Recently I met an inspiring individual, Liz Birnbaum, in the midst of the ecological farming movement. Liz began as a guerilla gardener, establishing a small organic farm at at her alma mater. In her current position as the Program Coordinator for the Ecological Farming Association (EcoFarm) Liz connects constantly with big movers and shakers in the ecological farming movement. Naturally, I wanted to know what makes Liz passionate about her work – what does ecological agriculture mean to her? Below is a mini interview Liz undertook to give us insight into their inspirations. Enjoy!
What does ecological agriculture mean to you?
Ecology is the study of relationships. To me, ecological agriculture is based on a point of confluence: it joins nature’s ecology and human’s agriculture. It evokes the concepts of farming with nature, harmony, and biodiversity rather than slash-and-burn monocultures. Ecological agriculture is not about just using something up or making it work for one person/being, it is about a give and take. It is about a balance.
Ecological agriculture also invokes a concept of place-based learning—the kind of experiential knowledge one can only get from walking the land and paying keen attention to the forces at work. Ecological agriculture is much more than just concept. It is a practice. It includes a community-based model of learning that promotes ethics, principles, and methods for farming in harmony with nature.
At the Ecological Farming Association, where I am currently employed, a primary aspect of our mission is to educate farmers about ecological agriculture. For 33 years we have been hosting the Ecological Farming Conference, better known as EcoFarm, which last year had 75 workshops and discussion group sessions where farmers, ranchers, food handlers, distributors, and others came together to learn about the cutting edge topics in ecological agriculture.
Ecological agriculture is an umbrella term for permaculture, biodynamics, agroecology, integrated pest management, organics, and more. Looking at EcoFarm’s workshop content is a good way to get a sense of how diverse the term ecological agriculture really is. We had workshops on seed saving, attracting pollinators to the farm, on-farm water stewardship, pastured poultry, food hubs, draft animals, farm finance, growing local grains, and much more at the 2013 EcoFarm Conference.
How and why did you get involved in the ecological agriculture movement?
I first got involved because I saw a need in my community to have critical conversations about sustainability. Since everyone eats and food is the great equalizer, I felt that food was the best place to start talking about the environment so that the discussion would include everyone. So, I became a farmer. I had next-to no experience in growing at the time, but I promoted the idea of a campus farm and the college community from student government to the board of trustees gave me tremendous support to start the farm. It was an incredible first season, from getting the fence up to laying out the beds to staking my first tomatoes. When I tasted the bounty of that first season and I saw how it brought the community together, I was hooked.
I worked to get the food we grew into the campus cafeteria to make sure the whole community could access it. I also set up a way to financially sustain the project by having many events and classes in the garden, including weekly on-site “harvests” where faculty and staff could come to buy fresh fruits and vegetables from the four awesome student interns and myself. I managed the farm for two seasons.
Food became an intellectual obsession, to put it mildly. I began to realize how much food was connected to everything I cared about—art, communities, social justice, health, the environment, etc. I felt like I could explore it forever. So I helped create and co-teach some courses: Biodiversity and Agriculture, Botanical Imperialism, and Chicago: The Food City. All of these had food and farming as a central theme. And that is how I got involved in this whole movement!
How has your commitment to ecological agriculture changed your life or your lifestyle?
Well, I have moved to California! I am from Chicago and now I am living in Santa Cruz which is nestled in an agricultural area.
I have gotten so many awesome freebies through the wonderful community of food producers out here, so I am eating well. I also think so much more about what I eat and how to prepare it. I have also gotten really into food crafts like preserving and foraging and blogging about it all .
If you were on a bus trying to convince someone to see the value in ecological agriculture, what are the 3 most important points you would want to express?
Earth—Look 7 generations ahead at the earth. How can you leave it better than you found it. I think that farming ecologically is a part of the answer.
Economy—Support a “know your food, know your farmer” system, not a faceless system.
Respect—Respect all life, don’t have a “winner takes all” attitude with the rest of the plants, animals, and fungi on this earth.
All that said, I am not the kind of person who will be judgmental of someone who eats McDonalds or eats from an anonomous food producer. I am the kind of person who wants to make a change so that those options either do not exist as they do (the cheapest and most plentiful things around for so many people), or they are made more sustainable somehow. I think everyone comes from different places with this and socioeconomics dictates so much.
If you could only eat one vegetable for 6 months, what would it be and why?
Probably onions. Is that a weird response? It might sound funny, but I eat onions in just about any dish for any meal of the day. The only hesitation I would have about this choice would be the lack of vitamins, which might have made me move to a brassica, but since I am from Chicago (named after the wild onion), I just had to go with onions. They are just so versatile and tasty! And they store so well. Yay for onions!
-Liz Birnbaum of Ecological Farming Association
This video features Ruben teaching some of the biointensive planting method to students in the Ccachin greenhouse. Ccachin is a small Andean farming community in the district of Lares. To date AASD has 3 greenhouses in Ccachin, one at the primary school and two at the secondary school. This video features AASD’s efforts with the students to breathe some new energy into one of the secondary school greenhouses. Enjoy!
Growing Soil Fertility
Oftentimes at the farm we say we’re growing soil fertility first and vegetables second. Why’s that? Because without fertile soil you can only cultivate crops for so long before yields decline and external inputs are no longer sufficient to feed the needs of healthy crops. The soil is a substrate for growing. It is a living, thriving world full of microorganisms and nutrients necessary for healthy plant growth. The agroindustrial model looks at the soil as this dry, dark matter that must be pumped full of chemically constructed nutrients and additives. The soil in such a model is dead, dry, and just a substrate for placing roots of plants into. When we recognize that the soil is really a complex and very alive system, we begin to think about how to nurture this system so that there is a symbiosis with plants. The cylce of a growing plant and growing soil quality thus go hand in hand. At the farm we practice this in various ways, a few being:
- Crop Rotation: Crops take and give different nutrients. We balance this through carefully planned rotation so as to increase, not deplete, soil fertility.
- Association of plants: Certain plants complement each other and the soil.
- Soil Fertility: composting, vermiculture, local soil fertility methods such as biol and bocashi (explained in future posts!)
What is Biol?
Over time we’ll adress our different methods for building soil fertility. Last week we made Biol. Along with the photos in this post, I’ll explain the process. Biol is a compost tea-like substance made from a mix of crushed egg shells (calcium), ash (potassium, phosphorus, magnesium), yeast or chicha with sugar (quick break down), alfalfa (nitrogen), guano de corral (sheep/lama/guinea pig droppings), and milk all mixed with water. This can be done anaerobically (without oxygen) or aerobically (with oxygen) and stirred daily for a few weeks. Kind of like making a “potion” in your mom’s basement – one of my favorite childhood pastimes. When ready, we dilute it with water and spray this natural fertilizer on and at the base of our veggies for healthier plants and healthier soil! We learned this neat technique from a local expert here in Peru. It is so applicable for the highland communities we work with because Bocahsi utilizes only resources that the farmers here have at hand making it easy to make, low to no cost, and more likely to be put in practice. Plus it looks so nice (below), huh? Pretty neat! ~ Kat
Wow, hanging water bottles and a stone wall. AASD really hit the nail on the head this week with this beautiful and inspiring photo of the week, huh? Not quite. But what you’re looking at could be called inspiring for its innovative quality. The wall makes up part of a small family greenhouse. The hanging plastic decorations are plastic bottles filled with water. These neat contraptions attract pesky bugs that would otherwise feast on the vulnerable plants just a few feet below. Oh no! Who knew plastic bottles could be such life savers! I’m sharing this with you because it represents another instance of utilizing resources at hand to address challenges in the greenhouses.
Alright, to be honest, I just get really jazzed that the plastic water bottles are being reused, contributing to healthy plant growth while reducing waste! Yep, I really am super excited about this instance of creative reuse. ~Kat
Chris Miller, an awesome AASD intern, is pictured above. Chris is checking out what greenhouse owners are growing in their structures for the family greenhouse initiative in Maucau. This June, AASD worked alongside 15 families to roof small greenhouses attached to the side of their homes. These lean-to like structures are packed full with nutritious veggies. By being on the side of the house, they have the potential to help heat the house as the rock walls cool off at night. Pretty neat!
The women of the family attend the regular workshops to learn more about ecological growing, greenhouse growing, and space maximization. On this particular day, our agriculture team was out collecting information for evaluating the progress of the project as well as looking at what plants were in place. Our upcoming workshop was on crop rotation, so Chris is assessing what’s ready for harvest in order to address an appropriate crop rotation plan for each greenhouse. The goal was to make the workshop real time and interactive – so we had to know who was growing what.
Sixto helps manage and maintain the Choquecancha primary school greenhouse. Ruben took this photo of Sixto in action, harvesting some giant cauliflower last week. His enthusiasm and hard work keeps the students involved. He works above and beyond to make sure the greenhouse looks good all the time too. We value the enthusiasm of community members such as Sixto who take pride in ensuring the continued success of the school greenhouse projects. Next year, we hope to work closer with Sixto, giving him even more tools for innovating and advancing the school greenhouse project alongside the students of Choquecancha.
Mulch! Who knew such an ugly word could be so beautiful. Have we stumbled upon the ugly duckling of farming? I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder but you have to admit, this lettuce, alfalfa co-mingling pictured above is pretty nice to look at.
What is this Mulch thing?
Mulch is a simple, multi-purpose farming technique used worldwide. Mulch is any material used to cover the soil around plants in order to retain moisture, keep soil nutrients from burning off, protect against soil erosion, and even to add fertility. We’ve played around with a bunch of materials and finally today we tried out alfalfa for several reasons. First, alfalfa is widespread and accessible to farmers here – a perfect local, low-cost solution! Second, as it breaks down, the alfalfa will replenish nutrients that the crops it surrounds are taking out. Plus, it just looks good.
Let’s get technical
Why am I sharing the marvels of mulch with you? Our demo farm lends itself to experimentation, knowing we’re not messing with a subsistence farmer’s food system. I’m excited to use this new blog theme to share some of the more technical farming practices we try out at the farm, such as different mulch materials. Even though we’re trying to adapt these practices to the region in which we work, a lot of them are applicable to other farming systems. Yep, that means you too can enjoy beautiful farming techniques.
Any suggestions for what we can experiment with next?
Join us in our exploration of ecological agricultural in the highlands of Peru
Share our successes. Learn from our failures. Explore the how and why of what we do.
Yep, we have a new blog right on our website! You may ask yourself, “What is Ecological agricultural development?” The short answer is: We don’t know. Nobody does for sure. The processes by which individuals advance their autonomy over their food systems depends, whether ecologically or not, so heavily on local factors. Despite these intricacies each local instance is simultaneously tied into a larger global process of agricultural development.
As we get deeper into our localized node of Andean agriculture over here, we want to share our beliefs, findings, and stories. We want to put our big questions out there and to hear what you all are thinking about this too. We hope you enjoy undertaking this exploration with us!