John Jeavons’ ECOLOGY ACTION Turns 50!
by Matt Drewno
Perched on top of Pine Mountain, overlooking Willits, is the beautiful Jeavons Center Mini-Farm, which grows a striking variety of heirloom herbs, grains, flowers, and vegetables. This mini-farm is the headquarters of Ecology Action, this year celebrating fifty years of “teaching the teachers” by training farmers and community leaders from around the world in the GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Method of agriculture (GB). Ecology Action’s research and educational programs, headquartered right here in Mendocino County, have been leading the way in our understanding of sustainable agriculture across the globe.
A LOOK BACK
Ecology Action (a 501(c)(3) non-profit) began in the early 1970s in Palo Alto, California with a group of folks who started a recycling business that became so successful it was bought out by the city. John Jeavons, a young member of that group, was a graduate of Yale University where he majored in Political Science and had recently worked for USAID. His expertise in understanding systems thinking and efficiencies was a powerful asset to the group. With some free time on their hands and wondering what to do next, several members of Ecology Action attended a five-hour introductory workshop on Alan Chadwick’s French Intensive Method of agriculture.
Chadwick was famous for introducing the Biodynamic French-Intensive Technique to the United States. Philosopher E.F. Schumacher once stated that Alan was the “greatest horticulturalist of the Twentieth Century.” Alan, then a fifty-eight-year-old man from England, worked from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, with devotion, transforming a poison oak covered rocky hillside into a magnificent and profuse oasis of food, flowers, and herbs. His garden project at the University of California Santa Cruz became famous for attracting students, faculty, and locals. His efforts were so inspired that students were dropping out of school to learn from him in the garden, something that soon became a point of contention between Alan and the university. Many of his students are still teaching and farming today.
After attending the workshop, John Jeavons and Ecology Action decided to start an organic gardening store and educational center. John traveled to the San Joaquin Valley in Central California where, at the time, 30 percent of the nation’s food was produced in the United States. John asked farmers and agronomists, “What is the smallest area you can grow all your food in an environmentally sound and equitable way?” The response was, “I don’t know, but if you had a thousand acres of wheat and if it was a really good year, you would be able to pay your bills.” Soon thereafter, 100,000 farms went bankrupt each year over a ten-year period in the United States. What John realized was, farming was not working, and no one really knew the answer to his question. If he wanted to know, it was up to him! As John Jeavons puts it, “It was tag, you’re it!”
After realizing the potential of Alan Chadwick’s approach, John Jeavons began his journey of investigating sustainable agriculture and how applying the French Intensive technique could transform the many challenges related to agriculture, food, nutrition, and the environment. Within a few months, John and Ecology Action acquired a 3.75-acre parcel donated by the Syntex Corporation at the Stanford Industrial Park. There they would develop their first research garden as well as a sprawling community garden.
In 1974, Ecology Action published their initial results in the first edition of How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine. Ecology Action began to focus on the yield potentials and economic profitability of small scale biointensive food production. A few years later, in 1980, University of California graduate Doug Maher studied the growing beds in Palo Alto and discovered an accelerated growth of humified soil carbon, which normally takes hundreds of years to achieve. How to Grow… went through several more additions and more data was collected, and more farmers, researchers, and teachers began to see what John was seeing and demonstrating. Former Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland was quoted saying: “John Jeavons is out of the mainstream of American agriculture—he is ten to fifteen years ahead…small-scale intensive farming is clearly the best hope for the overwhelming mass of humanity.”
In 1982, Jeavons and Ecology Action relocated their headquarters to the other side of the coastal range on a steep, rocky hillside in Willits, California. These early years were foundational, setting the course of decades of work by Ecology Action. Today, over two hundred publications have been produced educational DVDs, over forty books and booklets sharing the research and techniques which make biointensive agriculture successful and sustainable. Great effort has been made to translate many of these publications into Spanish, Hindi, Russian, Swahili, German, French, and many other languages. Self-teaching films and manuals are available for free at their website, and thousands have been trained directly through their workshops, internships, and apprenticeships.
Over the years, stunning results have been observed. It has become clear that applying the techniques of the French Intensive Method, with a few other techniques used in different cultures around the world, can lead to a beautiful and efficient path forward for feeding humanity. Perhaps equally, if not more importantly, these techniques conserve resources, reduce the land needed to produce food, and enable us with the capacity to restore the ecosystems which have been reduced through conventional farming practices. These techniques have become codified into eight basic principles, known as the GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Method (GB).
GB techniques have been demonstrated to use up 88 percent less water to grow vegetables and 67 percent less water for grains. Food grown this way uses 94 percent less energy, and less than half the fertilizer typically required to grow food. Yields can increase two to six times the conventional averages while micro-scaling our impact on the biosphere. At this point in our human history these techniques offer a pathway out of poverty and malnutrition for millions while also helping to stabilize local food economies in the face of climate change and the many great challenges we are facing.
The Research and Development of the GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Method (GB)
The word “bio-intensive” is an abbreviation of “biologically intensive.” It refers to the general increase of yields experienced when one intensifies production by working with nature, rather than against it. The downside of conventional intensification is that it often leads to an intensification of soil depletion as we ask more from Nature to feed ourselves. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, for thousands of years biologically intensive food production worked in harmony with Nature, often to a slightly greater or lesser degree, but most often honoring the abundance and fertility of the Earth.
Throughout history and around the world, agriculture developed out of hunter-gatherer societies. People began to save seeds and plant gardens to bring their food closer to home and expend less energy in the process. Over time, societies around the world learned that through proper cultivation of the soil, yields could increase. Digging implements were invented using sticks, bones, and stone tools. People began to domesticate plants and animals to develop genetics which favored production and storage of food crops. The plow was developed, attached to the back of an ox and pulled through the soil—an advancement which enabled us to utilize the energy of animals to perform the work of cultivation for us. And with the development of the industrial age and fossil fuel technologies, we began to hook the plow to machines and tractors.
Agriculture is a story of innovation. However, innovation doesn’t always lead to positive results. It is becoming clear that this effort to work smarter and not harder has led us to become too smart for our own good. Did you know that for every pound of food you eat that was grown in the Central Valley of California, twenty-four pounds of soil was lost? Modern agriculture has become a main driver of deforestation, habitat loss, species extinction, ecosystem destruction, desertification, water pollution, and climate change.
When Ecology Action began this work, the first goal was to demonstrate that small-scale was economical. After years of studying organic markets and carefully experimenting with companion planting combinations, timing, season extension, and more, it was apparent that this approach to agriculture could be as profitable as any—and in many cases, far more profitable than conventional forms of agriculture. As an example, Ecology Action discovered that if one grew celery and brought it to market in December, it fetched twice the price of celery sold during the spring and summer! Additionally, crops like zucchini, which may sell for wholesale at fifty cents per pound can earn as much as $18-$32 per hour, depending on harvest timing, because it is so easy to grow, maintain, and harvest. Additionally, needing less space means needing fewer financial resources, less water, less fertilizer, and less investment in tractors, equipment, etc.
Ecology Action has gone further to incorporate complete-diet mini-farming. Many farmers around the world are backed into a corner where they must sell all of what they produce to earn money so they can afford to pay their bills. Today, in the Andean regions of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, farmers are growing one of the most nutritious crops on Earth, quinoa, a food that has been cultivated by indigenous populations in the region for thousands of years. But today, after selling what they can to mostly North American and European markets, they are forced to purchase nutritionally inferior bleached rice at the market, which is cheap, so they can afford to feed their families.
MICRO SCALING—SMALL-SCALE, HIGH-YIELD, SUSTAINABLE FARMING: THE 30-60-10 MODEL
Understanding human nutrition and complete diet farming from a farmer’s perspective has led to several key findings. Crops such as garlic; sweet potatoes, salsify, jerusalem artichoke (not from Jerusalem, not an artichoke, but a native to North America in the sunflower family), potatoes, parsnips, and leeks are some of the highest nutrition-yielding crops grown per unit of time and space. Growing 30 percent of our area in these area-efficient crops enables one to “micro-scale” their land and resource footprint while growing an abundance of food that can be stored for long periods of time.
Growing 60 percent of our area in grain and cereal crops provides a dense form of nutrition and a small weight of food, enabling us to eat comfortably while also providing a significant amount of biomass for the compost pile, which, in turn, provides nutrition for the soil! We call these crops weight-efficient.
10 percent of our area planted in a mix of traditional vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, parsley, brassicas, and others provide key missing nutrients into our diets. Did you know that, per pound, collards contain more calcium than milk?
Patterns such as the “60-30-10” model have proved an effective way to help farmers and gardeners get started in growing sustainable diets. Ecology Action’s Booklet #31 Designing a GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farm (2020) walks one through the process of designing and growing a complete and sustainable diet in their own backyard or mini-farm. Over the last fifty years, farmers have used biointensive techniques in virtually all soils and climates where food can be grown. The ever-growing network of small farmers who have come to learn at Ecology Action have contributed greatly to the body of knowledge that continues to inspire others. Designs have been researched and published including diets and crop selections specific to cultures in North America, Europe, Mexico, Latin America, and Africa.