Manor House Agricultural Centre (MHAC), Kitale, Kenya
Biointensive agriculture is a method of growing as much food as possible in the smallest amount of space. The method draws upon a variety of intensive agricultural methods practiced thousands of years ago in China, Greece and Latin America, as well as French intensive techniques practiced in the 1700’s and 1800’s, and Biodynamic techniques developed in Europe in the early 1920s.
The culmination of these techniques has developed into what is now called GROW BIOINTENSIVE sustainable mini-farming. It’s a method adapted to address the unsustainable nature of the global food system, which nearly all of us depend on.
The method was designed to provide food security for those who practice it, while continually building and developing the soil and conserving natural resources. The result is producing safe food year after year in the same small space.
Practiced in over 130 countries across the world, this method has proven that a complete diet can be produced by people in any climate where food can be grown, with very limited resources.
I was first introduced to this method of agriculture by during my sustainable agriculture internship at the University of Washington Student Farm. My advising professor, Beth Wheat (who has since started SkyRoot Farm on Whidbey Island, Wa. with another former UW student) assigned a reading about double-digging, the practice of preparing deep growing beds (loosing the soil to a depth of up to 24 inches, or 60 cm).
Look how deep vegetable roots can go! Each square represents 1 square foot (How to Grow More Vegetables, Jeavons).
Deep growing beds with loose soil allows plant roots to grow deep without interruption. This allows plants to continually consume available nutrients in the soil, making them less susceptible to disease and pests (as long as the soil has sufficient nutrients for the plants!). Because deep soil provides space for roots to grow vertically, plants can be spaced closer together without competition for nutrients from horizontal root growth.
Above: Cross-sectional view of biointensive growing bed vs. planting in rows (El Huerto Sostenible, Jeavons).
Below: Bird’s-eye view of biointensive growing bed vs. planting in rows. Notice there are more plants growing on the left (How to Grow More Vegetables, Jeavons)
In addition, the close proximity of the plants creates a “miniclimate” in the growing bed. Below is a picture of two biointensive raised beds made by one of the producers in the community of El Bálsamo, Teustepe. The tomatoes are densely planted, allowing the leaves to serve as a “living mulch”. Their thick, low canopy shades the growing bed which helps the soil retain water and also slows weed growth.
Of course, all of this depends on having ample nutrient levels in the soil that are readily available for plants. Building up healthy soil can be a long process depending on the type of soil the grower is dealing with, but any soil can be improved through cover cropping and composting, both principles of biointensive agriculture.
Before I came to Nicaragua, I read the complete book from which my advisor Beth selected our double-digging reading: "How to Grow More Vegetables" by John Jeavons, a book detailing the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method (free PDF here!).
I read this book because I have a personal interest in providing food security for myself and for those around me, particularly those who have been systematically denied access to healthy food. After spending a week out in the field working with farmers, it became clear to me that their current farming practices will not provide them with continual yields without a dependency on expensive chemical fertilizers.
The soil is compacted and susceptible to erosion, it is very heavy in clay and low in organic matter. The soil needs a lot of work, and results from a 30-year trial study by the Rodale Institute found that chemical fertilizers deplete organic matter in the soil. Most of the dry season crops were suffering from nutrient deficiencies and attacks from pests and fungus.
After this visit, I found the Biointensive Center in Nicaragua (CCID), a training center for agronomists and small farmers in the biointensive method adapted for Nicaragua. The training center is still in the developing phases here in Nicaragua, but AsoFénix and the CCID have been working closely together since the biointensivistas facilitated a two-day, hands-on, workshop in the biointensive method back in March, 2013. The workshop was held for small-scale farmers and patio gardeners out in the communities where AsoFénix works.
participants behind one of the double-dug raised beds made during the biointensive workshop.
The workshop was a great success, and many farmers have taken advantage of the information provided and started producing food in double-dug, raised beds with positive results.
AsoFénix and Biointensive Center in Nicaragua (CCID) are currently in the process of signing a partnership agreement, which means these workshops and the technical assistance the CCID provides will continue after my internship is complete.
The Biointensive Center in Nicaragua is also in development phases. This plot of land is turning into the center’s demonstration farm, which will serve as a research, demonstration and training center for small farmers, agronomists, student groups and organizations.
I am also excited to report that Socorro, the farmer I have been working closely with, has been hired on by the CCID as their first apprentice technician. This means he will be paid for three months of full-time work at the CCID’s demonstration farm. His role is to maintain biointensive growing beds for demonstration and research. While doing so, Socorro will receive one-on-one, hands-on training from the vice president of the Biointensive Center, Federico Gómez. After three months, Socorro’s role will shift to being an on-site, biointensive technician for AsoFénix in the communities where he lives and where AsoFénix works.
In just under a month Socorro has already used the knowledge and resources available to him at the training center to make improvements to his own farm. Once his training is complete, he will play an integral role in AsoFénix’s sustainable agriculture program as a rural agriculture promoter and technician. In other words, he will be the go-to person for farmers and patio gardeners in the communities who need technical assistance or who simply wish to learn more about organic agriculture.
I have been working on developing this agriculture program for AsoFénix for the last few months under the leadership of Águeda Ordeñana, the wonderful agronomist hired by AsoFénix. She has a great deal of technical and leadership experience. Working with her has been an amazing learning experience. More on Águeda and the AsoFénix sustainable agriculture program in a later post…