Sunday, December 27, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Sorry for the long absence - I left the farm for a two-week tour of Japan with my boyfriend, Eric. Kyoto, Takayama, and Tokyo! I enjoyed getting a taste of the Japan outside of ARI - Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, big cities and quiet mountains towns, udon and mochi sweets. Japan is a beautiful country, and I'm looking forward to exploring more during my remaining nine months here.

Some things I learned about Japan:

- The Japanese are extremely generous people. When I had trouble using a public pay phone to call home, one Japanese woman spent twenty minutes helping me figure out the right calling codes! Twenty minutes! Once when we were consulting our map in Kyoto, one Japanese man stopped without being asked to see if we needed help... And the examples go on.

- If you travel with a 6'4" guy, people will come up to you in the supermarket and ask if you're American - just because, as one Japanese gentlemen said, "you're so tall!"

- Offering cheap packaged junk food at temples and shrines seems to be totally acceptable. We saw so many lovely old Buddhist stone deities surrounded by 7-11 sweets!

- Japan is not ARI. I already knew this, but it was reinforced by seeing the incredible amount of packaging that went into everything, the American-like commercial emphasis on newer and better, the constant consumption.

Now I'm back at ARI, although it's very different from the ARI I left two weeks ago. The participants have all returned to their home countries, so we (the staff and volunteers) now face a three month hiatus before the next class arrives in April. I'm hoping the slower winter pace will give me time to learn more about farming and about how ARI operates.

Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A splendid vegetation

This week, the participants presented their dreams for the future of their communities. The one theme uniting all of the presentations was the need for food security - moving from a reliance on imported food toward true self-sufficiency in food production at the local level. Toward a splendid vegetation.
Ezekiel 34: 26I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. 27The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. 28They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. 29I will provide for them splendid vegetation, so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. 30They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Today, it seems like the word "organic" is on everyone's lips. It's in the grocery stores, in ads, in the newspapers. Before I came to ARI, I was interested in organic food and organic farming, but I suspected the organic movement might be the child of the non-farming middle-class - certainly a well-meaning, even admirable project, but maybe not economically sound for the majority of farmers in the Philippines or Kenya or China. Organic food in New Hampshire was almost always more expensive than the non-organic option. Organic restaurants (like the delicious Farmer's Dinner in Queeche, for those still in the area) could only be occasional treats for college students like me. How could farmers in poor communities afford to grow such expensive crops?

At ARI, I'm gradually learning what the label "organic" actually means. It means using non-chemical fertilizer - what we call bokashi at ARI, a fertilizer made of chicken manure, soil, rice husk charcoal, microorganisms, and fermented plant juice. It means weeding each bed, rather than just applying pesticides. It means time-intensive work, but delicious vegetables - the carrots here are so sweet, you can smell them as you pull them out of the soil!

But does organic farming actually benefit farmers?

I'm starting to think so. Today, I listened to some of the participants talk about how they will use the training in organic farming and community organizing they received at ARI in their home countries. One woman from Sri Lanka talked about the problems in her community related to the use of agricultural chemicals - about how chemicals had caused strange health conditions (headaches, fatigue, and even paralysis!) and had exhausted the soil. For her community, organic farming is simply safer and smarter than chemical farming. It will protect both the health and the future livelihood of her children. Living in the US, relatively protected from industrial or agricultural chemicals, I often forget about the harmful effects chemicals have on both the human and natural environment. I forget that for many farmers, organic farming is not just about a healthier or tastier product, but about a safe and sustainable lifestyle. Going organic can also reduce farmers' expenses. Chemical fertilizer must be bought, and it is often expensive. Organic fertilizer can be produced by the farmer using local resources (chicken manure if the farmer raises chickens, pig manure if he raises pigs, etc.) at very low cost. Of course producing organic fertilizer takes more time and labor than simply buying chemical fertilizer, but it could ultimately help farmers become more economically self-sufficient.

That being said, I'm also learning at ARI that the spirit behind the organic label matters. One staff member shared parts of the book The Omnivore's Dilemma with us last week. In that book, the author talks about "oil-soaked organic lettuce," lettuce produced by enormous organic farms in the United States that are simply conventional farms without the chemicals. The farms may not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but they still use huge quantities of oil to fuel their farm equipment, and they exhaust the soil by monocropping (growing only one type of vegetable instead of rotating crops annually). Environmentally, they don't quite give off the fuzzy green glow that the organic label suggests...

So it's a complicated issue. And right now, I feel very much uniformed. I'm trying to educate myself about farming and about how farming impacts the current discussions about environmental sustainability, energy security, and green living - and most importantly about how farming can become a tool for development, for improving the lives of the participants I am lucky enough to live with.

Wishing everyone a happy weekend!
And: "Slow down. It's Advent."