Sunday, February 12, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 3, Part 4 - Grow Biointensive (G-BIACK)

This is the third diary on G-BIACK (Grow Biointensive Agriculture Center of Kenya), an award-winning NGO based in Thika. The first two diaries describe the Grow Biointensive method of agriculture, G-BIACK's women's programs, and G-BIACK's livestock. This post talks about the crops growing in their demonstration and research site.

Grow Biointensive agriculture begins with bed preparation. More correctly, it begins with composting because you will need to add compost to the soil when you prepare a bed for planting. Typically, you do a "double dig" (described in a previous diary) before you plant a bed for the first time. After that, you only work compost into the top two inches of soil. The double dig aerates the soil in your bed and once you've done that you don't walk on the bed so that the soil stays light and fluffy.

Bed preparation.

A trench dug as preparation for the rainy season. This will channel the rain into here and allow it to percolate into the soil without flooding the plants.

Drip irrigation that is funded by USAID.

G-BIACK is a member of PELUM, which has brought together seven NGOs in Thika for a project that is funded by USAID as part of its Kenya Horticulture Competitiveness Program. The project is called Positive Kitchen Gardens and they are targeting poor communities and homes. The project is starting very soon, and USAID has supplied the drip irrigation equipment. "The funny thing is," says Samuel, "They know we are promoting organic agriculture, and they want to supply us with chemical fertilizers." G-BIACK told them that they would accept rock phosphate or compost, but not chemical fertilizer. All seven NGOs in Thika refused the chemical fertilizer. At a meeting held a few days after I arrived in Thika, the NGOs spoke to USAID and arranged to receive rock phosphate instead. However, USAID (or perhaps its contractor, Fintrac) continued to insist that chemical fertilizer (made from fossil fuels) IS sustainable so long as it is not overapplied.

At any rate, G-BIACK works in two climate zones, one wet and one semi-arid. Water is a constant struggle, and many people do not have running water or wells of any sort. Some practice water harvesting, gathering water from their roof into huge holding tanks or cisterns. Others carry water from a nearby river. For those who do irrigate, the drip irrigation will help them use less water. According to Samuel, USAID is going to provide seedlings, water tanks - pretty much everything except for the water itself.

In Kenya, there are two rainy seasons - the long rains (in March/April) and the short rains (in December). Since it is the end of February, everything is extremely dry. The evening of my first day in Thika, Samuel's wife Peris spotted a certain insect that appears around dusk when it is about to rain soon. This is called a "biological indicator," which is very important in peasant communities that lack irrigation and The Weather Channel.

The land here is extremely acidic - below 4.0 pH. Increasing organic matter in the soil can help plants grow in soils with less than optimal pH, but adding ash to the soil will also increase the pH. In the U.S. we typically use lime to increase the pH in acidic soils, but the farmers here would need to buy lime from the store, and ash is free.

Beds that are just planted and covered with mulch. Mulching conserves moisture in the soil and provides a slow breakdown of organic matter into the soil. It also encourages the growth of microorganisms, particularly fungi.

As we walked, Samuel pointed out a neighboring farm that had a field of corn. They grew it conventionally, but without enough water or chemical fertilizer. They ended up with tall stalks but very little in the way of ears of corn. So they bought fertilizer and seeds, and did all of the work, but all for nothing. This is not terribly uncommon in this area, where fertilizer is too expensive and out of the reach of many, so they buy some but not enough. The owners of that farm are now working with G-BIACK to go organic.

The neighbor's farm

Samuel showed me a greenhouse. They installed it last year and it worked extremely well. However, they used sub-optimal materials in its construction and they are looking for the money to buy better materials for it.

A greenhouse

New zucchini plants

The last zucchini harvest

Spinach, covered with an old mosquito net that serves as a floating row cover. It provides partial shade and keeps some moisture in, but more importantly, it keeps birds OUT.

G-BIACK is trying to train farmers how to grow plants from seeds. Many of them usually buy seedlings without knowledge of where the seeds come from or how healthy the plants are, and then fail once they plant the seedlings.

Papaya seedlings in G-BIACK's tree nursery

Seedling start trays. These will be transplanted.

One of the nursery beds

Another kind of nursery bed.

G-BIACK has a few different varieties of nursery beds. First is a permanent nursery, created by digging three feet deep and removing the soil and the subsoil, and then arranging stones from biggest to smallest for 1.5 feet. Then they add 1.5 feet of a mix of soil, compost, and sand at the ratio of 3:2:1.

Second is a "Switzerland" nursery, made by removing the topsoil and subsoil. Then they add a plastic sheet, and replace the topsoil mixed with compost and sand. The third is a normal raised bed with wood or banana stems along the side to keep the soil from eroding.

Oats. Not at all common here, but Samuel brought them from the U.S. and is planting them to multiply the seeds.

A plant locally known as nderema. The scientific name is Basella alba and in English it is called Indian spinach or Ceylon spinach. It's often eaten wild here, but sometimes planted as a creeping vine along hedges.

Sugarcane. A VERY popular snack here. You can buy it on the street anywhere.

Lettuce (or, as a Kenyan would say, lettuces). Notice how they are planted about 10 inches apart in a diagonal pattern? That spacing is taught in Grow Biointensive agriculture so you can cram the most amount of plants into the smallest space. Lettuce isn't very popular in Kenya. I think the seeds might have come from the U.S.

Amaranth, a VERY popular crop here.

Taro, known here as arrowroot. It likes marshy areas with a lot of water, almost like a rice paddy, so here is not an ideal place for it to grow.

I think these are potatoes. Potatoes are popular here.

G-BIACK is doing an experiment with a "40-bed unit." It's 6000 square meters. Previously they planted cover crops for compost and then they returned the compost back to it. This produced 1.26 tons of compost materials. Two years ago they tested whether this amount of space can feed one person for one year, produce enough compost for one year, and produce enough income. Now they are doing a second test, to see if it can produce enough food for five people for one year - without income. As you can see on the sign, they plant in certain ratios, with 60% of the crops for cover crops, compost materials and/or carbohydrate-rich foods, 30% root crops, and 10% vegetable crops or income crops.

This 40-bed unit was just planted. They do what they call "stagger planting" so that you always have food. You plant a little at a time, so that there is always something ready to harvest.

Compost made from this 40 bed unit

The 40-bed unit, with onions already sprouted.

Another view of the 40 bed unit. Notice the marigolds along the side.


Lettuce going to seed.

G-BIACK has many fruit trees. Samuel has every visitor to G-BIACK plant a fruit tree. On my third day with him, the American intern Kate and I each planted a loquat tree.

It's mango season!

At the end, Samuel mentioned his opposition to GMOs and I asked why he opposes them. He said that first of all, Kenyans don't have enough information and therefore they don't want to plant something they know little about. But from what they do know, they know of the risk of genetic contamination of indigenous maize, which they do not want to happen. And they fear that GMOs will be expensive and unaffordable for their farmers. So they want farmers to retain their own seeds until the facts are all out about GMOs.

"We don't want them to push anything to us," he says. "We want people to voluntarily accept them. But not people coming here telling us 'This is what supposed to plant for you to reduce hunger.'"

Samuel says that he just saw the first GMO corn seeds in stores. "There are big vehicles that come around here that give out seeds for free. They give out a little bit of seeds and they tell you use this fertilizer to plant this." They give out chemicals along with the seeds for free and tell farmers to come and buy them if they are happy with the results.

The government of Kenya HAS embraced GMOs, he says. He then showed me an article about how the Kenyan government and USAID want to push GMOs in schools.

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