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Recently, I attended a ‘bio-intensive’ farming training in Banepa along with a mix of other urban and rural participants. Bio-intensive farming is a system of organic agriculture originally developed by a group of Californian environmentalists and academics during the 1970s, now practiced around the world. Its proponents argue that it is a viable, sustainable alternative to chemical-based commercial agriculture in Nepal that offers improvements upon traditional organic methods. The content of the training was interesting, but so were the participants themselves—particularly the divide evident between the urbanites (mostly well-off Newar businesspeople) and a few experienced farmers from rural parts of Kavre. The experience made me think about general differences in the outlooks of the two groups regarding farming, a pertinent topic as more and more middle- and upper-class urban people become involved in agriculture, either as hobby or business venture.
The training was conducted by staff from the Everything Organic Nursery (EVON), a centre for bio-intensive agriculture in Patlekhet, near Dhulikhel. The nursery and farm was founded in 2010 by Judith Chase and Jim Danisch, an American couple who first came to Nepal over 35 years ago and have been involved in local organic agriculture for almost as long. It is a commercial operation but also receives funding from a small NGO, the dZi Foundation, to test bio-intensive techniques against other methods in side-by-side trials, help local organic farmers market products, and conduct trainings such as the one I attended.
Like many organic farms, EVON uses a variety of home-made organic pest and disease treatments, as well as a technique they call ‘kiraa ko tirimiri’—confusing pests by growing different kinds of plants in the same bed. But the foundation of the bio-intensive method is its unique method of deep soil-building. ‘Double-digging’ involves digging up 60 cm of soil from a bed and then refilling it with successive layers of dry leaves, fresh leaves, subsoil, ash, mustard cake, and, in the top layer, topsoil and manure. Digging deep allows plant roots to penetrate further and benefits soil micro-organisms, while the organic amendments provide nutrients as they slowly decompose, essentially making compost in situ. This produces high-yielding crops, but also requires more labour than traditional methods, as well as significant volumes of plant material, which is often in demand as animal fodder. In order to better adapt double-digging to Nepali farmers’ constraints, EVON developed ‘Nepali bio-intensive’ and ‘sheet composting’ bed preparations, which use less plant biomass and require digging up only 10 or 30 cm of soil. In trials with mizuna (Japanese mustard), potatoes, and corn, the new methods out-performed double-digging and produced almost twice as much as a traditional organic control. EVON now offers instruction on double-digging, Nepali bio-intensive, and sheet-composting.
The training in Banepa was organised by a group of friends, mostly businessmen in their 30s, who make up an informal group called the Banepa Batabaran Samrakshan Abhiyan Samuha (Banepa Environment Protection Campaign Group). The Samuha has organised several campaigns over the past decade, including one to plant trees along the Arniko Highway and another with Kathmandu University students to manage plastic waste. Members Nawa Raj Shakya, Sudeep Bhochhibhoya and Rasil Palanchoke explained their interest in organic gardening in terms of health benefits, saving money, and reducing Nepal’s food-dependence on India. While many urbanites in Banepa already grow spices like peppers, garlic, and coriander, the Samuha members hope to boost organic vegetable gardening in open spaces and rooftops, which was why they invited EVON to give the training.
The training itself was conducted by EVON’s extension agent, Roshan Shrestha, and field manager, Binod Puri. Shrestha is 27 and holds an MSc in biotechnology, a field that he admits is often at odds with his current work. He recently established Kavre’s first plant tissue culture laboratory with friends in his home town, Nala. Puri is older, and worked for many years as a gardener for resorts in Dhulikhel. He is a very talented horticulturalist and tree-grafter. While Shrestha is fond of talking in terms of soil chemistry and Latin names, Puri likes to slip in more practical tips on digging beds and brewing organic pesticides.
The first day of the training was a theoretical session, hosted by Rasil Palanchoke in his flat on the top floor of his family’s Banepa Plaza. Discussion was dominated by a couple of the more experienced farmers who probed the trainers with technical questions. On the second day, Shrestha led participants in preparing a Nepali bio-intensive bed in an empty lot. The young men from the Samuha were enthusiastic but inexperienced in using kodalos, so the experienced farmers showed them how to dig and flick the soil away properly. Bikash Tamang, a young farmer and student from Phakucha village, working at a slow but steady pace, outdid everyone. Later, we went up to the Plaza’s roof to prepare soil in Styrofoam containers. Palanchoke had bought them from fish sellers and painted them red, blue, green and yellow to match his prayer flags; he said he hoped to set an example by making gardening seem stylish.
As we finished, I asked participants what they thought of the bio-intensive method. Most urban people seemed very enthusiastic, saying they planned to try it at home. The experienced farmers were also positive, but more guarded in their optimism. When I asked Shree Bahadur Tamang, a farmer and sociology student, what he thought, he said that he didn’t know yet—he’d have to try it and see the results for himself.
The experience made me think about general differences in the outlooks of rural farmers compared to wealthier urban people. There seems to be a tendency among the latter to believe that farming can be easy, that there are lots of simple innovations farmers can adopt to improve productivity as well as sustainability, and that it is just lack of awareness or complacency that holds them back. But if you talk to farmers (including urbanites who have farming experience), they are often more cautious about innovation. The usefulness of ‘improved techniques’ varies according to each farmer’s unique situation, and depends on labour and land available, local climate and soil conditions, and connections to markets, among other factors. As Jim Danisch of EVON remarked, there is no “one-size fits all solution” in farming. Moreover, as was apparent during the training’s practical session, success in farming depends as much on technical knowledge as it does on one’s ability to use one’s body efficiently and in a manner so as not to injure or tire oneself out in the field—no easy feat.
The training also left me thinking about the roles of rural versus urban residents in creating the environmental problems to which bio-intensive farming and environmental campaigns like those of the Samuha are responses. After all, urban demand for cheap food is responsible for chemical dependency in agriculture, while urban sprawl eats up fields and forests, and consumerism in cities causes pollution. It is important that the Samuha is setting an example in organic agriculture, tree-planting, and waste management. But shouldn’t all wealthy urban consumers consider it our responsibility to alleviate some of the problems we have caused? I thought about this at the end of the training as we had snacks and tea and listened to Palanchoke, a professional musician, play a beautiful rendition of Sarangi Retaunla Mauka Mile Pheri Bhetaunla.
Gill is an American agroforester who grew up in Kathmandu. He studied South Asian history and forestry