Food and agriculture

Growing Food Locally       

With rapidly declining cheap oil, there may be a shift in the international trading trends. Food, maybe one of the most sensitive categories that will be affected when the oil crisis hits. Here is one recent example that was highlighted by BBC correspondents in one of the news reports about civil unrest in middle-east, especially in Libya, an OPEC member state. Although agriculture is second-largest contributor to its economy, Libya meets about 75% of its food demand through imports from counties that are dependent on Libya for oil supply. If there is unrest in Libya due to rising food prices, the civil unrest has an impact on oil export, raising oil prices in the international market. These raised oil prices increase the cost of food, thus Libya exporting food that is much more expensive than before the civil unrest. The loop goes on.[1] This is expected to happen in other Middle Eastern countries that are major oil exporters and food importers.

Thinking like in olden days

For your eco-village to thrive sustainably it needs to be able to produce its own food. When with about growing food locally, the concerns come up about the availability of space, time and resources to get the farms going strong. The Mayans were quite wise with their food production. They often chose to grow their farms in ditches, mountain-sides and slopes; places where it was hard to build houses and their buildings. This not only saved space, it also contributed to better crop management. The sun light, water, wind and environment varied for each ditch, slope and hill thus planning the growth how the micro-environment suited them most. It also kept the crops separate thus reducing the chance of massive pest infestation or fungi attack. The slopes let the water flow by thus avoiding plants from drowning during excess rain. This technique was later adopted by Cuba during the cold war t be self-sustained in food is still successfully implemented in many parts of the country.

All of this may sound idealistic and not fit for larger cities, but Mayan grown exponentially in population and so did their food supply. However, the eco-village we are focusing here is aimed for a smaller town making it easier to manage local food supply lines.

Inspirations from the nature

So far, our goal with the eco-village has been to keep it as close to nature as humanly possible. Thus we will try to bring in the ideas from natural habitats, especially forests into our garden design structures. Instead of plowing rows and rows of human dug agriculture land, we will connect the farm into the natural eco systems.

It’s about working worth the nature instead of against it. This idea may seem quite radical and the question always arises, can we feed the world like this.

This booklet is not presenting permaculture as a solution, however, some ideas from permaculture have been derived to implement on the urban farming to maximize yield.

Hassle-free gardening

It is crucial for people living in eco-village not to be swamped in managing a garden and produce food. Ideally, the garden pr farm should only need attention during harvest. Thus, we will keep the focus on perennials instead of annual crops. Thus wheat, corn, rice and other grains will have to be replaced by nuts, berries and trees. The difference primarily lies between perennial and annual crops.

An annual crop rotation is backbone of modern agriculture. Annual crops include grains (wheat, corn and rice). They need a lot of land, work, water and fossil fuel energy to grow. Usually the ground loses its fertility within ten years. This sort of setup would not work where there is shortage of space, manpower and extensive use of fossil fuel. Also, annual crops seem almost an eradication of natural eco-system. It requires us to remove all trees, shrubs, birds and animals present to put our massive monoculture of grain which is not even healthy for humans and ship it to the rest of the world to be further processed as corn syrup, wheat product, etc. Nutritionally, corn is not a healthy source of food intake. It is usually massively produced to feed to animals raised for food in industrial animal farms. Corn, wheat and rice are not a healthy option for staple diet. They have been introduced in our food circle just until the modern agriculture developed extensively. They are high in sugars and the proteins are usually ingestible for humans. We cannot deny the health benefits presented in them and thus believe grains should be consumed in moderation.

In our eco-village, we are not using space to grow any grain. There will be some annual crop like root vegetables, and some other vegetables, but no space will be dedicated to one particular kind of monoculture.

Instead, the focus is on the perennials. A perennial is a plant that lives for more than two years and usually survives winters by shedding leaves and regaining a new cycle in spring. They include bushes and trees. Due to their longer life cycle, the perennial plants develop deep, elaborate root systems. These roots can hold soil to and avoid erosion, collect dissolved nitrogen before it contaminates surface and ground surface water while outcompeting weeds and reducing the need for herbicides.

The forests, their age, the biodiversity they promote are an example of how important it is to have a group of polyculture perennials to that welcomes worms, butterflies, birds and animals. Ideally, in this setting every aspect would be a self-correcting system where the soil with maintain its nutrients, the nitrogen will be circulated, the pests will be eaten for lunch by other pests or animals. All this sounds too idealistic but is successfully done in profit making farms in England and in Cuba.

We also intend to have animals such as turkeys, pigs, sheep and goat t help us fertilize the soil. They will not be fed imported soya and corn but will be raised on the pasture grass. The pasture grass should also be a combination of polyculture to resist over-grazing and be able to support itself to maintain a cycle of growth.

Different food grouping

Farm is about food production. Sure, it is fun to manage it but it is primarily there to feed us. For an alternate farm to provide balanced set of nutrients, we have to question some of our assumptions of exiting food groups.

It is almost a standard to categorize food in cereal, dairy, meat and poultry, and fruits and vegetables. This division works with a massive supply of grains available in the world thanks to international trade and government subsidies. Instead, we will look at food in terms of calories: fat, protein, carbohydrates and alcohol. There are the four sources of calories that we need. Protein is a complex one here. It is several groups of amino acids. Plants do have protein but they usually have only certain amino acids present in each. Also, unprocessed plant protein is not always readily digestible by humans and needs a combination of other vegetables to make it happen. Vegetarians are of course will have to do a bit more research but animal protein and fat are also necessary for us omnivores to get a fully balanced diet while eating locally produced vegetables. We do not endorse the factory farming of animals in any way. We are encouraging to introduce animals on the farm and live in harmony with humans. This might sound very unconventional t some of the readers and I urge them to read Lierre Kieth’s “Vegetarian Myth” for further clarification.

Alcohol needs sugar and yeast to process. Apples, grown on perennials, have sugar, water and yeast and are a great source for producing alcohol. They have less sugars then some grains but they require far much less work. Also, an apple tree is there for almost forever and requires almost no maintenance expect for snipping a branch or two every year. Carbohydrates are heavily present in several vegetables, esp. the root vegetables and the farm will be providing those as well.

However, food is far more complicated than that. What about minerals, vitamins and this talk of omega 3 fatty acids? We cannot help the vegetarians with omega 3 animals and fish provide several of these elements in their milk, eggs, and meat. It all depends on the size, gender and the lifestyle of the person, but on average with a 30% animal diet (including dairy, eggs and meat) these nutrients will also balance off. Remember, we are not eating dead food imported from half way across the world. We have introduced fresh vegetables, nuts and fruits right from our own farm. There is far greater connection with vegetables and animals. There is respect for food as everyone had to put their energies in producing it.

Planning the farming garden

To understand how to bring these ideas in practice, we started what one may call, a dummy garden. It is a place where wildlife is nurtured and circular and spiral patterns from forests are introduced. Before designing the garden, the position of the winter and summer sun, direction of the wind, slope of the land, and already existing plants were taken into consideration. Collectively, these ideas are sometimes referred under the umbrella of permaculture, however, the term that term is quite strict with very specific ideas molding the entire garden. If you’re interested to know more about permaculture, we recommend you to have a look at Toby Hemenway’s “Gia’s Garden”.

Now we know how the winds blow and where the trees give a shadow. Most of the crop will consist of trees with spaces for bushes used both as walls and source of food. Within these trees and bushes, on slopes and ditches will be grown the perennials vegetables and some annual crop. Our dummy garden is in the enclosed fence, however, ideally, the farm will be more spread out minimizing the chances of pest attack, fungi, or water mismanagement.

A sample map of a small food producing garden

It is more than just saving space. It is about creating an environment where sunlight, shade, dry and wet spaces are all presented for various sorts of plant needs.

We started with drawing a map of our surroundings; position of summer and winter sun, wind, water shade etc. Later, we planned a rough idea of a garden on a paper.

We centered our garden with an herb spiral. The herb spiral is an ideal example of growing several meters of crop on just couple of meters diameter.

Herb spiral in center

Herb spiral

As the slope of the herb spiral varies, it keeps a different environment for heat, light, water in various places making it possible for polycrops to exist side-by-side. This can be made with rocks or logs, depending on whatever is most easily available.

The rest of the garden uses a technique called keyholes. In the drawing onto the left, several keyholes are extending into the garden.

Keyhole patterns

The idea is to map the garden through the natural patterns found in the ecosystem. There are no rows and boxes in a forest. What appears random is a collection of circles and spirals. These patterns are presented in our fingerprints, animal horns, sunflower seeds, and almost everywhere in nature. Thus, the keyhole, like other structures in the garden is not just to save space, but also to collect heat and water and promotes polyculture crops.

We also intend to work with the trees to pollinate the bees and grow flowers and tiny ponds to help them grow. The experimental garden is grown around a natural reserve so we can’t dig a pond. But if things grow in an eco-village, a pond is a great source to balance nutrients in soil and atmosphere. If you are more curious about the hand-on methods of what we’re discussing, please refer to Toby Hemenway’s “Gaia’s Garden”. It is an elaborate book containing simple techniques of implementing permaculture ideas in your food producing garden and farms.

So what’s next?

Farming and growing food, whether in a monoculture or an eco-village, is a work of patience and persistence. Study the environment you live in, how much rain and wind is present. Are there already any fruit trees growing there? How do you feel about substituting nuts for grain for more fuller and elaborate nutrition? Are you willing to wait few years for the trees to grow and allow birds, animals and bees to do the work for you? Because if the answer to these questions is yes, then with some research and practice, you might qualify as a very success and yet very unoccupied farmer of the future.

[1] GSPLA. 1989. Agriculture achievements in 20 years. Secretariat of Agriculture Land Reclamation and Animal Wealth


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