We spent one week on the Isla de Ometepe, an island in Nicaragua. While there we lived and worked on a farm owned and operated by two Americans. We could feel good about the $20 a day we paid to volunteer because we were learning, and, perhaps even more importantly, because the farm was purportedly organic and sustainable (admittedly, the money covered our food too). In other words, the farm was practicing “permaculture”.
Permaculture is short for permanent agriculture where the intent of preserving and conserving nature’s resources, while providing for oneself. For example, many American farms just plant one crop. They only have corn or soybeans or wheat or even canola! They have a monoculture. Because monocultures can quickly exhaust soil’s resources and allow for soil to erode, most farms apply annual doses of synthetic, unnatural fertilizers to the soil. The fertilizers ensure that the crop can obtain its required nutrients, and thus grow. Synthetic fertilizers are made using oil, so using them is considered inorganic and (in the long run) unsustainable farming.
Project Bona Fide does things differently. Instead of using synthetic fertilizers, the farm makes its own fertilizers: both from plants it grows specifically for the purpose and from food and animal waste combined with dead plants. Another advantage of Bona Fide’s non-monoculture system is that they use more than one potential growing “level”. Imagine a beautiful Indiana landscape, i.e. a big field of corn. Is there anything growing above the corn? Is there anything growing below the corn? Typically the answer is no. Bona Fide takes advantages of the different growing “levels” by growing plants with different shade tolerances together: a shorter herb and a mid-level legume plant to fix nitrogen and a taller papaya tree. In this way, Bona Fide grows a more diverse set of crops and avoids overtaxing the soil.
Another cool aspect of permaculture is its insistence on time and energy efficiency (a term from our Kiwi friend and permaculturer, Richard). Basically you put things in a place that will save you time and energy down the road. Put foods you use a lot close to your house. Put foods you don’t use a lot farther away. Definitely sounds good, huh?
That’s kind of the problem, though: it sounds good, but what does it look like in practice. And, of course, different strokes for different folks: your idea of permaculture probably doesn’t equate with mine. Along those lines, we spent most of our week at Bone Fide critiquing the place. Why don’t they grow “food”? What’s its true goal? Etc...
On our last night we got an awesome tour (thanks, Chris!) of the farm. While we wouldn’t have done everything the same way, at least their system made a lot more sense. With a better understanding of Bona Fide we could feel better about the money and time we were donating to the project.
If we can extrapolate what we found from our experience at Bona Fide, it seems to inform the experiences we’ve had at Bona Fide and, potentially, elsewhere (as discussed in our previous blog). A little communication goes a long way between volunteer and non-profit goes a long way! Who knew?