Farmers from around the world face different challenges while striving to make a difference.
Co-opting a culture
Integrating new techniques with old-world practices is the key to success for an organic farming cooperative in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley
By Jean Weiss
Tucked just outside of bustling and polluted Kathmandu lays a surprising oasis of thriving green fields and vibrant red brick buildings. Gamcha Organic Farm and Cooperative, a two-acre spread in the Bhaktapur district near Gamcha village, is a welcome retreat for those who desire safely cultivated produce.
Pesticide use in Nepal is largely unregulated, as is the case in many nonindustrialized countries where the dangers of chemical farming are not widely understood. For expatriates who’ve seen local farmers wash pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables in rivers polluted with sewage and industrial waste, buying Gamcha’s organic produce is an alternative for which they are willing to pay more.
American Judith Chase started Gamcha Farm in 1987. Chase came to Nepal in 1976 to study the functional art of native artists. She and her husband, Jim, moved to the farm in the Kathmandu Valley in 1987 wanting to escape life in the city for something resembling the rural households Chase had observed in the hills of Nepal. “When I arrived there, I had an acre of land surrounded by a countryside of experienced farmers, some of the best in the world,” says Chase.
Chase and her staff planted all of the varieties of vegetables grown by the Nepalese farmers and experimented with any other seeds she could find. A friend arrived from Italy bringing seeds for fennel, brussels sprouts, globe artichokes, varieties of lettuces, arugula, and leeks, none of which were grown in Nepal. With plenty of land and talented gardeners to work with her, Chase planted every available space.
Friends soon learned of the abundance of produce being grown on the farm, and before long, Mike Frame of Mike’s Breakfast, a restaurant popular with foreign tourists and residents, came to see what was happening. Frame offered to buy any surplus of artichokes, lettuces, and other vegetables for his restaurant and offered Chase a space for a weekly farmers’ market. “When we sold out the first day, it was obvious that there was a real demand for both specialty and organic vegetables and herbs,” Chase recalls.
Chase soon realized that she could sell all of her organic produce to the expatriate community at twice the normal market cost of pesticide-grown fruits and vegetables, which enabled her to cover the costs of transportation and management. Soon she was holding an organic farmers’ market twice a week at Kathmandu’s Summit Hotel.
The next step was to share the opportunity with her farm staff and neighbors. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we introduce this idea, invite the neighborhood farmers to come see what we are doing, and see if they are interested in working with us,’” says Chase.
An organic co-op is born
Thirteen neighboring farmers showed up at Gamcha Farm’s first community meeting, and Chase’s dream to turn her operation into a Nepalese-run co-op that would benefit indigenous farmers began to look feasible. Feasible, that is, if she could convince the farmers that organic methods would, in the end, yield more crops. To do this, Chase set aside one-quarter of her farmland to donate to individual farmers, and she organized workshops to teach organic practices with local conditions in mind. “We gave each person a plot of land on our land,” says Chase. “Each person divided their plot in half and used biointensive, double-digging processes on one side and their traditional way on the other.”
Chase knew she had to appeal to the specific needs of local farmers, so the workshops focused on techniques that would benefit small plots of land such as those in the Kathmandu Valley. “We looked at various non-Nepali approaches to soil fertility, such as permaculture, and integrated those that were most appropriate for the Nepali farmer,” says Chase. “The main strength of our project was that we didn’t use any one technique exclusively. We learned from the Nepalis. We integrated whatever was useful, and we considered a number of techniques and perspectives.”
Chase started working with the Nepalese farmers to introduce organic gardening ideas, but she feared they might return to pesticides when they encountered insect or disease problems. To remedy this, Chase visited a renowned Ayurvedic doctor in the town of Patan and asked him if Ayurveda had any section for plant protection. “A woman sitting nearby leaped to her feet and said, ‘I’m Kaminee Vaidya, and I can do this,’” recalls Chase. It turned out that Vaidya, the doctor’s daughter, was not only a student who had studied Ayurveda with the doctor for many years, but she also had a master’s degree in entomology and was teaching at Tribuvan University in Kathmandu. “Kaminee’s studies in Ayurveda provided insight into insect behavior, which enabled her to analyze which plants would repel which insects,” says Chase. “She designed systems of interplanting based on four principles: color, odor, leaf texture, and leaf shape. Using these systems over the years, the gardens repelled many insects, most impressively aphids.”
Vaidya also concocted a variety of pest repellents and pesticides using locally available components, such as wood ashes, mustard-seed cake, neem oil, and cow urine. “She was very successful in analyzing the problems and developing appropriate solutions,” says Chase. “For me, this was our project’s most significant contribution.”
Along with the farm’s successes came problems, too. For example, water issues arose. “A large irrigation ditch ran from the hills where there was a reservoir, through all of the villages, then down into the river,” says Chase. “Irrigation ditches went in different directions, and smaller ones flowed into private fields. When the water level was low, and people couldn’t get enough water during the day, they would go out at night and shift the ditches so water would come onto their land.” More than one night, someone from Gamcha Farm had to trudge out to the irrigation ditch to open a sabotaged line and reclaim the water. “Skirmishes in the middle of the night [were common] out there,” Chase says gamely.
Today, 17 years after first taking root, Gamcha Farm is still growing under the leadership of a new director, Swiss expatriate Annick Monbaron-Jalade. Chase eventually returned to the States, but she remains involved with Gamcha as a fund-raiser and adviser. A couple of interim farm managers followed Chase’s tenure, until Monbaron-Jalade, an environmental and civil engineer who came to Nepal to work on rural roads, fell in love with the farm and jumped at the chance to run it.
Monbaron-Jalade, a volunteer, lives on the farm and heads a staff of 11 paid Nepalis. Gamcha Farm continues to train and guide farmers as they convert, grow, and sell their organic produce through what has developed into a much larger collective of farmers from the surrounding valley. Through the farm, 42 of these growers have formed the Association of Organic Farmers. Members pay no fees to belong, and as co-op participants they receive free organic farming training from Gamcha, financial assistance as they convert their fields from chemical to organic farming, and a chance to sell their produce on Gamcha market days.
In an unusual twist, the farm now offers a home-delivery service to local customers. This has proved profitable and continues to grow daily. “We supply produce to more than 120 families every week, even twice a week if they want,” says Monbaron-Jalade. “On market days, depending on the area one lives in, our van, full of vegetables, goes to one house and then to another. People choose directly from the van.”
The new delivery system is successful, but struggles remain. The farm, though more sustainable, still relies on outside funding to lease the land. Chase and her friends from the United States fund the leasing of the farmland, and other organizations throughout the years have paid for various projects. For example, the outdoor clothing company Patagonia was the first to offer financial assistance by funding an outbuilding with an adjacent pond that serves as a greenhouse, bathroom, and chicken coop. Other money has come from the German government; a Danish group called Gaia; and the Dutch organization FNV.
Both Chase and Monbaron-Jalade hope to grow the farm until it is self-sustaining. “Right now, all the profits coming from the market cover the salary of the employees of the farm,” says Monbaron-Jalade. The growth of the home-delivery system is one hope for future sustainability. The farm has also started offering an internship and operating a for-profit guesthouse that accommodates ten visitors. The guesthouse is run by three of the farm employees’ wives. Open to the public, the cost is a nominal $12 a night, including three meals a day. “A lot of clients say it is the best meal they’ve ever had in Nepal,” Monbaron-Jalade says.
As for future plans, Monbaron-Jalade is thinking big. She’d like to educate farmers and consumers throughout Nepal about the benefits of growing and eating organic. “Now the farm is more business-oriented, trying to develop the market and our home-delivery system,” she says. “The market in Kathmandu is mainly expatriates; they know already, from their own country’s background, that organic is better than chemical. But I would like the Nepali people to have the same sensibility. For that we need to educate, educate, educate. Now we should be focused on the training of the farmers and the education of the people. I hope Gamcha Farm will soon be the place in Nepal to come and learn how to grow organics.”
Jean Weiss is editor in chief of Delicious Living.
How a conventional English dairy farm goes organic
By Patrick McGuigan
Frog Lane Farm, in the small village of Motcombe, Dorset, England, basks in sunshine. Clem Martin, the farm’s owner, sprints across a field in pursuit of a wayward sheep. “Sheep chasing is a good way to keep fit, but I should really get myself a sheep dog,” she says breathlessly, after finally rounding up the willful ewe.
It’s all in a day’s work for Martin, who moved to Dorset with her husband, Chris, five years ago, giving up a stressful life in London for the verdant pastures of organic lamb and beef farming. Of course, the idyllic-sounding change has not come without many challenges, not the least of which was learning about farming literally from the ground up and meeting the country’s strict organic requirements. The United Kingdom is now the world’s third-largest organic market, with nearly 4,000 licensed organic farms throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Remarkably, the Martins had no previous farming experience; Chris Martin was a high-flying investment banker, and Clem Martin looked after their three (now four) boys at home. But when the couple bought the 550-acre dairy farm, there was no question of doing anything other than organic farming. “We feel very strongly about organic food and the environment,” says Clem Martin. “We had a dream to be organic farmers, but we didn’t know anything when we first started. Our farm manager, John Nuttall, has taught us everything.” Nuttall, a local man who formerly rented some of the Martins’ land, has worked on farms all his life.
The couple decided to rear livestock because that is what the area’s soil and terrain dictate. Then the process of converting the pre-existing conventional farm into an organic one began.
This often-grueling task took two years under the guidance of the United Kingdom’s main organic standards body, the Soil Association. The first hurdle? The 120 cows and 350 ewes were not organic, and that needed to be remedied. “One requirement was to stop using artificial fertilizers on the farmland where the animals fed,” Clem Martin explains. “Traditionally, farmers use nitrogen on the grass, but now we only use farmyard manure, which we get from the cattle when they are housed in the winter. The idea is to make the farm as sustainable as possible.”
That wasn’t the only Soil Association standard that had to be met. The Martins also had to limit the medicine given to the animals to an absolute minimum. “For example, conventional farmers dose their animals with worm medicine, but we avoid this by employing a rotational grazing system,” says Clem Martin. “This means there is no buildup of dung where the animals are eating, which is how the worms spread. Keeping the animals healthy and knowing what is wrong with them when they are sick is one of our biggest challenges.”
The Martins also had to invest in secure fencing to stop livestock from straying onto nonorganic land and picking up diseases from other animals. The type of feed given to the animals also had to be reconsidered. “We bring the cows indoors during the winter and give them hard feed, or cereal pellets,” says Chris Martin. “But the organic varieties of feed are expensive.” To overcome the high cost, the Martins have planted their own organic crops, which are turned into silage and will soon serve as organic feed. “We hope to be completely self-sufficient by 2005,” Clem Martin adds.
With all the expenses and standards, one wonders if the farm will be successful. The next few years will tell. The Martins failed to make a profit in their first four years, mainly because of investment overheads, but in 2004 they have seen their first small return.
Could they ever envisage returning to London? “We would find it very difficult to leave this life now,” says Clem Martin. “I love getting up in the morning and having the freedom and space to walk across open fields. Our aim is to offer the local community the healthy, traceable, affordable food that we consider essential to a healthy life.”
Food journalist and freelance writer Patrick McGuigan writes for various food business publications. He lives in Brighton on the south coast of England with his partner, Ruth.
A Tree-Saving Fruit Smoothie
Growing açaí fruit sustainably in the Amazon
By Alex Bellos
What happens when a fruit that was once enjoyed locally by the people of the Amazon suddenly becomes a hip superfood for the fitness and health-conscious crowd in Rio de Janeiro and across the United States? For one thing, demand for the fruit grows dramatically.
Such is the case for the once little-known purple fruit of the açaí palm tree, farmed as a staple food for generations by the river people of the Amazon. In the last two decades, a frozen slush of the fruit has become popular internationally because of açaí’s nutritional ingredients. It contains high levels of vitamin C, monounsaturated fats, fiber, and antioxidants. The drink has garnered raves from such celebrities as Sting, Andre Agassi, and supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Last year, the Wall Street Journal even heralded açaí as “the hip new taste.”
Capitalizing on the fruit’s popularity, in 1998, a company named Sambazon began exporting açaí to the United States and later to Italy and Australia. Smart thinking: Sambazon, the largest exporter of açaí since 2000, now rakes in some $2 million a year. One might imagine that the boom would lead to overfarming or deforestation of the fragile Amazon rain forest. Yet that has not been the case, thanks to earlier farming lessons learned in the Amazon and the implementation of sustainable agro-forestry techniques.
Learning from the past
In the mid-1980s, demand for another part of the açaí tree—the heart of palm, an ivory-colored, fibrous substance found inside the trunk and used in salads in urban South America—caused entire groves of the açaí trees to be destroyed. When Sambazon began exporting the fruit, the company founders worked with Brazil’s Federation of Organizations for Social Assistance and Education (FASE), a non-governmental organization that has been working with the grower associations for the last 20 years in order to improve the farmers’ standard of living and to ensure that açaí harvesting did not follow this previous destructive pattern.
“Now, the açaí-maintained areas actually act as a buffer zone, protecting the deeper forest from loggers,” says Travis Baumgardner, director of Sambazon do Brasil. The interest in and demand for açaí is now so great, believes Baumgardner, that if the local farmers weren’t monitored by FASE, they would probably chop down all other trees to farm the fruit on a monoculture basis, posing a threat to regional biodiversity.
Instead, the açaí fruit is harvested slowly by hand, the way it’s been done for generations. Because the area is in the flooded tidal forest, there is no mechanized way to harvest açaí. Instead, local couples do the work. The man climbs the tree trunk, about 30 feet high, chops off an açaí bunch full of ripe berries, and brings it down to the woman, usually his wife, who picks the fruit off the bunch and fills up baskets. Once the baskets are full, someone in the family will use a canoe or motorboat to take the baskets to a drop-off point for manufacturing in the nearest village. Picked açaí needs to be processed within 24 hours or the fruit oxidizes and loses its nutritional value.
Throughout the process, FASE’s forest engineers and ecologists ensure that the families are farming their plots sustainably, following a strict set of regulations. For example, 20 percent to 30 percent of tree and plant species other than açaí must be maintained in the açaí grove to secure biodiversity; trunks older than nine years are cut down to encourage younger sprouts; and taller trees of other species are trimmed to give the açaí trees better light.
In addition, not all the açaí is harvested. About 30 percent of the fruit falls to the ground or is eaten by birds and other animals, which helps guarantee biodiversity. Of the picked açaí, each family keeps about a third to eat and use as fertilizer for small vegetable and herb gardens located close to their homes. Families are also encouraged to introduce other native fruit-tree species with commercial value, such as cupuaçu and tapereba, together with the açaí.
“The Sambazon supply chain of açaí is adding value to the forest by increasing biodiversity, conserving soils, and encouraging the river people to diversify their incomes,” says Baumgardner. “As well as being the most important dietary staple for the dwellers of the Amazon flooded forest, sustainable, wild-harvested açaí is also one of the best ways to protect the regional biocultural diversity.”
Alex Bellos spent five years in Brazil as the correspondent for the London Guardian and has traveled widely in the Amazon region.
A Small Farm Goes Big
Staying true to the organic mission while becoming corporate at Cascadian Farm
By Vicky Uhland
In 1971, Gene Kahn, a hippie from Chicago, signed a lease on a small, abandoned farm in northwest Washington, wedged into a picture-postcard valley between the Skagit River and the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. Even though much of Cascadian Farm’s 51 acres was being used as a garbage dump, and the harvest was a healthy crop of weeds, its young, idealistic tenant and his friends had a vision: turning Cascadian into an organic farm.
The fact that Kahn was an English literature PhD candidate with no farming experience didn’t deter him. Nor did the knowledge that all the neighboring farmers sprayed pesticides on their crops. He moved into Cascadian’s dilapidated farmhouse and studied organic agriculture texts by kerosene lamp. By the mid-1970s, Kahn and a few friends had learned enough to grow and harvest organic potatoes, raspberries, strawberries, and carrots.
Feeling successful enough to expand the Cascadian organic ideal outside of Washington, Kahn leased hundreds of acres of nearby cropland to increase the farm’s yield. He also began freezing organic fruits and vegetables from Cascadian and other local farms and selling them nationwide under the Cascadian Farm label.
But buying crops from other farmers and expanding operations was risky. Kahn borrowed heavily from banks to finance his frozen-food business and ended up overextending himself. By 1990, Cascadian Farm couldn’t pay its bills or its growers. So when Welch’s National Grape Cooperative made an offer for a 55 percent share of the farm and the food business, Kahn sold. “It was a huge turning point,” he says. “I [had become] a corporate guy.”
For organic farmers who pride themselves on the dichotomy between what they see as the organic philosophy (small, local, and ideological) versus the corporate philosophy (big, multinational, and driven by the bottom line), “corporate guy” was the worst title Kahn could have chosen. But Kahn was determined that his vision for Cascadian—both the farm and the brand—would remain, and even flourish, under corporate ownership. Even when he had to give up day-to-day control of the farm in 1993 to devote more time to the expanding frozen-food line, he worked with Welch’s to hire an experienced husband-and-wife organic farming team to manage the farm.
The first job of the new managers, Jim and Harlyn Meyer, was to make the farm financially viable. Their solution was to go back to basics. The farm was downsized to its original 51 acres, and its marketing focus was shifted to the traditional organic “grow locally, sell locally” philosophy. Now, less than 10 percent of the farm’s yield is shipped to the Cascadian Farm frozen-food manufacturing plant. “We realized we could make more selling it locally in a retail setting,” Jim Meyer says.
Most of the crops are now sold the old-fashioned way: at a local farm stand. About 50,000 motorists traveling between Seattle and the North Cascades stop at the roadside stand each year to buy the organic blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, sweet corn, and pumpkins grown on the farm. Cascadian Farm also sells its berries to natural food co-ops in Seattle.
It took five years for the Meyers to restore the farm to financial health. Soon afterward, it and the Cascadian Farm food brand were sold to conventional-food giant General Mills. Once again, sellout cries were heard throughout the organic farming community. The fear was that Cascadian would become little more than a factory farm, churning out conventional fruits and veggies for GM’s Green Giant or Old El Paso brands.
Instead, Cascadian Farm has become a unique hybrid that combines hippie sensibilities with corporate cash, an almost utopian vision of an organic farm. It was certified organic 16 years ago by the state of Washington and is a strict adherent to organic growing principles, such as cover crops and farm-grown compost. It also earns its corporate keep by serving as an educational and public relations tool for GM, offering tours and posting signs explaining ecological farming systems. GM frequently sends cubicle dwellers from the corporate offices in Minneapolis to the farm to learn about sustainable agriculture.
Today, General Mills, Kahn, and the Meyers each own about a third of the farm, which has expanded to 70 acres. Although each owner has a vision for the farm—from the Meyers’ back-to-basics philosophy to Kahn’s save-the-world ideal to GM’s corporate credo—one overriding principle has remained the same for more than 30 years. “We’re here to produce quality organic food,” says Meyer, picking a stray weed out of a blueberry field. “It’s as simple as that.”
Denver-based writer and editor Vicky Uhland writes frequently on healthy living topics.