30 Generations of Farming

Nora Waln was an unusual and adventurous woman.

A Philadelphia Quaker and best-selling writer and journalist in the 1930s–60s, she was the first to report on the spread of Nazism in the lead up to WWII, and wrote on Mongolia, communism in China, and the Korean War. In 1920s, she became the adopted daughter (literally a “daughter of affection”) in the upper-class Chinese farming family Lin, living with them for 12 years.

The House of Exile by Nora Waln

In 1933 Waln wrote a memoir about her experience in the Lin family—The House of Exile—which Pearl Buck called “Undoubtedly one of the most delightful books of personal experience that has yet been written about China. Its authenticity is beyond question.”

In addition to a wonderful depiction of daily life in China, Waln wrote about the Chinese approach to agriculture. Because of their extensive in-field experience and collective memory, Chinese farmers were venerated as living libraries! Their own knowledge and experience, combined with data gathered from earlier work on the same land, produced the best result. The Lin family homestead had been occupied for 30 generations—a total of 900 years! According to Waln, farming information and yield data from the previous 30 years’ work was always used in the planning of the next year’s crops to obtain the best results.

This book resonates with me personally, and with all of us at Ecology Action because feels like a validation of what we’re doing. Though well short of the Lin family’s 900 years, we have over four decades of experience which we use in planning each year’s crop of food and compost materials. Because we constantly take this experience into account, we have been able to obtain significant results while using small spaces, minimal resources and less time than standard farming approaches.

Our GROW BIOINTENSIVE Closed-Loop Mini-Farming practices are built on a foundation of historically recognized sustainable farming methods like those described in The House of Exile and are being used successfully in 152 countries around the world, in virtually all climates and soils where food is grown. We are continually learning from and building on our own experience, and that of our international partners, working towards discovering the best ways to build and maintain sustainable soil fertility everywhere our method is used.

After all, living soil is the most important resource in the world, but according to academic estimates, there may be as little as 26 years of farmable soil left on the Earth. Life as we know it depends on a soil that is a living sponge cake made from the perfect combination of carbon, nutrients, water, air, and microorganisms all functioning in a balanced way to support healthy plants. Many years ago, an article in Newsweek said that biologically intensive soil is the sacher torte of soils – meaning that is uniquely and importantly rich, layered, and fertile.

Gandhi said, “To forget the soil is to forget oneself.”

Anyone who knows me knows I love to quote what Voltaire observed in Candide, “The whole world is a Garden, and what a wonderful place it would be, if each one of us just to care of our part of the earth/Earth—our Garden.

The Hindu spiritualist Sri Kaleshwar has the wholistic insightful perspective, “The earth is so beautiful, creation is so beautiful. When we look at the mountains or anything in nature, seeing all the many beautiful things, our heart is completely softened by the divine energy. When this happens, it is easy to attract the earth’s energy.

Whoever connects to the earth energy will automatically receive great happiness and peace. They can live on the earth with great joy. Even though they must face the biggest of problems, they receive the type of strength and courage needed to deal with them. Even though they have problems, without even noticing it they no longer care about their problems and the problems will decrease; this type of happiness will take good care of that.

This is the happiness that comes through the earth vibrations. The earth energy and the soul energy connect to each other. Then the earth energy automatically protects them, making the big happiness.

Like Waln’s “living libraries” we can use the experience of those who worked the land before us and integrate it into our own work, our own relationship with the Earth. I encourage you to take up the accumulated knowledge of GROW BIOINTENSIVE and begin integrating it into your own 900-year plan! If each person who can practice closed-loop biologically-intensive farming and gardening does so – even starting with a single bed! – we can make all the difference in the world. We can be a part of growing “the big happiness.”

Grow Hope

In this beautiful film produced by the talented Amy Melious, I have the honor of introducing four remarkable individuals making a difference in the world through their involvement in the Biointensive farming movement.

Meet Mary Zellachild from California, Samuel and Perris Nderitu from Kenya, and Juan Manuel Martinez Valdez from Mexico. See people of all ages making a difference throughout the world. Become inspired to get started yourself, growing food and working toward a promising future of good food for all.

For more information on Ecology Action’s work and partners, go to www.growbiointensive.org

Copyright 2015 Ecology Action, Willits, CA All rights reserved.

How sustainable is your GROW BIOINTENSIVE garden?

GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Sustainable Mini-Farming is a remarkable method for increasing yields, decreasing resource use, and building soil fertility at very low cost.

When used properly, it has the potential to change our world for the better. However, when putting this method into practice, it is important to be aware that GROW BIOINTENSIVE is a whole system, and that the components of the system must all be used together to be sustainable.

If you are using GROW BIOINTENSIVE, be aware that if you do not use all of the components of the system together, the method’s high yields can rapidly deplete the soil, and can potentially cause as much damage to your land as conventional farming practices.

If you use all of the components of the system together, the method can build up the soil rapidly while producing higher yields and conserving resources.

We are eager for people to put GROW BIOINTENSIVE into practice, but we want to make certain that each farmer is aware that their garden or mini-farm is only as sustainable as the techniques used by the farmer. For this reason, we have created the following “check-list” to help you keep track of your progress away from soil-depletion and ecosystem destruction, and towards true, abundant sustainability.

To be considered as a true GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farm, the garden, mini-farm, or farm of an individual, project, program, or organization must be using a specific group of practices in a specific way. These practices are grouped in three levels of increasing involvement:


To see what level of sustainability your farm or garden has achieved, please read the following lists, and check off the practices which apply to your garden, mini-farm or farm at this time.  Click here to download the complete checklist.

Me, on June 21 in Fort Bragg, CA

I’ll be giving a talk, “Food for the Future: NOW” in Fort Bragg, California on Thursday, June 21st!

For FREE!! I’ll be discussing how sustainable, localized, small-scale agriculture can be productive, profitable, and can help solve some of our most serious environmental and social challenges – and how we can each participate in that solution. Location: 6:30-8:30 PM 490 North Harold Street. Come one, come all! 

Barley – A Versatile Crop

Beardless Shrene Barley

Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is a dynamic late autumn, winter and early spring grain crop that is somewhat higher in calories that other short-day crops.

Added to soups, it tastes great, and thickens the broth beautifully. It can also be used as a fodder crop for animals, as an ingredient in the making of beer, or as natural algae-killer in ponds!

Barley normally takes 90-days to mature rather than the 4 to 8 months for other short-day grains. This is an advantage, as it can be planted on time and go to maturity earlier, or be planted later, to work with your garden’s schedule. In both instances, it means the extra growing time per unit of area made available can be used to grow other crops for nutrition and for compost materials. 

Cereal Crops
Cereal Crops by Leonard and Martin

According to Cereal Crops by Warren H. Leonard and John H. Martin (Macmillan, 1963 – out of print, but still available used online or at the library) barley has an additional advantage compared with other grains: its capacity to be harvested two weeks early (!!) without changing the nutritive value of the grain. In this way, the 90-day growing period can be reduced to 75 days. In fact, might be reduced even more, to approximately 60 days, if you stop watering it a month earlier than you would with the 90-day harvesting point. The benefit of this characteristic is the possibility of clearing a growing bed early in the spring, so another crop – such as a summer grain – can be planted in time to allow for full maturation of the seed and the biomass accumulation of the summer crop in short-main-growing-season regions. In our 5-month growing season at the Willits mini-farm in northern California, this time-saver can make a key difference in creating a successful multi-season garden plan for compost and nutrition!

Consider using a bearded barley with its grain head spikes that tend to keep the birds away from feasting. Or, use beardless “naked” barley varieties such as like Faust, Shrene or Ethiopian for an easier-to-thresh experience (particularly if you’re using it for forage – barley awns are sharp and can irritate an animal’s mouth). Hayes malting barley is an easy to grow beardless variety for home brewers. Whatever you choose, barley is a beautiful and bountiful addition to your garden.


Ancient Agriculture

Ancient Agriculture - Roots and Application of Sustainable Farming

If you think you see a theme starting to develop here, you’re right. I’ll say it again with feeling: THERE IS A WEALTH OF HISTORICAL FARMING KNOWLEDGE AVAILABLE FOR MODERN SUSTAINABLE FARMERS TO USE!

My latest find, Ancient Agriculture — Roots and Application of Sustainable Farming By Gabriel Alonso De Herrera, Illustrated by Bryan Romero, Compiled by Juan Estevan Arellano (Ancient City Press, Salt Lake City 2006) is an excellent example of useful information from past farmers informing the present and creating a sustainable future.

This excellent publication from the “Father of Modern Spanish Agriculture” discusses functional methods for achieving optimal farming results, based on types and location of soils, using easy to understand considerations. The original, “Obra de Agricultura‘, was published by Gabriel Alonso de Herrera in 1513. This compilation by Juan Estevan Arellano is the first English translation of the book that carried traditional farming techniques from the Europe to the Americas. Revised several times based on increased experience, Ancient Agriculture provides “Old-world techniques for new-world gardeners and farmers who are striving for agricultural sustainability.”

Topics include everything from traditional Moorish farming techniques used in Spain and North Africa to water conservation and irrigation techniques including the use of acequias, sangras, and arroyos. Written over 500 years ago, the content is still fresh and vibrant, with key practical insights for today’s sustainable farmers and special significance for our increasingly arid world. Many of de Herrera’s practices were successfully integrated into Indo-Hispanic farming in the southwestern United States, where drought conditions call for water conservation – and they are still relevant today.

Climate change has made the “treasure trove of the past a seedbed for a whole new generation of farmers and gardeners striving for agricultural sustainability.” With an emphasis on working the land in harmony with nature and producing more food through soil improvement and water management, this book is a gem and worth a read!


Sweet Potatoes!

Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are starchy root vegetables originating from Central or South America.

Not to be confused with starchier and drier yams (Dioscorea) from Africa and Asia, sweet potatoes have a long shelf life and are usually sweeter and moister than regular white potatoes (Solanum tuberosum). In addition to being delicious, they are a very important crop in diet planning, because of the number of calories they contain per pound, and for overall sustainable gardening and farming!

Globally, people get many calories through growing and eating both “Irish” potatoes and sweet potatoes as staple crops. Sweet potatoes are the most practical calorie producing root crop by weight (see HTGMV 9th ed., p. 40 for more details). Garlic is more weight-efficient, but one can generally eat only 2 to 3 cloves daily, while 5 pounds of sweet potatoes—an amount that can reasonably be consumed by an adult human—can provide all the required calories to sustain a person for a day. Of course, you will need to eat other crops to get the essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals you need, but if you start with sweet potatoes as the base of your food pyramid, you’ll be on solid ground. (Also, using other crops for the missing nutrients noted above will allow you to reduce the weight of sweet potatoes you need to eat. This is because those other crops also contain calories.)

Sweet potatoes come in many colors—white, yellow, red and even purple. Purple ones are an ancient superfood and turn a beautiful bright violet color when cooked! They are high in anthocyanins, the antioxidant compounds that have been linked with a reduced cancer risk. The Stokes Purple variety is available from friedas.com/stokes-purple-sweet-potato, and the Hawaiian Purple variety is available at hawaiiveggiefarm.com. Check out this Pinterest board on purple sweet potatoes! https://bit.ly/2IWc440

Most sweet potato varieties take 6-8 months to mature. This makes it difficult to grow in many temperate climates, unless you do it under a double-walled miniature greenhouse (see HTGMV 9th ed., pp. 205-212. A plus for 6- to 8-month maturing varieties is the fact that you can harvest up to 20% of the nutrient-rich leaves (known as talbos ng camote or kamote tops in Spanish-speaking countries) for eating in the second month without lessening the ultimate yield. Excitingly, Sand Hill Preservation Center in Iowa, carries 225 sweet potato varieties, (including Korean Purple), including eight certified organic sweet potato varieties that mature in only three months–and they come in many colors!

A good article on the Purple Sweet Potato can be found in the spring 2018 issue of Heirloom Gardener. Another key resource for short growing season growing is Sweet Potatoes for the Home Garden—with Special Techniques for Northern Growers, by Ken Allan (available only from Mapple Farm).

Humans aren’t the only ones who love these delicious tubers: amazingly, gophers know three days before the optimal harvesting point that it is time to eat! To eliminate or minimize this challenge, you can build underground protection with a gopher cage (see “New Gopher Cage” article and illustrative photos on pp. 2-3 in the May, 2007 Ecology Action Newsletter).

For a Biointensive garden, sweet potato starts and slips should be planted on 9-inch offset centers, 6 inches deep. For full sweet potato planning information see the Master Charts in HTGMV 9th ed., pp. 150-151.

Hungry? Get planting!
Bon Appétit!

(images from hawaiiveggiefarm.com, mother earth news, http://www.heirloomgardener.com and http://www.southernexposure.com)


Hedgerow by Eric Thomas and John T. White

Living Fences for Fruit, Nuts, Building Materials, Bird and Beneficial Insect Habitat, Plus Animal Protection!

“Hedgerows” is an old English term that refers to narrow planting strips of trees or shrubs that grow along field borders, fence lines and waterways. These borders serve as effective windbreaks and improve conditions for the nearby crops, forming an “edge habitat” that supports ecological diversity. Hedges have been used around the world since the stone age, and hedgerows are first mentioned “officially” in Europe in the 12th century. Through time these living fences – some hundreds of years old! – became an integral part of many farming regions, until recently, when they became unpopular because they “waste” space in the field. However, in England, when the farmers removed hedgerows to have more land to grow crops on for higher production, not only did they lose a beautiful and bio-diverse part of their farm, their yields decreased immediately! Still, the damage was done, and by 1996, Britain had lost over 80K miles of hedges. Now, people are starting to look again at these sustainable, affordable, long-lasting fencing alternatives, and some are replanting hedgerows for wildlife and pollinators they shelter, and the benefits they provide to the crops.

I am intrigued by these living fences, and hope to begin building one in the next few years, using plants appropriate for my region. If you can find it, the book Hedgerow by Eric Thomas and John T. White was published by Morrow in wonderful full color throughout 1980s and is an excellent and very inspirational book. It shows hedgerows through all four seasons. Just think of it: a luxuriant fence producing berries, filbert nuts, food and habitat for birds, a home for predatory insects and pollinators and a means for repelling deer—all at the same time. What’s more, the materials for tools (such as wooden bow rakes among many others) can be grown as part of the living fences. It is fascinating that the bow rake needs a different kind of wood for its handle, crosspiece and tines – and that the materials for all these parts can be part of your fence!

The book is out of print, but you can usually find used copies at Amazon and Powell’s or your favorite online book-seller at a reasonable price. Otherwise, you can arrange to use it through the Interlibrary Loan program at the local library. Enjoy!

Brickhouse Coffee

Sometimes you find a place you just have to share with everyone, and this is my current delight: Whenever you are in Willits, CA for a great, fresh really good meal, stop at Brickhouse Coffee on the corner of Main and Commercial Streets!

The atmosphere makes you feel at home. Try some of Tom’s carefully seasoned soups for a special treat! I like the Mocha made with coconut milk and double the chocolate. Find your favorite. Try the Veggie Deluxe Breakfast or Lunch Sandwich with Basil included with the fresh vegetables. Enjoy! 😋

image1image2 (1)

Some Thoughts on Arbor Day

Some thoughts in honor of Arbor Day on April 27 (after all, shouldn’t every day on our beautiful forested planet be Arbor Day?):

Aren’t trees magnificent? They make oxygen, shade, food, building materials, fuel, habitat, and soil. They’re beautiful. They last for years – some for generations! They consume greenhouse gases and help keep our planet cool enough for us to live here. They draw nutrients from deep underground and deposit them on the surface when they drop their leaves. When they die, they form nurseries for new trees. They are a precious natural resource. Earth is currently home to ~3 trillion trees. Which seems like a lot…right? But the truth is, we could do with more. A lot more.

According to the UN-FAO estimates, about 30% of the Earth is currently forested…but what does that really mean? While every country in the world has its own definition of what “forested” is, in the United States, forest land, as defined by the U.S. Forest Service, includes “…land at least 10 percent of which is stocked by trees of any size, or land formerly having had such tree cover that will be naturally or artificially regenerated. Forest land includes transition zones such as areas between heavily forested and nonforested lands that are at least 10 percent stocked with forest trees and forest areas adjacent to urban and built-up lands.” (USA-FED-DA-ERS 2003) This means logged land, 90% bare land, and land with tiny fragile saplings is considered the same as an old-growth forest with giant trees sucking up CO2. Unfortunately, although about 5 billion new trees are planted or sprout annually (and assuming 100% of those make it to maturity), we still have a net loss of 10 BILLION TREES per year, due to human activity. Since the beginning of human civilization, the number of trees has dropped by 46% according to a recent paper in Nature. With all this in mind, it is possible to estimate that, compared to 10,000 years ago, there are only ~11% of the trees remaining in biomass terms.

Depressed? Don’t be! We can still do something about this. We each can make a world of difference – globally and locally – NOW, by reforesting the earth. We can be a vital part of forest recovery wherever we are – planting trees to bring the forests back to the levels they were 10,000 years ago, with our hands or with the gifts we give to loved ones and friends —and we’ll help stabilize climate change while having fun growing shade, oxygen, fruits, and nuts! Check out The Tree of Life: How Ecosystems are Held Together by Trees! It is easy for us each to begin! You can plant trees yourself, or if you can’t, there are many organizations that, for a donation of as little as $2, will plant one tree in a location that needs it. Why not have a dozen or more planted? If only 100 million of the Earth’s 7.4 billion people had 100 trees planted each year (~US$200), our “debt” of 10 billion trees could be wiped away and the earth could begin moving towards real reforestation again! If this sound unrealistic or too expensive, consider that for the last three years in a row, Apple sold over 200 million iPhones each year, at around US$1000 each.

If you think one person can’t make a difference, then look at one of my favorite inspirations, Richard St. Barbe Baker: an English forester, environmental activist and author who during his lifetime is estimated to be responsible for catalyzing the planting of ***26 TRILLION TREES***. As if that wasn’t enough, St. Barbe was the only person in the world knowledgeable enough to save California’s redwood trees in court, which he did not once, but twice: the first time in the 1950s, and the second time (because humankind is forgetful) 30 years—a generation – later. A similar thing happened in Kenya, where St. Barbe initiated an organization called Men of the Trees with a ceremonial dance to plant trees. He had to return to Kenya a generation later to reinitiate the dance. Thankfully, his persistence paid off and the organization, now known as the International Tree Foundation, it is still active today, with many chapters carrying out reforestation internationally.

Want to be part of the solution? There is an abundance of resources to help you start RIGHT NOW, while you are online. Here are a few I found interesting:

An excellent resource for looking at deforestation and reforestation levels, as well as other land use data in different regions is https://www.globalforestwatch.org/map

To understand the need for us all to act, check out The 29th Day Parallel vignette at www.johnjeavons.org in its A World of Hope Section. The time is excitingly now.

Ecology Action’s book Man of the Trees—the Selected Writings of Richard St. Barbe Baker was published with St.Barbe’s permission, and contains many of St. Barbe’s best writings in it. If you would like a copy of the book, you can purchase one at http://www.growbiointensive.org/Publications. I think it would be great to create an additional book/resource to inspire people to plant trees: each page would contain key St. Barbe writings; key world tree challenges, and corresponding key actions people and organizations can accomplish to make a difference.

Get out there. Or online. Plant some trees and help give our beautiful Earth something to smile about.

Creating Forward,

“If you want to predict the future, create it!”