“When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
The One-Straw Revolution
Growing food is an integral part of the human experience. Something as old as civilization, as difficult to master as any art form, and complete with countless tasks as physically daunting as any common weightlifting exercise. Over the past 300 years, humans have gradually moved away from working the earth, in favor of more sedentary types of business. With less time in the field, there is less time to exercise your physical prowess. However, the stability of a desk job allows us to pursue other past times outside of work. In many cultures, gardening is used as a medium of cultivating spirituality, but the actual act of farming can be an impactful past time.
A weathered hoe strikes the dirt with the powerful crack, like a lumberjack splitting wood. Harper cranks the handle forward, ending the clean cut through a red root, as thick as her arm. She smiles, “it looks like rhubarb, or maybe candy cane!” As she wipes sweat from her brow, Harper walks across the path, paved in mud, and grabs a huge bag of sand, and starts the long walk to where they are building an impressively wide pond. The Ag team at Kalu Yala spent the past few weeks cultivating the already expansive food forest. So far, they’ve propagated tens of hundreds of new plants that will feed the community, constructed new ponds to act as a watershed for irrigation (and farm fish), and planted an enormous peace garden.
The amount of physical labor that goes into these projects is immense. Moving hundreds of pounds of sandbags, digging earth for ponds and irrigation, trenches, and slicing through the jungle with machetes like Indiana Jones. All you see are smiling faces, but make no mistake, there is great physical strength on this farm. “We want this to be a place where staff and students can come and take a minute a way from their hectic lives as part of the community. As long as we work intelligently, focus on sustainability, and keep the people’s needs in mind, this place is going to be awesome.”
Here in the Pacora valley, Panama, you must work for your food, and when the activity is therapy, you may never work a day in your life. The air smells faintly sweet. Like the cranberry hibiscus, banana palms and propagated pineapples combined forces to perfume the entire sustainable eco-forest. Not a “forest”, a “sustainable eco-forest”. This fancy name chock-full of buzzwords is actually type of farming, focusing around biodiversity and ecological sustainability. In Kalu Yala, it is the project, three years in the making, that helps feed the community.
John Trimarco, the director of the Agriculture program at Kalu Yala, Panama, believes that better farming can save the world. "We have an opportunity here to show people just how easy it is to grow enough great-quality food to have leftovers, and be healthy doing it." John spent several years in Africa, working with local villages to re-vegetate parts of Africa that long ago went dry or in-arable due to poor land management. "In order to teach the most simple and effective methods to people, I've developed something called the Three Spears. The Three Spears are just three easy practices that make farming anywhere more effective, and allow the land to restore it's natural greenery more efficiently over time."
The Agriculture team is in charge of this farm-forest while they also care for greenhouses, chickens, an Iguana farm, a fruit orchard, a pasture for cattle, and more. Their daily routine is usually guaranteed all kinds of activities that require serious endurance, strength and patience.
As Harper and I walk back down the path, we see Rel, our roommate, comes out of the trees. She’s a warrior woman; arms covered in scrapes, and a machete in each hand, she walks hurriedly towards her next project. She was clearing more wood for the next length of the path. Absolutely covered in sweat, she’s got a spring in her step as she hurries past teams of banana palms and Katook. For the hell of it, I asked her what she thinks about farming for personal health. She adjusts her stance, half posing with her two blades like an Amazon warrior. “It’s fucking awesome. I’ve got some pineapples to prop.
And she’s off.
Photo by A. Carter Clark
Rel (left) and Harper (right) take a break from a busy day on the farm.
As his matchete chews through a fallen banana palm, Ben sures up his stance for another swing. They decompose faster that way.
“It’s the most peaceful activity you can do, whilst also having the knowledge that you are providing yourself nourishment. I use gardening to chill out on a slow day. Horticultural therapy I call it. But it is a rising trend in the UK –doctor’s potentially being able to prescribe horticulture as a type of physical therapy.” With that, he moves the now sliced segment of palm trunk to the side, and let’s loose a savage swing. It goes straight through the trunk.
“Huh, fancy that.”
Sustainable Agriculture in 2017 should be about two things: feeding mouths and feeding the soul. When we think farming, of course we need to be thinking about the best practices that will feed the billions of hungry people who would benefit from some simple, sustainable practices. Concepts like the Three Spears, that will allow more and more people to reap the benefits of a lush green ecosystem, full of good land and good food, are what need to be getting as much attention on places like Facebook, Instagram, and mainstream media as the ways humans are failing the planet. Why? Because all it takes is a little effective communication for people to want to try new things. And once they're able to try something, like farming for fun, they might just love how different it is.