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Can Small Farms Save the World? Part Two: Forest Gardens
Industrial agriculture and monocrop production are often touted as the best way to feed a growing global population, but science shows that it is a leading cause of climate change and contributes to malnutrition. On the other hand, smallholder farmers actually produce the majority of food consumed on the planet today—70 per cent. While big agriculture companies, urban expansion, and a warming planet have changed the face of agriculture for smallholder farming, there is still an option proving effective in reclaiming degraded land, improving biodiversity, and mitigating climate change. The solution is Forest Gardens.*
In part one of this article pair, I went into the causes of soil desertification and the ways in which carbon drawdown and soil regeneration are issues of great import to small-scale farmers around the world. In a world rife with contention and polarized views, it is hard to dispute—though some do so anyway—that innovative farming methods which protect and enrich the earth are much needed to avoid further depletion and degradation of soil and to avoid further contributions to global climate change. One such method, known as forest gardening, has proponents all over the globe. Some forest gardens are new, while others have been around for centuries, in regions such as Asia, Canada, and South America. Along with permaculture methods, forest gardens are based in traditional ways of cultivating crops that enrich micro-organism populations rather than deplete them, thereby yielding more sustainable food supplies and long-term viable soil quality. The method is based on a model of tiers of beneficially interactive plantings that grow together, without crowding one another, in a harmonious, wild manner.
The human body’s internal ecosystem is intimately tied with that of our soil microbiome, and commercial, pesticide-based farming either ignores or goes against this natural aspect of survival. We are dependent on a healthy microbiome in our digestive system, and this can be supported from the outset by farming and gardening in ways that nurture the organisms that in turn nurture us. The widespread use of pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics—in both humans and livestock—deplete or degrade both the soil and the internal microbiome. Forest gardening and no-dig/no-till farming techniques increase the viability of soil health, which directly translates to human and animal health. There are now many books and videos available, as well as actual farms worldwide that give courses and tours of their successful practices, so that others can learn how to begin their own projects.
Photo by Daniel Hajdacki
Forest gardening has been the standard for millennia in many tropical regions, but it’s possible in more temperate climates as well. . . . Food forests have also figured prominently in the permaculture movement, an approach to designing agricultural systems that mimic natural ecosystems. . . . Food forests are like the ultimate organic garden. Does a forest need tilling, weeding, fertilizer, or irrigation? Nope. And that’s the goal.**
Building blocks of a healthy, sustainable, cultivable Earth include thriving soil, trees, clean air and water, medicinal plants, edible plants, animals—mammals, fish, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians—and microorganisms. Also, their symbiotic habitats, fungi, and a climate that is not too severe to any degree to support cultivation and the continuation of the natural processes that support life. Coexistence and symbiosis are not mere niceties—they are imperatives.
From the Buddhist perspective, this not only embodies the law of karma—of cause and effect—but also a compassion-based approach to sustainability: relying on the principal that all lifeforms have the innate right to survive and thrive. In the absence of these principals, the human point of view tends to favor its own dominance over the elements, environments, and creatures, thus creating harm and imbalance, which can lead to dire results, some irreversible. Climate change is one such dire circumstance, which we must counteract or at least slow. Considered, wise choices include engaging in practices such as sustainable gardening and farming to feed the world and to physically and spiritually nourish the Earth and all her inhabitants for generations to come.
Maintaining biodiversity and protecting the Earth’s soils, waters, air, and habitats are spiritual imperatives that we cannot ignore, whatever one’s faith may be. These are of the utmost practical importance. Rich, healthy, nutritive thriving soil is the basis for all life.
Essentially, all life depends on the soil. . . . There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together. (Charles E. Kellogg, USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, 1938) ***
Spiritual teachers often refer to our human habit of preferencing, that is, prioritizing what we like over what we do not, based on our egocentric perspective. By contrast, caring for all life means understanding the origin and development of life on Earth in all its glorious and mundane forms, including human—but not prioritizing human life above all else. It humbles us then to consider that soil microorganisms, as well as more favored lifeforms, are as important as we are—even more so! By reducing our own egocentrism, we come into a more balanced relationship with our fellow creatures and the Earth herself. This is not only wise and compassionate, but also necessary for survival.
Millions of microbial and animal species live and make up soils, from bacteria and fungi to mites, beetles, and earthworms. Soil biodiversity is the total community from genes to species and varies depending on the environment. The immense diversity in soil allows for a great variety of ecosystem services that benefit the species that inhabit it, the species (including us) that use it, and its surrounding environment. ****
One such model forest garden and farm is Bec Hellouin in Normandy, France. Started by two French non-farmers, it has become a test case for supporting biodiversity and carbon capture. It is not only a model research farm but a place of great beauty and pleasure for those who work, visit, or spend time there to study sustainable farming practices. Its founders began with no experience, lots of trial and error, and a commitment to study and learn from past masters, both aboriginal and modern pioneers:
The farm has also caught the attention of other institutions, including European agencies responsible for planning food security strategies, and it has significantly raised interest in Permaculture in France. We keep on organising research programs related to biodiversity, carbon capture and the forest garden systems. . . . Not only are the food yields incredibly high, but the gardens are a haven of biodiversity and a place of real joy and beauty to live and work. Our exploration has led to something incredibly important for mankind—agriculture which is not just sustainable but restorative.*****
May all beings know the solace and sustenance of a truly integrated, thriving ecosystem where air, soil, water, and creatures live in tune with themselves and with the elements.
Sarah C. Beasley (Sera Kunzang Lhamo), 2019 Nautilus Gold award-winning author of Kindness for all Creatures: Buddhist Advice for Compassionate Animal Care (Shambhala 2019), has been a Nyingma practitioner since 2000. Sarah is a certified teacher and an experienced writer and artist, with an MA in Educational Leadership and a BA in Studio Art. Sarah spent six years in traditional retreat under the guidance of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche and Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. With a lifelong passion for wilderness, she has summited Mount Kenya and Mount Baker, among other peaks. Her book and other works can be seen at www.sarahcbeasley.com.
* Forest Gardens Around the World (Trees)
** How to Plant a Food Forest This Winter (Modern Farmer)
**** What is soil biodiversity? (Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative: A Scientific Effort)
No Dig Gardening, with Charles Dowding: A Convincing Case for Easier, More Productive Results (The joe gardener Show)
Farming for a better climate: five examples of regenerative agriculture done well (EIT Food)
About La Ferme du Bec
Interconnections of the Soil-Food-Human Microbiome - Carl Wepking (YouTube)
Dirt to Soil One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture (Chelsea Green Publishing)
'Forest gardens’ show how Native land stewardship can outdo nature (National Geographic)
Starting a No Dig Veg Garden in Portugal (YouTube)
Related features from Buddhistdoor Global
Can Small Farms—and Large Gardens—Save the World? Part One
Right Mindfulness and Vegetable Gardens
Teachings from the Vegetable Patch
Green Shoots of Hope – Youth Climate Leaders in Asia and Africa
Buddhistdoor View: Overcoming Our Denial of Responsibility for Climate Change
One Foot on the Cushion and One in the Streets — Meditators for Climate Action
Buddhistdoor View: The Pandemic – Nature’s Patience Has Run Out
Environmental Warriors: Buddhist Eco-monks and Tree Ordination