Mar 9, 2022 Mendocino, California
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Nestled within a few hills sloping toward Big River Beach at Mendocino Headlands State Park is the Stanford Inn. Surrounding the inn’s housing complexes is a vibrant green space. Looking to the south, I spotted an Austrian Shepherd dog coming running toward me through the gate. “Bucky!” I heard his owner Matthew Drewno call. Matt, Manager of the VGFP Mini-Farm and Seed Bank, came to greet me for a tour of one of Ecology Action’s research farms. As we walked to his garden and farm complex terraced on the hills just east of California’s famous Route 1 coastal highway, he offered me a seat in the cool, sunny morning light, a perfect place to enjoy the beauty of the terraced flower-, food-, and herb-gardens.
Changing the World’s Food System
Little would one realize that this mini farm is at the heart of a food system that could save the world. Yet, the significance of the farm will become more and more evident when the world begins to have increased food shortages, famines, and wars over food. With great foresight, John Jeavons, a student of Alan Chadwick at University of California-Santa Cruz in the 1970s, has taken on determining how to grow all the food a person needs for a whole year on the smallest plot of ground. His work as summarized in his bestseller, How to Grow More Vegetables, which documents not only the eight principles of sustainable growing but also calculation methods for how to grow all the calories, nutrients and carbon needed to provide for the needs of the farm organism, the soil, and the humans who live on it. Alan Chadwick called his book a “masterpiece”. With years of data on crop yields around the world in differing climates and soil types, he has established a database that empowers farmers and home gardeners to be self-sufficient. For over 50 years, Ecology Action has supported a network of biointensive growers in 152 countries.
Self-Sufficiency and Sustainability
At the heart of permaculture is the realization that we all share the same planet. The resources on that planet are limited in terms of the amount of human life it can sustain. Humans have a big role in maximizing the carrying capacity of Earth through finding and utilizing key leverage points to make large positive environmental impacts. Indeed, by applying permaculture principles, we can design our lives, our dwellings, our buildings and our communities in a self-sustaining way that works in harmony with and leverages Nature. Through proper care for Earth, care for people, and sharing and returning our surplus, we can avoid the calamities caused by starvation, climate change, and wars. Being self-sufficient on the land is Base Number One. Grow BioIntensive (GB), the body of knowledge taught by Ecology Action, enables us to be not only self-reliant on the land but also to regenerate it without having to borrow external resources like mulch, compost and other soil inputs. This is done through micro-scaling the human footprint of agriculture so that more can be given to natural ecosystems to repair the damage done to the planet by our species.
One Garden, One Community at a Time
The work Matt Drewno and John Jeavons centers on horticulture education. That education encompasses the system of the universe. Alan Chadwick taught the principles of French-intensive, biodynamic gardening which John has further refined into the Grow BioIntensive (GB) Method. Together they have taught thousands of seminars and interns.
The approach is a grass-roots one. There is no government agency pushing this on their agenda. Ecology Action relies on the good will and rational minds of the public who will realize that this method addresses humanity's profound want. Indeed, John Jeavons, at the age of 80 years, continues to dedicate his life to this work. He was recently honored with a doctorate degree from UNAM a University in Managua Nicaragua, which has become the headquarters for accredited GB training in these methods in the middle America region.
He has been establishing these training centers around the world. Yet the greatest power of GB approach is at the community level. Through the act of a city or community decision, they can declare themselves a “Garden Friendly Community”. Matt has had success with this at neighboring Fort Bragg. The resolution was passed by the city council in 2019. Ft. Bragg is now known as “The Garden Friendly Community of Ft. Bragg.” With making this resolution comes appointing a community contact that agrees to share their experience, knowledge, and progress their community is making with others. Every community is invited to make this resolution. They get to advertise with the copyrighted logo that they are part of this movement and serve as resources to broaden the web of communities making a difference.
As part of Ecology Action’s key initiatives, Matt and John are also actively establishing a Garden Corp program much like the Peace Corp. Through establishing centers of knowledge at community farms throughout regions and countries, the GB knowledge can be passed on through hands-on workshops and internships designed to train the next generation of farmers. Farmers from Africa, Asia, South America, and the Pacific Islands have found these workshops and internships particularly useful to establish food access. Victory Gardens for Peace, led by Matt Drewno, promotes the power of gardening and preserves biodiversity in the form of seeds.
After explaining these initiatives, Matt invited me on a tour of his three-acre research farm located at the top of a neighboring hill. Bucky was happy to come along. A central wooden shed marks the center of the farm. 100-square foot beds are closely spaced to maximize the ground usage. A small greenhouse in the corner, cold frame, storage, a tool shed and deck, and storage building to enable the research on 53 growing beds.
This number of beds requires detailed, disciplined record keeping. The purpose of the research is to document with data the impact of the claims of GB, given all those uncontrollable factors to which farmers are subject. Having a plan for the year and what follows a harvest is essential. The beds are kept continually planted where possible.
Four farm interns help Matt prepare the beds for planting, plant the seeds, make observations, and harvest the beds at the appropriate times. Most often they measure the biomass of the plant created as well as the yield of the crop. Plants are weighed before and after drying in a solar shed. The numbers are entered into experimental data logs for subsequent statistical analysis.
Redeeming the Land
On this particular farm, Matt has been on a mission to redeem the soil. This stretch of ground used to be the old Highway 1. Years and years of vehicles going over the clay soil have made it extremely dense. “It has taken many hours to dig bed by bed.” Matt commented. The soil is further compromised by salinity. The water is transported underground by osmosis and capillary action. The sea water inevitably replaces what is pumped, bringing with it the salts that make growing plants difficult.
However, composting and following the eight GB principles has made the soil amazingly resilient and fertile. A key principle of GB is to grow the carbon needed to feed the soil on the same site where the food crops are being grown. “Feeding the soil is fundamental to the success of this farm.” Matt affirmed. Over the years, he has been testing the soil and seeing how GB approaches are able to moderate the effects of salinity.
All water is not alike to plants who use it for their metabolism. The impact of water based on its motion, oxygenation and the living beings that surround it has been studied. Based on Rudolf Steiner’s understanding of the “life-giving” properties of water, he prescribed vortex mixing of preparations. John Wilkes further studied this effect and determined the geometries using the golden mean to facilitate this “vortical flow”. The flow forms he designed allow water to flow at the right rate to create an oscillating rhythm to oxygenate and rejuvenate the water. Matt uses these flow forms to prepare water for irrigation. He notices a difference in plant growth versus untreated water with the same oxygen level.
Intercropping is practiced extensively throughout the farm to imitate Nature’s polyculture. Varieties in plants close together stimulate each other and complement each other supplying needs and products. The “three sisters” - interplanting of pumpkin, corn and beans - is a well known example. Fava beans are common because of their nitrogen fixing capabilities and their large biomass generation as well as the delicious, calorie- and nutrient-rich beans they produce. They are often interplanted with members of the brassica family and even grains.
Matt is researching ancient varieties of grains including spelt. He pointed out how one grain kernel of winter wheat can generate up to thirteen tillers or stalks of wheat, each of which produces a seed head of 50 kernels. This is a great example of the inherent abundance in Nature. Matt is growing more than 20 varieties of such food-producing plants to understand what the limits of productivity are under different growing conditions.
Core to sustainable farming is seed saving. Effectively saving seeds requires the knowledge of each plant variety's pollination habits. Knowing whether they self-pollinate or require specific types of plants near them to pollinate helps Matt lay out his planting beds. The seed stalks are carefully collected and dried for at least two weeks in his black-painted solar shed. Only the seeds from the best looking plants are collected. These are then carefully preserved in glass jars with lids on them and labeled so that each generation is clear. Each year the plant adapts to the local soil and weather to improve upon their DNA.
We concluded the tour at his rustic seed bank. In a wooden shed roughly 8 feet by 12 feet, on many shelves, he stewards over 1,000 accessions of seed varieties. He regularly gets requests from people around the world for a specific seed variety. Dropping a teaspoon or so of seeds in an envelope to send back, he completes each order. He also collects seeds from other farmers. Comprehending the amount of work this takes, I asked Matt, “Why do you do this work?” He responded, “I am preserving the world’s diversity. It’s one small thing I can do for my neighbors and the rest of mankind.” Truly, Matt is carrying out the permaculture principle: care for the planet, care for people, and give back the surplus. He also commented, “It seems like this work is ahead of its time, but one day it will be appreciated.”
Author: Farmer Karl