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Survey of stunning sustainability centers

A tour of our organic planet

By Erin Volheim

I spent late winter on a virtual tour of organic farms. What I found is that around the world, organic agriculture helps manifest positive changes in host communities, particularly when the farmer is growing food for local markets.
Globally, organic agriculture is now practiced in more than 120 countries of the world. Its share of agricultural land continues to grow in many countries. According to a 2005 survey, almost 31 million hectares are managed organically worldwide: Australia / Oceania (39 percent), followed by Europe (21 percent), Latin America (20 percent), Asia (13 percent), North America (four percent) and Africa (three percent).

A 2004 thematic evaluation by the International Fund for Agricultural Development examined seven small-farmer associations (in six Latin American and Caribbean countries) who successfully adopted organic farming techniques. In these countries, most organic farmers are small-scale, suggesting a comparative advantage in organic production.

Most small farmers in developing countries already produce more or less organically, using few or no chemical inputs and frequently grow crops in the forest, mixed with other species. Thus, they find shifting to organic production relatively easy, with the technologies they already apply. Small farmers are also less likely to experience a higher incidence of pests and disease when they transition.

In contrast, larger well-capitalized farmers who produce with conventional chemical technologies face more difficulties when they shift, needing to change their whole system. Initially, their crops are more affected by pests and disease.
The technologies of organic production require little investment other than labor. The evaluation found those family farmers who already produced more or less organically found it easier and less costly to meet the certification requirements, making only marginal changes. Their yields did not fall. Farmers with stable land access were also able to carry out land-conservation measures. In contrast, farmers already using chemical inputs, with little family labor available (a frequent situation among women farmers) and also experiencing unstable land tenure found it very difficult to succeed in organic production.
While ministries of agriculture, jumbo farms and international trade groups are focusing on getting a piece of the organic pie, let’s look at a sampling of innovative projects around the world with a vision of keeping it local. If they have global reach, it’s mostly in the form of educational programs, unless they grow specialty tropical crops the world won’t live without, like cocoa and coffee, which I’m drinking right now.

CERES Community Environment Park • www.ceres.org.au
Twenty-five years ago, a group of inspired and dedicated people dreamed of a place that would provide community focus, generate environmentally and socially sound jobs and serve to demonstrate environmental initiatives. First, they secured the lease for a 10-acre former trash dump. Now the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies (CERES) is a thriving community environment park in Victoria, Australia. With diverse projects and wide-ranging education programs CERES engages the community, and hosts over 75,000 visitors a year. Powered by alternative energy, this urban oasis hosts a café, sustainability education center, a twice weekly food and craft market, an orchard, 2.5 acre organically certified market garden, permaculture gardens, native and edible plant nursery, composting center, walking trails and a worm farm.

Otamatea Eco-Village • www.otamatea.org.nz/index.htm
Founded in 1997, 15 families have created an intentional permaculture community on 250 acres, 90 minutes south of Auckland. A principal aim of this community is to repair the deforested and eroded areas of farmland that they inhabit. Every year they plant native trees propagated in their nursery. Approximately 72 acres of their common land is pasture. They manage it to be self-sufficient, producing their own meat with a small herd of 54 cows. Through the yearly sale of cattle, the grazing pays a surplus, helping maintain the road and fund community projects.

The Lambi Fund • www.lambifund.org
A diverse group working together toward economic justice, democracy and alternative sustainable development in Haiti. Their sustainable agricultural projects help increase food security and income for impoverished families. Lambi Fund recently partnered with the Green Belt Movement (GBM) to help expand their grassroots reforestation program in Haiti. GBM was founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, and networks rural women who have planted over 30 million trees across Kenya since 1977. Deforestation has a critical impact on food security. Lambi’s goal is to plant one million trees in Haiti through their “Train the trainer” workshops for grassroots leaders.

Pitchandikulam Bio Resource Centre (PBRC) www.pitchandikulamforest.org/cms/content/view/23/31/
In the 1820s in the Tamil Nadu region of Northern India, trees were felled to drive out the tigers, then later for boat timber. By 1972, restoration was set in motion by PBRC using green manures to rebuild the soil, live fences to protect the land from goats and cows, and pioneer species of acacia, leucaena, gliricidia and eucalyptus, planted for windbreaks and shade. PBRC developed into a Medicinal Plant Conservation Park and Environmental Education Training Center focusing on the restoration of dry tropical evergreen forest. Their buildings run on solar energy, with windmill pumps for the nursery and gardens. Local farmers are being trained in organic farming and vegetable gardening. Currently PBRC works in 25 villages throughout the Kaliveli Bio-Region with environmental education, womens’ self-help groups and student eco-clubs, health clubs and income generation initiatives.

BUSTAN
• www.bustan.org
“Bustan” means a fruit-yielding orchard in Hebrew and Arabic, and symbolizes what this group of Jewish and Arab eco-builders, architects, academics and farmers in Israel/Palestine seek to accomplish. BUSTAN works to curb the effects of globalization in Bedouin communities. The Desert Ecology Learning Site works in collaboration with Bedouin women healers who practice organic farming and grow traditional herbs for use in natural soaps and creams. BUSTAN believes the cultivation of organic food and medicine with the use of appropriate technologies, and enviro-restoration must be associated with traditional healing, building, energy and food systems.

Sekem • www.sekem.com/english/default.aspx
Sekem was founded in 1977 to bring about cultural renewal of Egypt. Located northeast of Cairo, Sekem now includes biodynamic farms, trading companies for produce and processed foods, herbal teas, beauty products, herbal medicine and organic cotton products. They also run a medical center, a Waldorf school with pupils of Muslim and Christian backgrounds, a vocational training center, and a college and a research center. SEKEM’s goals are to “restore and maintain the vitality of the soil and food as well as the biodiversity of nature” through sustainable, organic agriculture and to support social and cultural development in Egypt.

African Organic Farming Foundation (AOFF) • www.africanorganics.org/index.html
Traditional African farming knowledge has been lost as black farmers struggle with hardship and inequitable conditions destabilized by socio-political strife and corruption. These marginal farmlands are typically short on soil tilth, vegetation and rainfall. One of AOFF’s projects is their “Train the Trainer” program, focusing on rural communities located on the agricultural periphery of wildlife reserves. Working with communities enables self-provisioning to reduce wildlife poaching and promote ecological stewardship. The goal is enabling community self-sufficiency and sales to local or export markets. AOFF includes raw product processing, trade and the necessary support services. A particular focus on involving women in project identification, implementation and monitoring.

Kenya Institute for Organic Farming (KIOF) • www.kiof.org
Western Kenya has one of the highest population densities anywhere in rural Africa. Land holdings have been subdivided with each new generation to near postage stamp-size plots. Started in 1986, KIOF was one of the pioneers in Kenya’s organic movement based in Juja town, 30 km. north of Nairobi. KIOF promotes organic agriculture among small farmers through training and awareness building with focus on youth, women and self-help farming groups. With demonstration centers in five provinces, they train farmers with indigenous knowledge to feed a growing population. Projects include the Small Earth Girls’ High School and a farmers market, community supported agriculture program and five demonstration gardens.

Sustainable Tree Crops Program (STCP) • www.treecrops.org/index.asp
STCP is a coordinated effort between farmers and producer organizations (the worldwide chocolate industry and trade). With over 60 percent of the foreign exchange coming from cocoa alone, the goal is to improve small farmer livelihood with tree crops in West Africa. Project sites have been identified in Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria to test different approaches to ecologically sustainable cocoa production systems and address child labor concerns. STCP’s ultimate goal is to improve the rural livelihood of cocoa producers by improving their ability to respond to the demands of global markets.

Haobao Organic Farm • www.gokunming.com/en/blog/item.php?blog_id=454
Food safety is becoming a more important criteria to Chinese shoppers. This has helped propel growth in China’s organic market. About 35 km. northwest of Kunming, This 96-hectares farm produces several dozens of varieties of organic-certified vegetables plus organic meats. The farm sells its products in Kunming under the name “haobao,” meaning “good treasure.” The farm is flanked by ridges of densely-forested hills, runs a showcase greenhouse with a diverse collection of vegetables, melons, greens and herbs. Haobao Organic Farm is also home to a small three-star hotel with a restaurant offering their organic meats. One specialty is a homemade corn liquor. This organic farm supplies the Parkson and Trust-Mart supermarket chains in Kunming with organic vegetables, and recently signed on to supply Wal-Mart Supercenters in China.

Vangviang Organic Farm • www.laofarm.org/index.html
Located in the village of Phoudindaeng in northern Laos. The farm is perched on the banks of the Nam Song river amidst the jagged limestone mountains that surround the Song River valley. Vangviang Organic Farm was founded by Thanongsi Soangkoun in 1996 with the goal of introducing organic farming methods to an area where chemicals and deforestation are common. Today, the farm supports a variety of projects around the organic production of mulberry trees, along with organic fruits, vegetables, and poultry for their restaurant. Mulberry trees provide leaves to feed to the silk worms, along with mulberry tea, wine and shakes. Wages support many villagers and profits assist the whole community. There is a steady stream of foreign visitors who come for the quiet relaxation, the opportunity to work on an organic farm, or the thrill of teaching English to a room full of excited children.

Ecotopia Romania • www.ecotopia.ngo.ro
Situated in large Serbian community in a culturally rich area. There are three shops in the village, a pub and a public phone. The facilities are very basic: a primitive compost toilet, cold running water in the kitchen and in the volunteers’ room, heating and cooking with wood-burning stoves. The garden is quite large, but only part of it can be cultivated and they grow various vegetables. The back of the garden is blessed with fruit trees and a small vineyard. Ecotopia Romania aims to offer resources for the local community while developing eco-tourism in the area. The kindergarten and youth center started in 2002 and offers educational activities for 10-15 children between four and seven years old.

Rainton Farm • www.creamogalloway.co.uk/
Cream o’ Galloway ice cream (with eight organic flavors) is based out of Rainton Farm in Scotland, a 329 hectare farm lying amongst the rolling hills of Galloway. Since 1927, it has been run by the Finlay family. A walk around the farm trail leads through a beautiful landscape of rugged pasture, ancient woodlands and ponds. Rainton Farm has a herd of 85 traditional Ayrshire dairy cows. Sheep are alternated with the cattle on the lush pastures and the farm has a flock of 500 breeding ewes including Scottish blackface, Shetland and crossbreeds. The livestock gained organic status in July 2001. The farm provides habitat for many important species, some of the ant-hills found in the grassland are over 100 years old, demonstrating a continuity of careful management. Guided tours are available.

Beauchamp • www.beauchamp24.com
Beauchamp is a beautiful field on the edge of Dordogne in the south west of France. Bought neglected 15 years ago, hundreds of people helped it come to life again. There are eight hectares - mostly woods, a field and a pond, gardens and an orchard. Residents have opted for living a simple life that is affordable for many, doing as much as they can to be self sufficient. They use composting toilets and their grey water is processed by a reed-bed system that feeds into a pond full of fish, which is then pumped to water the gardens. Beauchamp is an non-profit organization that aims to develop the site following the philosophy of permaculture, not a well-understood concept in France.

Torri Superiore Ecovillage • www.torri-superiore.org
The 13th century medieval village of Torri Superiore is situated a few miles from the Mediterranean Sea and the French border. It is a complex and fascinating structure that is developed on eight levels, with three main buildings separated by two partially covered inner alleys. The hamlet is composed of 160 rooms with barrel or cross-vaulted ceilings, linked by an amazing labyrinth of stairways, terraces and alleys. Today it is mostly restored and open to ecologically minded visitors for cultural initiatives and group activities. They offer workshops related to sustainability, communal living and care of people and of the environment. The resident community has 16 members, including five children, and an organic farm with small-scale production of olive oil, vegetables and fruit.

Loftsedt Farm • British Columbia • mypage.direct.ca/l/lofstedtfarm/
Situated in a small valley parallel to Kootenay Lake, high mountains surround the farm and keep the climate mild in summer and winter. With the help of countless contributors eager to learn and experience life on the land, a pioneering model has taken shape, with barns, stables, sheds, chicken coop, bee house, workshops, food processing facilities, etc. complemented by an old-fashioned outdoor bread oven. The main source of income is the 60-family CSA, providing weekly delivery of fresh vegetables to Nelson and Kaslo 10 months of each year. Farm animals includes four Norwegian Fjord horses for riding, who are learning to do farm work. They produce their own hay and grain, and have planted a small orchard. All the compost is made on the farm.

Los Horcones • www.loshorcones.org/index_eng.html
Founded 1973, the community sits on 250 acres in the suburbs of Hermosillo, Sonora in northwestern Mexico. Their objective is to design and develop an alternative society or culture based on the principles of cooperation, equality, sharing and ecological respect . Los Horcones is partly self-sufficient in food, with a tangerine, orange, grapefruit and lime tree orchard. The community raises around 200 chickens and turkeys, for eggs and meat. They also raise rabbits fed partly with homegrown alfalfa. Pigs are fed with the whey left over from cheese-making, and food scraps from the kitchen and vegetable garden. They also make their own granola, whole wheat tortillas, bread and muffins which are also sold as a source of income, including marmalades and herb vinegars.

Punta Mona Center for Sustainable Living and Education (PCSE)

Punta Mona is a 100-acre organic farm and center for sustainable living and education located on the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Punta Mona provides a center where adults and children alike can be exposed to the ideals of permaculture and sustainability. They grow over 100 tropical fruits, vegetables, herbs, medicinals and nuts. Rainwater is used for washing and drinking. Punta Mona hosts educational and retreat groups, interns and guests for a few nights. Instant immersion into a sustainable-living, energy-conscious, off the grid experience, complete with composting toilets, hand powered grinders and loud howler monkeys. Punta Mona’s door is open to those who wish to contribute to the farm and catch a glimpse of this beautiful jungle farm community while learning preservation and sustainable development of tropical rainforest land.

Instituto de Permacultura da Bahia (IPB) • www.permacultura-bahia.org.br/eng_historia.asp
Known for its rainforests, Brazil contains a large semi-arid region of about one million square kilometres and growing! Much of this is severely degraded beyond the carrying capacity of the land. Agriculture in this region is collapsing, with many of the able-bodied men and women migrating to the slums of San Paulo and other cities. IPB’s Dryland Polyculture Project works with 1,000 farmer families and is awarded subsidies through the National Environmental Fund for Combating Desertification. The Polyculture project, began in 1999, showed an alternative to an agricultural system that had come to depend heavily on irrigation and chemical inputs. Locals participate in plantation activities and field management. Youngsters and young women of 16 to 25 years old from city-targets have been trained to become local facilitators. Today the project boasts of 500 demonstration fields on farmers’ plots.
The world is abuzz with models for positive change. Now that you have had a virtual tour, get packing. Most of these places you can visit, volunteer and even move to. Bon Voyage!

Erin Volheim lives and writes from the Little Applegate Valley of Oregon.





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