Nepal's Banksy was here!

Nepal's Banksy was here!
Strong message, Simple words

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A visit to Bal Kumar inspires a programme concept

The first organic farming workshop is over and I reflect on its possible impact as I walk down to the next venue. Bal Kumar, the trainee who had so supportively joined in the training, had invited me to visit his farm and I’ve planned to break my journey there. His house and surrounding tomato tunnels are in a very isolated position.  After an hour’s walk I eventually stumble upon them and meet Bal Kumar in his potting shed.

Bal Kumar gets enthused by the workshops

An hours walk from the hilltop village, Samibhanjyang, are Bal Kumar's tunnels

The potting shed

The next crop of cucumbers is just emerging

Our mutual language skills are very limited but shared interests in organic production soon overcome this small hurdle and together we tour the farm that he took over from his father 10 years ago. I am immediately inspired by a man who is totally undaunted by the isolation of his site and has developed a successful business selling organic produce into local markets. Produce which he delivers on his motor bike or occasionally with the help of a local van owner. His systems are founded in good science and he rotates tomatoes with cucumbers and peppers. Like many good farmers he has kept a balance in his business and he demonstrates this by showing me his 45 breeding goats, and a number of buffalo and cows. These animals are allowed to spend some of the time each day grazing in the nearby forest. They return to their well-designed housing where they are offered more green forage, gathered by either his wife, daughter or one of his 2 workers.

Goats are housed on slats to allow good ventilation, clean standing and easy collection of manure.

More green food is offered.

Yum, Yum!

What I have really come to see is his compost/manure heap that he spoke so proudly of at our training---and it doesn’t disappoint! All these animals generate quite a bit of muck which is tipped into a pit and mixed with any other waste organic matter. The aeration from mixing, and the ideal moisture levels that he achieves, result in a useable compost within three months. Not only is this humus worked into the seedbed but is also an effective mulch which retains the water from his dribble pipe system. No chemical plant feeds in sight.
The heap

Turned and stacked.
Tomato tunnels showing little signs of blight.

What blight there is, Bal Kumar cuts away and to my surprise composts. His system must be good in order to sterilise the
resulting humus.

The dibble pipe watering system with the remains of the mulch.
We move on to look at some of the 500 young lemon trees he had just planted and finally to his two ponds that not only store irrigation water but also rear carp! As I congratulate him on his farming model I notice one of the home-made beehives dotted around his house. With his wife we chat and I realise that he could be the bee keeping trainer I’ve unsuccessfully been searching for. I leave him pondering my suggestion and continue to Rambajar, the site of my next training.
A young lemon tree

Carp rearing ponds

Banana trees demonstrate the sub tropical climate

Bal Kumar’s farm undoubtedly had natural advantages. An endless supply of clean fresh water, and close proximity to an excellent source of animal fodder – the forest. Through his animals he was harvesting fertility from this natural environment and with the aid of a great composting system, growing a high value crop. His tomato plants were lasting 10 months so disease control was good and he had developed a market for all he could produce. Not satisfied with this he was spreading his risks by diversifying into lemon growing.

A successful, hard working team.

Another team

The two training sessions, and this visit have created a germ of an idea in my mind. Humus rich soils are the foundation of sustainable food production and climate change resilience. Rainfall will become less predictable and possibly more scarce as the climate changes. The soils I’d seen in the higher altitude villages were being depleted of organic matter by continual maize millet cropping and will offer little as a growing medium as rainfall reduces. Promoting healthy soils to enhance climate change resilience, combined with the use of hand tools that reduce the damage to woman’s health together with the benefits of quicker work rates, could be the core of a new programme aimed at these high risk hilltop communities. To my surprise Khuvaido the Livelihoods programme manager thinks the same and together we are writing a proposal that might attract international funding.  


Friday, 6 February 2015

The Earth Beneath Our Feet - Delivering Organic Farming Training

Recently, Juliana, the International Citizen Service, Project Co-ordinator  has been in contact and asked that I deliver a couple of training programmes in rural west Lamjung.  ICS is the mechanism by which VSO assist in delivering a short term volunteer programme for young people from Nepal and the UK. Rural community based, these volunteers facilitate development activities that respond to the needs of that community. After a chat with BJ, a young Nepali volunteer, I discover that organic veg. production, composting, and livestock farming are the main training topics. So with only a few days preparation time I get cracking.
Women farmers will probably make up the majority of the trainees so thinking out of the box, I visit my local metal workshop, and ask them to fashion a few hand tools that are commonplace in the UK but don’t seem to exist here. Why try to introduce the idea of a Dutch hoe, simple tined cultivator, and short handled fork, I hear you ask? Here all of the hand tools used in the fields have short handles and require the user to adopt a crouched or squatting position. Before coming to Nepal I was under the illusion that squatting was a very healthy option. A short talk at our Annual Volunteer Conference by a very experienced Nepali doctor changed this opinion. We discovered that uterine prolapse is a big problem here, the causes of which are various, but squatting for long periods is seen as contributory factor.
The training will mean a week away from home.
A couple of days later, after some drawings (I always knew that my ‘O Level’ in Tec. Drawing would come in useful one day), bending and re-bending of metal, and a few butt welds, I’m clutching a sack of tools and setting out on the three hour walk to my first training workshop in Samibhajyang, 1500m up in the Nepali foothills. I arrive at our rendezvous point outside the local school high on the skyline, and am immediately invited by a local man who proudly shows me his crop of organic cabbage. News of the training must have travelled fast. 
Samibhanyjang, Lamjung, an isolated hillside settlement.
    Later I’m met by Daniel, an ICS volunteer who back in the East End of London is a youth worker. Together we return to his community homestay where I shall spend the next few nights.

My accommodation, a local home stay.
A local school is having an anniversary so it’s off to pay a visit, see an inter school dancing competition and, take part in a tug-of-war! Alasdair, my Young Farmer son, will not be surprised to hear that our team comprising a few local teachers and an old foreigner, did not progress beyond the first round.

Pupils perform a Gurung dance in an inter school dancing competition


Keeping his head below the smoke, BJ helps with the cooking.

Mam serves the daal bhat.

Having eaten daal bhat for evening meal and breakfast, interspersed with a surprisingly good night’s sleep laid on a thin straw mat which covered a wooden bench, we arrive at the training venue. The outdoor location, close to cultivated land is ideal for the interactive style I’ve chosen. The couple of hours before people turn up give me chance to put the training into context. The hilltop site has good mineral soils, but they are dry and the common crop of millet rather than rice reveals how marginal things are.
The Nutrient Cycle assisted by BJ ...................and the tree.
Soils are at the heart of organic farming, so we have a look at theirs.
Training through an interpreter takes a bit of handling, but BJ does a fantastic job. He is full of ideas and has been the main driver behind requesting the training and inviting the 43 locals who attend over the couple of days. He is able to expand upon the health issues of squatting, having a Public Health background and to my surprise the tools also go down a treat.

A farmer demonstrates the local hand tools
Bal Kumar gives our tools a a try and demonstrates there advantages. No squatting, working backwards to minimize
treading, a wide work area and quicker work rates.

Right at the back of the group of trainees is a rather tall guy, wearing a red tee-shirt and I’m not sure if his persistent questioning is a good sign. It’s not until we get to the composting that he finally breaks ranks and ends up on the heap of manure next to me. This could be a tough moment coming up but to my great relief, Bal Kumar’s words, full of passion and knowledge, come from a man who is deeply interested in all of organics and has a very successful tomato growing business further down the next valley. Throughout the training he backs up my key points, enthusiastically demonstrates the tools and engages us all with his practical experience. Finding a ‘Local Champion' who will remain when I am gone is a key to sustainable development.
Bal Kumar's interjections are welcome as we discuss composting.

Our 'Champion' summarises the day, with passion!

The training complete for the day, two smallholders are keen that we should visit them to offer advice. Together we go through the now ritual digging of soil and studying of crops. Without exception these farmers have livestock, but looking at their soils they are short of organic matter and look pretty dry. The continuous cycle of millet followed by maize has taken its toll on soil health. The advice is easy and reflects course content.
A tomato crop with problems 

This family ask for help with their kitchen garden

They belong to a cast that can rear pigs.

A good heap of compost, it just needs more moisture.
Sunrise from Samibhanjyang
Farewells and off on the trek to Rambajar

The site of the second training, Rambajar, is very different and lies in the valley floor. Not much sign of millet here. The flat paddies are easily flooded and two crops of rice per year are grown. Our classroom is again outside for much of the time but we gathered under the shade of a shed next to a six hundred year old Hindu temple, to start and end the day.
The dry sandy soils of the flood plain are easily compacted as this crop of mustard shows
In a patch of cauliflower, with the temple behind.
There is a huge tree close by. Under the shade of its boughs we discuss the nutrient cycle and dig up a clod to examine the humus rich healthy soil. Taking this clod to a nearby rice paddy it is easy to demonstrate that the soils they grow rice in are very different. The continuous cycle of flooding, ploughing, hand planting and weeding have caused these sandy soils to lose all structure, and the profile is dense and very low in organic matter. But the interactive style is working well, and we move on to a local farmers dung heap to discuss composting, and the need to increase the size of pile by including any material that would decompose from maize leaves and stalks to paper. Keeping the heap moist will always be a problem here but collecting the cow’s urine and waste household water are an option. Covering will prevent moisture loss during the dry season and leaching during the monsoon. The fork I had brought along is met with great interest and later a local blacksmith turns up to copy the pattern.
In Rambajar, many more women attended the course.

Again we were lucky to have a local organic grower attending whom we persuaded to talk about her system and offer tips for success. Another ‘Champion’ in the making!

Maina proudly showing off her compost system, plenty of moisture and turning to aerate

She also grows and cuts grass for her two cows, all organic.

Her sister in a lovely crop  of cauliflower.

Dry, fallow terraces wait for the monsoon rains.

Returning home along the rough mountainous track, I looked out of the bus window at the many fallow terraces that in a few months’ time will be flooded and growing important crops of rice. Training had been delivered to over ninety people during the four days. Both they and ICS were pleased but maybe the person who had learnt the most is me. Throughout the world levels of organic matter in soils are in decline.  Climate change, here in Nepal is having an impact, one of which is longer periods without rain. Food production is founded on maintaining a healthy soil that can provide for the crops that grow in it. Small holders here have aspirations to grow crops to sell, but their first priority must be to feed themselves. Finding enough organic matter in these dry months and achieving an effective decomposition is not easy. There are livestock which will provide much needed nitrogen source - urine and dung. Amongst the many challenges will be finding enough people to carry out any next tasks, no matter how essential they may seem. Many of the local youth are working abroad and the women and older men are left behind to do the farming. Perhaps the quicker work rates from using the new style tillage tools we have demonstrated  will give a little extra time to do the composting work. Even the making and selling of these tools may prevent some young people from needing to look abroad for jobs.   However, the reward for increasing soil organic matter will be healthier soils and better crops but the hidden benefit will be developing a measure of climate change resilience.

Machhapuchhre  and Annapurna 3 from Samibhanjyang

The evening  draws in over the same Himalaya