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SMALL-SCALE FARMING WITH ENORMOUS REWARDS: Biointensive Agroecology on a Community Farm in California, USA
Overview Subsistence farming and agroecological research go hand-in-hand in this partnership between a cooperative community and a local non-profit environmental organization. Farming practices are principally "biointensive," which fosters healthy soils, conserves space, and requires low input, while maximizing yields and increasing sustainability and overall health of this small-scale food production system.
Scale subsistence farm, organization, collective, valley
Location South of Willets, Mendocino County, California, USA (123W/E, 39N/S)
Elevation Approx. 305 meters
Climate Marine West Coast (Cfb, Cfc, cool summer)
Agricultural Region B, livestock ranching; H, Mediterranean Agriculture
Population Density 10-25 persons / square kilometer
Principal Crops Corn (Zea mays), squash (Cucurbita sp.), broccoli (Brassica), onion (Allium cepa), garlic (Allium sativum), lettuce (Lactuca sativa), chard (Beta vulgaris), spinach (Spinacia oleracea), beet (Beta vulgaris), tomato (Lycopersicum esculentum), strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis), raspberry (Rubus odoratus), sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), barley (Hordeum vulgare), wheat (Triticum aestivum).
Domestic Animals Cows graze in the valley distant from the farm, but their manure is brought in for compost in some beds.
Soils Ultic Haploxeralfs
Natural Vegetation Mixed: broadleaf deciduous and needleleaf evergreen trees (M).
Ecoregion Mediterranean Altitudinal Zone (H12).
Basic Principles addressed Use Renewable Resources, Minimize Toxics, Conserve Resources, Manage Ecological Relationships, Adjust to Local Environments, Diversify, Empower People, Manage Whole Systems, Maximize Long-Term Benefits, Value Health
Page Author and Date Jessica Kaslow, 2001. Jessica would like to extend gratitude to Ecology Action and the ranch community farmers, for their dedication and positive energy, and especially to Bi-Sek Hsiao and Jennifer Halpern for their hospitality and encouragement.

 

description

This small-scale farm serves as both a subsistence farm for a collective of approximately 35 people, and an area for agricultural research by a local non-profit environmental organization. Farming practices are principally "biointensive," which uses low energy input, fosters healthy soils, and conserves space, while maximizing yields and increasing sustainability. With guidance from John Jeavons, director of Ecology Action, the farm aims to meet the nutritional needs of the local community, while providing a locale for apprentices to practice biointensive agricultural methods.

Principles of biointensive farming stem from diverse age-old traditional farming systems and closely align with all of the agroecological principles described above and elsewhere on this web site. By creating an agroecological area that is a closed-system, biointensive agriculture aims to rely solely on the resources within the system. On this farm, only a few renewable resources (e.g. wood for seed flats, gypsum) are brought from outside the system, and labor is done almost entirely by hand. By double-digging planting beds, soil is aerated and loosened to a depth of 24 inches. By close-spacing of plants, more food is produced per unit area. By growing crops specifically for compost, compost availability and soil fertility is ensured. In sum, the sustainability of the system is extremely high.

There are myriad benefits gained from this unique community farming arrangement. The non-profit group gains opportunities to try different techniques, such as intercropping, companion planting, and dry farming, and experiment with seed varieties. Impressive yields have been achieved, often doubling U.S. yield averages for certain crops. In turn, the community benefits from the plethora of healthy foods brought to the communal kitchen, and from the enhanced ecological sustainability of their farmland. 

lessons learned

These biointensive methods are being reintroduced around the world by Ecology Action and other groups to international small-scale farmers primarily because of the increased sustainability and high yields that can be achieved, and additionally, because of the possible future economic gains and overall labor reduction. However, I believe there are several challenges posed by this system, which could possibly make the system less feasible for farmers in some locations.

First, the intensive labor required (for instance, to hand-weed, hand-water, and hand-transplant) may be overwhelming or infeasible depending on the size of the farm or numbers of family members or farmers. Second, getting to a point of self-sustained soil fertility may take a few seasons to build up compost reserves, and external inputs may have to be purchased. Third, with initially high labor requirements, and depending upon the goals and location of a farm and the local market structure, economic sustainability may prove to be the greatest challenge.

The most salient lessons that I find this particular farm to be providing relate to the challenges of meeting the various needs of all of the stakeholders and participants involved in the organization of the farm, while continuing to produce food by using the biointensive methods. Each stakeholder involved brings a different experience and perspective to the farm and may have conflicting ideas about how things should be done. Therefore, while "biointensive" implies following a specific set of principles, the participants also incorporate some degree of flexibility and compromise so that all of their individual and collective efforts continue to produce a healthy, sustainable farm benefiting the whole community.  

principles illustrated

Use Renewable Resources

Hand tools, hand-watering systems, and passive solar greenhouses are used. Nutrients are recycled through cover cropping and composting.

Minimize Toxics

There is no use of chemical pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides.

Conserve Resources

Conserve soil by using perennials, no-till methods. Conserve water by double-digging to aerate soil, watering by hand, propagation in flats, dry farming in some areas. Conserve energy by using no machinery, and in physical labor--using the body's weight and strengths to prevent injury. Conserve genetic resources by using heirloom varieties.

Manage Ecological Relationships

Reestablish ecological relationships by attracting beneficial animals such as insects and frogs. Manage pests, diseases, and weeds by hand-weeding and fostering a diversity of species. Use intercropping and cover cropping. Enhance beneficial insects by planting flowers. Recycle nutrients by composting all residues. Minimize disturbance by using no-till methods and hand-watering.

Adjust to Local Environments

A seasonal calendar suited to the local environment is used. Varieties are chosen when suited to the climate. Greenhouses are used when necessary (e.g. for tomatoes which benefit from higher temperatures).

Diversify

Biota is diversified by intercropping, crop rotations, and polycultures. Economics are diversified by selling produce at a local farmers' market, selling dried herbs, and offering classes on biointensive methods.

Empower People

Principles of agroecology and biointensive methods are taught at the farm. Partnerships between the local community and the non-profit organization are encouraged. The farm reaches out to the greater community through selling at a farmers' market.

Manage Whole Systems

Planning processes recognize the seasonal and climatalogical limitations of the landscape, and the needs of the farm and households in the community.

Maximize Long-Term Benefits

Long-term strategies are used when consulting a seasonal cropping calendar, and soil fertility is emphasized by planting certain crops specifically for composting.

Value Health

Human health is valued by farming organically, providing healthy foods to the community. Cultural health is valued by recognizing the needs of the community, and the history of the land. Environmental health and plant health are valued by using all of the above principles to enhance sustainability. 

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