one of Chadwick’s favorite sayings. Gardening and mini-farming give us the opportunity to participate in the subtle the transformation of desert into dessert. All we need to do is to start with one growing bed and tend it well, and we have begun the exciting, expansive, giving process of enlivening and healing the Earth and ourselves.
1 In this book you will see the terms grow biointensive and Biointensive. Both refer to individuals, projects, and programs using some and more, respectively, of biologically intensive techniques before Ecology Action’s 1999 trademark registration of GROW BIOINTENSIVE and/or not using all of the GROW BIOINTENSIVE features, which have a goal of maximizing closed-system sustainable food-raising.
Building Soil, Building the Future
There is an exciting challenge ahead of us. How can we revitalize our extraordinary planet, ensuring life and health for the environment, the life-forms of a myriad of ecosystems, humankind, and future generations? The answer is as close to us as the food we consume each day. We can begin to create a better world from right where we are—in home gardens and mini-farms. Millions of people in over 140 countries are already using GROW BIOINENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farming techniques to work toward this better world.
We “farm” as we eat. If we consume food that has been grown using methods that inadvertently deplete the soil in the growing process, we are responsible for depleting the soil. It is how we are “farming.” If, instead, we raise or request food grown in ways that heal the Earth, then we are healing the Earth and its soils. Our daily food choices make the difference. We can choose to sustain ourselves while increasing the planet’s vitality. In the process, we preserve resources, breathe cleaner air, enjoy good exercise, and eat pure food.
What are the dimensions of the challenge of raising food that sustains the soil? Current agricultural practices reportedly destroy approximately 6 pounds of soil for each pound of food produced.1 United States croplands are losing topsoil about 18 times faster than the soil formation rate. This loss is not sustainable. In fact, worldwide only about 33 to 49 years’ worth of farmable soil remains.2
Why is this happening? Conventional agricultural practices often deplete the soil 18 to 80 times more rapidly than nature builds soil. This phenomenon happens when the humus (cured organic matter) in the soil is used up and not replaced, when cropping patterns are used that tend to deplete the soil’s structure, and when minerals are removed from the soil more rapidly than they are replaced. Even organic farming probably depletes the soil 9 to 67 times faster than nature builds it, by importing organic matter and minerals from other soils, which thereby becomes increasingly depleted. The planetary result is a net reduction in overall soil quality.
In contrast, the techniques used in GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farming can build the soil up to 60 times faster than in nature.3 The overall goal of GROW BIOINTENSIVE techniques, which distinguishes these techniques from Biointensive practices, is the miniaturization of food production in a closed system. GROW BIOINTENSIVE features the use of the following eight techniques in a closed system that does not use any chemical substances. Ten years ago, Ecology Action coined the term “GROW BIOINTENSIVE” to refer to this style of production.
Biointensive techniques include:
Deep soil preparation, which develops good soil structure. Once this structure is established, it may be maintained for several years with 2-inch-deep surface cultivation (until compaction once again necessitates deep soil preparation).
The use of compost (humus) for soil fertility and nutrients.
Close plant spacing, as in nature.
Synergistic planting of crop combinations so plants that are grown together enhance each other.
Carbon-efficient crops by which approximately 60% of the growing area is planted in dual-purpose seed and grain crops for the production of large amounts of carbonaceous material for compost and significant amounts of dietary calories.
Calorie-efficient crops by which approximately 30% of the growing area is planted in special root crops, such as potatoes, leeks, garlic, parsnips, and Jerusalem artichokes, which produce a large amount of calories for the diet per unit of area.
The use of open-pollinated seeds to preserve genetic diversity.
A whole, interrelated farming system. When GROW BIOINTENSIVE is used properly—with all of its components and so all wastes are recycled and enough organic matter is grown to ensure that each farm can produce enough compost to create and maintain sustainable soil fertility—GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farming can create soil rapidly and maintain sustainable soil fertility. It is how each of us uses GROW BIOINTENSIVE, or other food-raising practices, that makes a living difference!