Go big before you go home: Food forest part 1

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When I was back in Michigan and growing up we talked about fast cars and sport bikes, which ‘system’ of subwoofers hit harder when you played Outkast’s Aquemini album, and how high you could crank the boost on a Mitsubishi gt3000 while running 93-octane without detonating. When I started hanging out and talking with farmers in Hawaii we talked about ambitious farmers having 1000 species on 30 acres, nitrogen fixing ‘mother of cacao’ trees alley cropped to provide shade for drip irrigated organic Kona coffee, a hamakua coast farmer who healed his land with natural farmings’ IMO, and symbiotic farming systems providing pest control, higher yields and food such as incorporating ducks into a wetland taro field to eat snails and provide meat. Now that I’m here in Gambia we puff our chests out and talk about how many bags of groundnuts we harvested last year, how much we can sell 1 ‘kent’ variety mango for at the market or who’s got the best cashew orchard for export to India.

Although the content and context changes, its similar everywhere: most of us are proud of what we do and we find friends that share and support the same interests. I actually like the innocence and ego behind it because in a way we’re all still a group of kids saying “Look at this! Mines the best! I can do that better than you.” This plays out into who’s got the best or biggest tractor, antique collection, TV, meatloaf recipe, sports car, bowling average, bourbon or cigar collection. Many wise mothers, wives and girlfriends looked at us men, shook their heads and laughed as they said “Boys with their toys.” It’s great and I’m sure if I ever buy a minivan and become a family man I will stay rebellious and try to put a turbocharger on it so it goes faster.

So as I prepare to wrap up my service here I had the urge to do something really big before I leave. It’s my last chance and I have the full 2015 rainy season to work, whereas last year I took a break to head back to Michigan to see if I could catch the biggest salmon (I didn’t of course, damn!). I wanted to really push it and put together a big plan.

The concept of a ‘food forest’ had been unknown to me up until a year ago. Even ‘permaculture’ itself, a system of agriculture and social design, was foreign to me. Interest grew and permaculture videos started circulating amongst a few pcv’s, we started watching natural farming youtube videos, learned about swales, food forests and what a ‘chop and drop’ technique was (i.e. chopping leaves of fast growing trees or shrubs to provide nitrogen and leaf litter to decompose on the ground.). All this activity was simmering, boosted by Fukuoka’s natural farming books circling around (e.g. One Straw Revolution), a Californian pcv joining and sharing experience, Master Cho with Korean Natural Farming and indigenous microorganisms (IMO) and then finally a PCV getting the chance to go to Jordan for a permaculture design course, bringing back enthusiasm and more great ideas. So really it seems in just a couple years with these last 2 groups of Ag. pcvs we’ve somehow steered the ship towards greener more natural farming pastures. Fortunately the PC staff are also really supportive of this and jumping on board with us, even organizing a 3-day ‘permagarden’ training that brought in an expert to teach us more about locally possible and sustainable garden designs. Finally, the Gambians farming here are also seeing the disadvantages of farming the same way year after year to produce lower yields and are recognizing the need for a new way without expensive chemical fertilizers.

Development doesn’t really ever ‘finish’ like a casserole, but I feel like this movement could really be the start of a paradigm shift towards a better way of life for Gambian farmers and gardeners. When you’re learning to help, I feel that the start and implementation of a new idea is a success in itself. Just trying a lot of different approaches and experimenting is a great way to move forward, it’s dynamic, it’s variable, it’s progress.That’s where we’re at right now with natural farming and permaculture here and that’s where my mind was when I was thinking about my last rainy season and how I could best help.

My idea was to actually show Gambian farmers an example farm they could copy or modify to suit their needs; a template of sorts. Since I had studied learning theory and behavior philosophy I knew that talks, meetings, pamphlets, discussions and coffee weren’t going to change a lot. I needed something more than a picture of people shaking hands and free t-shirts. I imagined people walking by the farm and asking questions: “What are you doing here? Why this? Why are there so many trees? Why don’t you make a bigger farm?” I wanted to show people a farm space that required very little money, was building soil fertility naturally, could be farmed for several years before it turned into a food forest and was small enough to be easily managed. The soil fertility plan came from soil test results we got back from the states and I was much helped by my soil guru Bob Shaffer on big island; I owe him a lot as he helped me make sense of the results and start a program of rehab for the infertile land. Even my counterparts would excitedly ask me “Did you hear from Bob? What did he say about the wood ash?” So that’s the soil fertility plan; The design plan was a 8-month pre-rainy season brainstorming process with anyone who would sit down and listen. I also owe a lot to the many pcv’s and PC staff that sat down with me to draw maps and pictures, research the functions of trees, offer insight on drought tolerance during hot season and encouraged me to really ‘overstack’ the system by putting way more plants and trees in then seems appropriate. Load it up and you can always cut them out or reduce them later. Thanks to all.

So, here is the condensed picture version of what the plan is:

2014 Rainy season: The 30x40m farm plot was full of findo and looked like this:

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2015 Hot season: the farm plot is dry as a bone after 6 months without rain. At this point the food forest design was 80% done and we needed to start clearing the land, digging the outplant holes for trees and mending the fence.

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These are the 25 big trees that we put in the food forest. At this point in the process we had collected seed, planted and cared for all of our ‘big trees.’ There are 25 outplant holes, 19 different tree species going in, with 14 of those species providing some kind of food. Some of these trees require 6 months or more in the nursery so we had to plan far in advance for our July 2015 outplant date. For example, African mahogany stays in the nursery for 1 year and is outplanted when it’s 1 meter tall so we had to have one we sowed in July 2014 ready to go for July 2015. The planning and logistics for all the different species was crazy! It was also, by far, the biggest intellectual challenge I’ve had here.

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That’s the rough outline: take the nice green trees and put them in the dry field when the rain comes in July 2015. Sounds easy but it was an incredible amount of work and coordination. I’ll outline the setup of the food forest in my next blog. Thank you for reading and send me comments or questions below,

Stephen

2 thoughts on “Go big before you go home: Food forest part 1

  1. Doerthe

    Hi Stephan, my partner in The Gambia is planting the same way every year without much result. Where is the model farm in The Gambia you are talking about in the article?

    • Hey Doerthe, thanks for the comment. The farm we got going was in Farafenni at the Anglican Mission school headed toward the river. I haven’t seen it in a few years but I believe a lot of the trees didn’t survive that first dry season or the fence falling down/getting eaten/used for firewood perhaps. Anyways, it would still be worth a look and definitely should try track down the farmers momodou jatta and modou kassama to talk with them, they worked hand in hand with me to plant everything and create the farm. Other than that, I’d say the best bang for the buck thing you can do is to try get the pH of the soil corrected with some oyster shell and then add compost/organic matter and biochar from rice husks, the soil pH when I tested it was like 5.6 with 0.9 percent organic matter when I tested it. Or plant some nitrogen fixing species in an alley crop system, i found leucaena, sesbania and gliricidia did really well there, got big fast. Okay, hope that helps -stephen

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