Organic Broadcaster

John Jeavons shares his vision for sustainable farming future

By Joe Pedretti

Director of the nonprofit Ecology Action, author, educator, agricultural researcher and farmer, John Jeavons has spent the last 43 years developing and teaching a truly sustainable closed‐system/complete‐diet, organic food‐and‐soil production method. His GROW BIOINTENSIVE® method is being used in 143 countries around the world, and enables small farmers to increase yields, build fertile soil up to 60 times faster than nature, and use 66 percent less water per pound of food, compared with conventional practices.

How did you get involved with farming?
I just love plants and I love gardening. When I was 2 years old I was on the dairy farm of my aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania Amish country. They had a kitchen garden and they had a grape arbor. I was fascinated with it all. I grew up later in Phoenix, Ariz., in a subdivision that was a former grapefruit orchard. I went and harvested grapefruit from other people’s trees because they did not want them. I sold them in the local open air market, which was fun. In our backyard, we had some chickens and ducks fenced off underneath a grapefruit tree. I didn’t think about it at the time, but that tree produced about four times the yield of any other tree. I think that was a subliminal nudge for me.

I went to college and moved soon afterwards to Palo Alto, Calif., and began organic gardening. Alan Chadwick, who was my mentor, came to the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1967 and transformed four acres of hillside that was full of poison oak into a veritable Garden of Eden. I got to go there and meet with him twice, and he came to our site once. I also took a workshop with him. I was fascinated. Everyone was saying that, yes his yields were high, but it took too much time and water.

I worked on paperwork systems for Motorola Aerospace and Electronics while going to college, discovering how to make them more human and work better. So, when I started with the Common Ground project in 1972, I paid a lot of attention to how long it took to raise and water different crops. Everyone was saying that Chadwick’s apprentices took 10 times as long to water and because of that were using more water, but actually, they were using 1/8 of the water per pound of vegetable and soft fruit produced, but no one had ever measured it out that way. Chadwick was amazing. A horticultural genius. He felt that as everyone breathes life back into the soil, humanity breathes life back into itself.

What led you to develop your farming methods?
What led me to the work we are doing today was a question—a question I have been working on for 43 years now, and that is “what is the smallest area you can grow all of your food, fiber, income and other agricultural products in an environmentally-sound and equitable way?”

I went to the Central Valley of California, an area that produced 30 percent of all food in the United States at the time, and I asked that question to agronomists and farmers and they all said that they didn’t know, but if you were raising a thousand acres of wheat, and it was a good year, you could break even.

From this experience I learned three things:
First, if you were only breaking even, farming is not working economically. Even recently the average farmer in the U.S. was only netting $17,000 from on-farm work.

Second, no one knew the answer to my question, so I needed to find the answer. In 1972, working with Ecology Action and using time, motion and system skills, I tried to find out if it was possible to raise all the money for the average income in the United States on a small acreage. The answer is yes, on a half-acre or less, it is possible to raise all your food and income in a reasonable amount of time. I am now able to say that quantitatively.

Third, if I was going to discover the answer, it was “Tag, I’m it!”

Globally, there may be as little as 30 years of farmable soil left. We have been depleting the soil for many years. The most exciting thing to me, which has been proven with research on our first site, is that we were able to build up one to one-and-a-half inches of farmable soil in only 8.5 years. It normally takes 500 years to build up an inch of farmable soil, or 3,000 years to build the six inches needed for farming. With our method, it can be done in as little as 50 years. In the meantime, you can get reasonable yields and reduced resource consumption.

We have found that biologically intensive production methods have the capacity to produce two to six times the yield while reducing purchased inputs by half or down to zero. This system only uses 6 percent of the energy per pound of food compared to conventional systems, only 33 percent of the water per pound of grain, and 12 percent of the water per pound of vegetables. In an increasingly water-scarce world, this is fantastic.

One of the themes of Ecology Action is creating abundance from scarcity. Why not create a wonderful way of life for the farmer? Many farmers work very long hours. Large amounts of resources are imported, but, if we just create a new paradigm, this can all be less of a challenge.

What are key principles of “BIOINTENSIVE” production?
The eight key principles of BIOINTENSIVE farming are the following:
1. The first is to create a 24-inch-deep soil structure (normally, food-growing soil is only six-inches deep). This does two things: microbes need air, and since air is incorporated four times as deeply, that means there can be four times the nutrient cycling.

  1. The use of compost. Everyone knows about compost in the organic farming and gardening world, but we have found that, besides the ability to hold six times its weight in water, it is possible to make compost two to 10 times more powerful per unit of area and time. One of my workshops at the conference will cover this in detail, but as an example, if you make compost one way, you can double the amount of humus in it. This means double the mineral and water-holding capacity. If you nurture the biological diversity of the microbes in the compost by varying the components, you create a pharmacy in your soil. Healthy plants with a balanced amino acid profile, are much more resistant to insects and diseases. Good compost can make this possible.

  2. The third element is close spacing. We put our plants so close together that their leaves touch when they are mature. With deep soil preparation and compost, you can plant up to four times the usual number of plants in a given area. No matter what size bed you use, the productivity per area is greatly enhanced.

  3. The fourth element is companion planting. We put plants together that have symbiotic relationships. This is a nuance; it does not take the place of good soil.

  4. The fifth element is the recipe for planting. 60 percent of the crops are carbon and calorie crops. These are grains, seeds and some nuts, which produce a tremendous amount of biomass for compost and a significant number of calories per unit of area and time.

  5. The sixth element is the remaining 40 percent of crops. 30 percent are special high-calorie producing root crops. There are seven of them. These produce a large amount of calories per area and time. These crops are potatoes, sweet potatoes, salsify, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic and parsnips. The remaining 10 percent are diversified vegetable and soft fruit crops.

  6. The seventh element is open-pollinated seeds. Open-pollinated seeds produce the best yields using BIOINTENSIVE methods. You don’t need special seeds when you have a biologically living soil.

  7. This is a whole system. You need to use all the elements to make it work.

How do you recommend farmers learn more about BIOINTENSIVE production?
To learn more, I recommend that farmers go to the Ecology Action websites: growbiointensive.org and bountifulgardens.org.

A lot of the things on these websites are not farm-scale, but the principles are the same. There is a self-teaching section: growbiointensive.org/Self_Teaching.html. In that section there is a 12-page manual that will walk you through the principles. It is in quite a few languages. I also recommend that people consider taking one of our three-day workshops, held in California every March and November. We teach the most important aspects we have learned in our 43 years.

We are also producing webinars. There will be 10 hours of webinars available by the end of the year and we have another 40 hours coming when we get the funding. A lot of farmers cannot afford to travel to us, so this allows us to share what we have learned with everyone.

Your Organic University course will cover “Farming for more Income with Less Work.” Tell us a little about the concepts you plan to share.

John Jeavons harvest the bounty from the Biointensive research garden at The Jeavons Center in Willits, Calif. Photo submitted

I am really excited about this course on marketing, which will be on the ideas that we have developed and evaluated over the years. One is the “two-family farm” concept, where, through careful crop selection, planning, and timing, you allow each family to take a month’s vacation in the middle of the summer, which is impossible to do under normal circumstances. How you do this is all about how you design the crop choices, timing and marketing strategies.

Another thing we will cover is the creation of farming communities. These communities can be land trusts, with anywhere from 10 to 100 families. They can take advantage of economies of scale because they can purchase what they need as a group. They can also develop a crop insurance program by contributing 5 percent or more of each farmer’s income annually into a crop insurance fund. At the same time, each farm can be small—family-sized.

We will look at year-round greenhouse production and at early growing approaches. A farmer in California planted zucchini six weeks sooner than anyone else, harvested and marketed for six weeks and then took nine months off. He was able to do this by marketing earlier than anyone else and scaling his production. Don’t work harder, work smarter. A lot of people think BIOINTENSIVE is work-intensive. It is really skill-intensive, and we will explore why that is.

What are your biggest concerns for the future of agriculture in the United States?
Our soil depletion rate. It has slowed down a little bit, but we need to be building it, not depleting it at a significant rate. Also our soil organic matter has been cut almost in half during the last 40 years. We can reverse that trend. I am also interested in closed-system, sustainable soil fertility farming. Most farmers currently need to import a lot of minerals and organic matter from the outside—from other soils, which means we are depleting those soils. We don’t need to do this. We want to learn how to minimize that challenge. We need to create the farming of the future now, and we can by using practices that are based on millennia-old successful, sustainable approaches—ones from 4,000 years ago in China, and ones from 2,000 years ago in Greece, and 1,000 years ago in Guatemala—and other farming practices from areas such as northern Iran 10,000 years ago and the Philippines about 6 millennia in the past. A few of these cultures were able to produce all of their caloric needs in a fraction of the time we use. We can benefit from many of these sustainable practices now.

What is your vision for the future? What do we need to do to get there?
My goal is to catalyze demonstration models of new practical farming approaches. I am particularly interested in encouraging farm communities that bring together all of the elements of biological food-growing and good farm living. We can make them meaningful for us today, while producing more food with less water and less resource consumption—with more time for fun.

Joe Pedretti is a MOSES Organic Specialist.

From the January | February 2015 Issue

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