Archive for the ‘Interview’ Category


Aquaponics: An Interview with Sweet Water Organics’ Matt Ray

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Nourishing the Planet’s Kimberlee Davies spoke recently with Matt Ray, the principal farmer for Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponics training organization in Milwaukee, about his experience in the field of aquaponics.

Sweet Water Organics uses aquaponics technology to grow food in downtown Milwaukee.

What is aquaponics? How did you become involved?

Aquaponics has been around for centuries. It was traditionally a technique in tropical climates, using floating bamboo rafts with vegetation in fresh water pools. This was simply the adaptation of agriculture to the tropics. The technique has become cutting edge over the last 20 years. We can adapt aquaponics to today’s geographies and culture.

Aquaponics is a blending of aquaculture (the raising of aquatic animals) and hydroponics (growing plants in water without soil). In aquaponics, aquatic animals serve as the nutrition base for the plants. The great thing about aquaponics is that it is a closed system; it doesn’t have to flow in one pipe and out of another.

I saw it begin to pop up in the late 1980s, starting with the Virgin Islands, Australia, and even Asia, where fish are grown symbiotically with rice paddies. Forward-thinking farmers and activists began to develop the practice in non-tropical climates, and academics began researching the field. Twenty years later, we have a lot more people doing it. Scientific data has emerged to support the spread and success of this technique. It’s possible to take the nuts and bolts and adapt them to wherever you are. It’s going to work and it can be replicated.



An Interview with Ela R. Bhatt, Founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association in India

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In September 2012, Nourishing the Planet’s Carol Dreibelbis spoke with Ela R. Bhatt, founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India. SEWA is a national trade union that helps women working in informal sectors, like agriculture or childcare, gain the same rights, securities, and self-reliance as those who are formally employed. Ms. Bhatt, a Gandhian practitioner of non-violence and self-reliance, has dedicated her life to improving the lives of India’s poorest and most oppressed women workers.

Ela R. Bhatt (Photo credit: Mihir Bhatt)

In addition to founding SEWA, Ms. Bhatt is the founder of India’s first women’s bank, the Cooperative Bank of SEWA, and one of the founders of Women’s World Banking, a global microfinance organization that works to economically empower women. She served in the Indian Parliament from 1986 to 1989, and is a member of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders who work together for peace and human rights, among many other roles.

You gave a speech to the United Nations Development Programme in 2011 on your “100 Mile Principle”; since then, you completed field testing on the Principle. Can you explain what it is? 

The 100 Mile Principle urges us to meet life’s basic needs with goods and services that are produced no more than 100 miles from where we live. This includes food, shelter, clothing, primary education, primary health care, and primary banking.

The 100 Mile Principle ties decentralization, locality, size, and scale to livelihood, suggesting that the materials, energy, and knowledge that one needs to live should come from areas around us. Seed, soil, and water are forms of knowledge that need to be retained locally. Security stems from local innovations, not distant imports. Essentially, the link between humans and nature has to be restored; the link between production and consumption has to be recovered.

The Principle also focuses on the ideas of community and citizenship. I think citizenship has two levels: it is both membership in your community and membership in your nation-state. The social space defined by national citizenship is inadequate, and the nation-state alone can be alienating and coercive without membership in a community. Take food as an example: food has to be grown locally and made locally. When food is exported, the producers have no access to the fruits of their labor.

A community is autonomous when it controls food, clothing, and shelter. Communities lose control when they go beyond the local. When food is exported, when technology is centralized, when shelter depends on some remote housing policy, we lose our freedom as a community. So the 100 Mile Principle guarantees that citizens retain control, inventiveness, and diversity.

Why did you choose a distance of 100 miles?

One simple reason is that you can travel 100 miles and return home by dinner time. But 100 miles does not need to be taken literally—it represents the distance that can provide essential goods and services for a district or state. It could be 200 miles in a desert or hilly region, 50 miles in a dense, produce-rich location, or 10 miles near a town. The distance may also vary for different goods and services: food may come from within a 10-mile radius, but specialized healthcare may require 100 miles or more.

The distance of 100 miles is a starting point for thinking in local terms. Whenever we have used the term “100 miles,” people from all walks of life—students, rural women, economists, academics—have understood the focus on local goods and services.

How did you field test the 100 Mile Principle, and what were some of the most important results?

The field study involved over 100 households in 10 rural villages from Surendranagar and Anand/Kheda districts in Gujarat, a state in Western India. We spoke with households about how they meet their basic needs and how far they would need to travel for primary education, health care, and banking.

The study revealed that rural populations have some amount of control over their food through a combination of growing their own, bartering, community and caste practices, and the Public Distribution System. A great deal of local food production and consumption is already occurring. In the case of clothing, though, most prefer cheaper, easier-to-maintain synthetics and ready-made garments from outside of 100 miles. The study showed that many desire “city-type” homes: this could be achieved with use of local material and local manpower, meeting the 100 Mile Principle and maintaining freedom of choice.

Primary education is available in all of the villages, but there is limited capacity for technical or skill-related education. Very few of the villages have a local trained doctor, meaning residents must travel to the nearest town for health care. Home herbal remedies are still used but are now less favored than medicinal tablets from the village grocer.

How can the 100 Mile Principle help communities deal with some of the most pressing issues they face, such as food security?

Food security cannot be guaranteed by foreign imports. Instead, we encourage local seed banks, owned and run by small and marginal farmers. Local, small-scale warehousing would largely overcome the problem of food scarcity, as well as rampant waste of edible food products due to lack of storage. The possibility of setting up smaller grain storage units owned by and managed by a group of small-scale farmers needs to be explored. There should also be local tool banks so that farmers can borrow these when required.

We also suggest that every primary school at the rural level develop an agricultural training center. Here, young people can learn improved farming techniques, farm-related IT skills, food processing, and on-farm processing. Prompt actions should also be taken to release the mortgaged land of small and marginal farmers. Land is their only source of livelihood.

Many small and marginal farmers can grow enough food for their own needs as well as some surplus to sell. But, for a number of reasons—including increasing cultivation of cash crops instead of food crops, animal pest management problems, and the rapid sale of land for industry—the situation is changing.

To combat hunger and to achieve food security for all, we have to protect ways of life and livelihoods of the farming communities. This is the fundamental policy point. Growing food grains should be a viable and profitable occupation for the farming community. But, broadly speaking, the producer currently gets about 60-70 percent of the price paid in the market, and the balance goes to the middleman or the enterprise that sells the products. Therefore, middlemen should be removed where possible. It is also important to bring down the input costs, including the costs of irrigation, seeds, and fertilizers.

As the founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association, you work to organize women for full employment and self-reliance. What role does the 100 Mile Principle play in women’s success?

After field testing the 100 Mile Principle, I am convinced more than ever that without the active participation of women farmers, hunger cannot be reduced. When the 100 Mile Principle is put into action, productive work opportunities and income will increase, the health of women and girls will increase, infant and maternal mortality will decrease, and housing will improve. In addition, there will be a decline in compulsive migration of youth from villages to cities, increasing local assets. Local farmers will take active interest in crop planning and learning new agricultural skills. Farmers, artisans, and village officials will strengthen their community.

What criticisms has the 100 Mile Principle faced?

We have received a variety of criticisms. Some people consider the Principle to be too theoretical, or irrelevant to urban areas. Others feel that it is inhibiting progress in this era of globalization. And others have suggested that it goes against the ideas of freedom of choice and the power of market forces—particularly competitive advantage.

Despite this criticism, we know through SEWA experience that ideas can be translated into a measurable influence on the lives of people. At the same time, I want to make clear that the Principle is a guide or a philosophy rather than something to be forced on anyone.

What are your plans to continue refining and spreading the 100 Mile Principle?

At some point I would like to carry out fieldwork in other parts of India to gain more data on the Principle. In the meantime, my major aim is to propagate this idea, especially among young people and urban consumers. Some of the findings also have implications for public policy, especially measures that help small-scale farmers and family farms.

There are some policies and government schemes already in place for health care and nutrition, but there is a large communication gap that prevents these policies from being as effective as possible. Control and implementation of these schemes need to be in the hands of local people who are aware of the realities on the ground. I am in the process of putting the field study results in the form of a book.

Now it’s your turn: How important do you think it is to keep basic goods and services on a local scale? Please let us know in the comments below. 

Carol Dreibelbis is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.


“We Plant a Seed, We Grow Our Future:” Larry Laverentz on Refugee Farmers in the United States

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In November 2012, Nourishing the Planet’s Victoria Russo spoke with Larry Laverentz, a program manager with the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program (RAPP), about his efforts to educate and support refugee farmers in the United States.

Larry has been involved in agriculture for most of his life, from growing up on a cattle farm to working as an agriculture volunteer in Vietnam for International Voluntary Services. His experiences, including earning a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics from Kansas State University and a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Pittsburgh, have enabled him to run programs for the U.S. Agency for International Development and prepared him for his current position at RAPP.

RAPP helps refugee farmers bring familiar and nutritious foods home to their families. (Photo credit: RAPP)

How was the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program created?

In 2003, the director of the U.S. government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement began to track the trend of agrarian backgrounds of refugees, and decided to create a project that would enable refugees to get in touch with their agrarian roots. The project officially started in San Diego and Phoenix, and soon spread into a national program through support from the Institute for Social and Economic Development. The program is currently in its third round of three-year grants, totaling 24 projects nationwide.

What sorts of challenges do refugees face when they come to the United States and try to make a living through agriculture?

Many refugees come to this country wanting to get involved with agriculture. While they may be well-versed in farming practices, marketing their products and making a livelihood from farming in this country are complicated processes. Those who have lived in refugee camps for many years typically have limited education and few English and literacy skills, making it difficult to communicate. This creates barriers, for example, in finding land to rent or getting loans for farm equipment. If refugees have no credit history or practice balancing a budget or repaying loans, they are susceptible to falling into debt. Most refugee farmers must also find an off-farm income to supplement what they make through agriculture.

What strategies does RAPP use to break down these barriers and help refugees?

RAPP aims to educate and assist refugees in areas where they did not have previous experience. Each project uses grant funding to hire a garden coordinator, recruit volunteers, access land and supplies, and assess projects. In the first year, the team will typically build an incubator training farm, focused on intensive production tied to marketing. Perhaps after the first year the project will grow, and refugees will be able to expand or even start their own small farms. In conjunction with the farms, we teach classes on record-keeping and financial literacy, invite guests such as master gardeners to come speak, or coordinate ESL courses structured toward agricultural vocabulary. We try to give them the tools they need to grow their businesses.

Are most of the program participants experienced farmers, or are they new to agriculture?

Most of them are experienced in agriculture but were subsistence farmers in their countries of origin. This means that if they farmed, they were not typically involved in marketing, and they are not used to selling excess crops. Refugee camps do not usually allow farming due to limited space, and technology has advanced from what they knew before—so even if they are experienced farmers, there is still a learning curve. The question that we are trying to answer is “How do you create independence for refugees?” Dr. Hugh Joseph of Tufts University created the nation’s first refugee farming project in 1998, which focused on teaching them how to transition from being gardeners, to market gardeners, to independent farmers. We hope that our program allows them to eventually take their own produce to market, operate their own stand, and know what to plant each season.



Saturday Series: An Interview with Gigi Pomerantz

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By Lee Davies

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone?  E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Gigi Pomerantz (Photo Credit: Linda Sechrist)

Name: Gigi Pomerantz

Affiliation: Youthaiti

Bio: Gigi Pomerantz is the executive director of Youthaiti, a nonprofit promoting ecological sanitation in Haiti. Ms. Pomerantz founded the organization in 2008.

Why did you begin work in Haiti? And what led you to focus on sanitation?

My work in Haiti began in 2006 when I traveled on a medical mission to the rural village of Duchity in Grand’Anse. During our first day there we met with local teachers, health agents, and the one physician who lived in the village to do a ‘health needs assessment.’ They listed sanitation as one of their top five priorities for improving health.

For the next five days we saw 1,400 patients and treated every single one for intestinal worms and at least 50 percent for other gastrointestinal problems, including a lot of diarrhea. It became clear to me that this need was real. As a nurse practitioner, my focus has always been on prevention, and sanitation is prevention at its most basic level. Prevent the water that you drink from becoming contaminated, and you save the lives of millions of children who die from childhood diarrhea.

After the completion of Youthaiti’s projects, how will communities continue these sanitation programs?

We are introducing several methods of ecological sanitation that should be sustainable for even the poorest of the poor. Currently we encourage two methods of household sanitation: the Arborloo shallow pit composting latrine, and the Humanure bucket toilet. An Arborloo costs about $60 to construct with a concrete squat plate and a movable shelter. A Humanure bucket toilet could cost as little as $2.50 if they just squat over it, or $15 with a toilet seat. Both methods create compost. Arborloos compost directly in the ground, where a tree can be planted. Humanure toilets provide humanure, which can triple or quadruple garden yields and increase family income.

We also have built 17 community urine-diverting toilets to serve schools and other gather places, such as markets and bus stops.



Saturday Series: An Interview with Katie Martin

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By Molly Redfield

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone?  E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Katie Martin of M•CAM/Heritable Innovation Trust (Photo Credit: Heritable Innovation Trust)

Name: Katie Martin

Affiliation: M·CAM/Heritable Innovation Trust

Bio: Katie Martin graduated in 2011 from Christopher Newport University with a BA in history. Many of her classes not only documented world history, but also analyzed oral history and other oral traditions. In 2008, Katie interned for M·CAM’s Heritable Innovation Trust (HIT). Now she is a program coordinator with HIT and travels with the organization documenting traditional practices and processes of communities across Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, and Ecuador.

Can you tell me about the “Heritable Knowledge Framework and the Development of Communal Innovation Trusts” document and how it contributed to the founding of the Heritable Innovation Trust?

The Heritable Knowledge Framework sets out the specific methods for engaging groups that want to work with us. The document states how we should approach communities (they invite us), what artifacts or processes constitute heritable knowledge, and how we should present this knowledge. The document defines heritable knowledge as relating to a continually used item or process that is adapted to an environment or circumstance. Furthermore, heritable knowledge is culturally present through mediums like dance or painting, is valuable to the community, and belongs to not one individual, but the group as a whole. The Heritable Knowledge Framework then tells us what we can do with the knowledge we acquire. With all of our documents we want to respect those who have provided us with their knowledge, honor their traditions, and adjust our actions to their expressed needs.



Saturday Series: An Interview with Nicole Wires

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By Molly Redfield

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone?  E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Nicole Wires and Kris Jensen of Collective Roots (Photo Credit: Lane Johnson)

Name: Nicole Wires

Affiliation: Collective Roots

Bio: Nicole is the Food System Change Coordinator at Collective Roots, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable food systems. She has a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in Earth Systems, an inter-disciplinary and environmental science program. Her interests are in environmental conservation, social justice, and poverty alleviation. In the midst of her undergraduate career, she spent a year in Ecuador and Tanzania working on issues related to health, education, and rural poverty. Her work culminated in the belief that supporting local food systems promotes conservation, economic development, and better health outcomes for impoverished and at-risk communities.

How would you describe the mission of Collective Roots and how did you become a part of this organization?

I would say that Collective Roots’ mission is to engage youth and communities at large in food system change. I started with Collective Roots as an intern. Although I initially worked in international development, I felt that our current working model for development wasn’t effective, and I was discouraged by the process. I saw funding for many international development projects determined by governments or large organizations like the World Bank. Projects implemented following this model weren’t having their intended impacts, or helping the communities they were intended to. Many of the projects focused on altering subsistence models into industrial ones using cash crop exports to lead development. This would have environmental conflicts and other complicated sets of issues. I got frustrated with this movement. After my experience with international development projects, I found myself wanting to work domestically on food justice issues. I began interning with Collective Roots and took a position once it opened up.

What motivates you to work on issues of sustainable agriculture and food justice with Collective Roots?

My motivating factor is definitely the relationships I have with people in East Palo Alto. East Palo Alto is one of the last low-income places to live in the bay area. We have affordable housing, an incredibly rich agricultural history, and the set up for an agricultural cooperative—a sort of utopian society. There are people here who are growing all the food they need for a livelihood on just one acre of land. In the past, the incorporated city was 70 percent African American. The civil rights movement was also huge here. Many of the communities of immigrants that have settled in this area bring with them a strong agricultural heritage. For example, in the late 90s we had a wave of immigration from the Pacific Islands and they brought their rich food and history. The confluence of all of these people and their fascinating connections to food and the land creates an incredible community to work with.

Where does Collective Roots work and how does it encourage community development in these areas?

We’re based in East Palo Alto, which is divided by a highway. This highway creates a physical barrier between East Palo Alto’s wealthy and low-income communities. Where we work spans only 2.5 square miles, but has the highest incidence of foreclosure, unemployment, and type 2 diabetes in the area. We are also expanding into neighboring communities like East Redwood City and Menlo Park.  One of our main efforts is to encourage people to build their own things. We’re a background gardening network with people growing their own food using shared resources. Land is centralized in community gardening and people bring their own materials. Our approach is opposite to that. We have work share parties for communal labor, a seed lending library, and decentralized land. People come to our seed library and then deposit seeds that they have harvested themselves. We also have a tool lending library that people can borrow from. As part of that library, we include food preservation tools for dehydrating and canning foods. People also come to the workshops we host, exchange cell phone numbers with other participants, and then meet up to share their knowledge and seeds. I think this aspect is one of the most amazing things about our program.

Why does Collective Roots have specific school based programs and can you describe them?

We have two main programs. One is for youth and the other is focused on adults. In our youth program, depending on the contracts we have established, we work with 7 to 10 different schools. At these schools, we give cooking, gardening, and nutrition lessons. We also help train teachers and give them the resources they need to conduct these lessons themselves. But working with just youth isn’t enough to get them and their families to eat healthier and more sustainably. Children who get excited about our work need their parents on board at home to support them. Kids don’t have lots of agency on their own, so often times Collective Roots works together with kids and their parents.

How do you think people can be more involved in their local food systems?

There are a number of ways in which people can be more involved. That is one of the things that is so exciting about working with food justice issues. We eat three meals a day. Therefore, we can make multiple choices throughout the course of one day to support local food systems. We have multiple opportunities to think critically about where we get our food and where it’s grown. We can shop at a farmers market, join a local CSA, or grow our own food. I personally advocate a lot for people growing their own food. The experience of growing food really gives people a deeper appreciation for farmers and their work. I find that people who grow their own food are more likely to support local farmers and their communities.


What kind of partnerships does Collective Roots have with the local community and what kinds of relationships do you think are important for the organization to move forward and for Palo Alto’s food system to become more sustainable and integrated?

We work very closely with a number of partner organizations and non-profits. I don’t think we’d be able to do what we do without these partnerships. Many patients who are diagnosed with chronic diseases get involved in our program because of referrals from our partnering health clinics and healthcare facilities. There are even opportunities for them to participate in our programs through their healthcare provider. For example, patients can be eligible to join our network for free. This membership then allows them to access all of our resources. We also have unique and amazing partnerships with schools, drug rehabilitation centers, and residential transition programs for the formerly incarcerated. Our work helps people get their feet back on the ground by helping them to develop life skills, providing job training, and increasing access to healthy food. We really rely on our partnerships and the services they provide—our collaborations are a huge component of our success. Leveraging partnerships not only lets us provide our services to a wider audience, but it also more fully integrates us into our community.

Molly Redfield is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.


Saturday Series: An Interview with Ken Dabkowski

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By Molly Redfield

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people that our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone?  E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Name: Ken Dabkowski

Affiliation: M·CAM/Global Innovations Commons

Bio: Ken has been a part of M·CAM and the Global Innovations Commons (GIC) initiative for about 3 years. At M-CAM he helps the organization with its communications and foreign affairs. The key concept behind all M·CAM initiatives is the idea that while everyone on the planet does not have access to the same resources, everyone does have access to creativity. By expanding common threads of knowledge through GIC and connecting creative collaborators, people can bring viability to an idea. Prior to working with M·CAM, Ken worked at The Arlington Institute, a future technologies think tank located in Virginia. His work at the Arlington Institute consisted of formulating different scenarios related to the government, economy, environment, and security for communities, companies, and governments.

What exactly is the Global Innovations Commons?

The Global Innovation Commons is a worldwide repository of innovations primarily focused on agriculture, clean water, health, and clean energy. The open source repository allows anyone to compile a library of innovation that can then be applied to a greater scale collaboration either locally or globally. These innovations and ideas are then open to the rest of the world. The idea is to create a place where anyone can come in, learn about something, and then share it. That’s how all of the participants start to build a larger knowledge base. Much of what is posted includes innovation artifacts that have expired, are invalid, abandoned, or have limited geographic coverage. When descriptions of these technologies are listed, the contact information of the innovators is included. That way there can be collaborations on these new applications. One of the open source tools embedded within the Global Innovation Commons is a tool called Integral Accounting. This assessment tool takes into account different aspects of value, such as cultural value, commodity, wellbeing, technology, knowledge, and environmental impacts. Communities that want to develop certain capacities can inform their decision making process with value already present in their community and align these values with their expectations of well-being. The Integral Accounting tool is being deployed in several communities globally and provides the vital foundation for all collaborations.



Saturday Series: An Interview with Howard Hinterthuer

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By Molly Redfield

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone?  E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Howard works as a Peer-to-Peer Mentor for the Organic Therapy Program (OTP), a veterans’ recovery project that promotes healing through organic gardening (Photo credit: Don Gilmore)

Name: Howard Hinterthuer

Affiliation: Organic Therapy Program

Bio: Howard Hinterthuer served as a medic in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. Returning from the war, he found solace by establishing various gardens in Virginia. Today, Howard works as a Peer-to-Peer Mentor for the Organic Therapy Program (OTP), a veterans’ recovery project that promotes healing through organic gardening.

You recently gave a Ted Talk on the Organic Therapy Program (OTP). Can you tell us how the OTP started and how you, as one of its Peer-to-Peer Mentors, personally became involved with helping veterans recover from the war by gardening?

William Sims, a Vietnam veteran of the 101st Airborne Division who served from 1966 to 1967, started the Organic Therapy Program. Mr. Sims was wounded after being in Vietnam for about 9 months, and returned home to Milwaukie. He was able to deal with the stress of coming home and experiencing combat by puttering around in his mom’s garden. He remembered that.

The Center for Veterans Issues has about 300 or more formerly homeless veterans in transition with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and depression. These veterans come to us and we provide a wrap around service to deal with their different problems. Mr. Sims figured that if gardening was good for him, then it would be good for other veterans as well. So he began creating raised bed gardens to help veterans cope with their problems.

I was also in the 101st Airborne Division a couple of years later. When I came home, I helped rehabilitate myself by planting a series of gardens in rural Virginia. This was very therapeutic. I was working at Sweet Water Organics as their Executive Director when the Center for Veterans Issues recruited me to become be a Peer-to-Peer Mentor. I took this opportunity because I wanted to help other veterans recover from the war.

Since its establishment four years ago, OTP has expanded into a program that now includes many innovative agricultural practices. What are some of the projects that OTP is currently working on?

The program has evolved over the years. When I first began working with the veterans, I started looking at our food expenditures. Our mess halls service our veterans three times a day and the numbers that we were getting from the mess halls from our surveys were disturbing. We had unusually high expenditures on meat. This was a problem because we serve a population of individuals who are particularly susceptible to diseases related to diet. So we thought of OTP as a way to introduce a better diet for our veterans. There was certainly some social engineering involved in this process. When our veterans say they don’t like something, such as fruits and vegetables, it probably means that they haven’t tried it. I do that sometimes with things, too. So the OTP program took 2 goals: reintegrating veterans into the world and improving their diets. The OTP program is especially important because we’re in a food desert area and it’s hard to get fruits and vegetables here. Now, in our fourth year, there’s enthusiasm and support for the program. Our veterans can’t get enough greens!

Why is it important for veterans in particular to engage in gardening as part of their recovery process?

Gardening is important because it allows our veterans to have an optimistic experience. It takes their mind off of the injustices and bad things that have happened to them in the past, the things that have gotten them to the place of homelessness. The issues veterans suffer from are often chronic; additionally, many veterans are smokers. They’ll smoke and talk about their difficult pasts. But their tone changes when they are in the garden. It’s like magic. Gardening makes sure that they have positive experiences. This is almost guaranteed by the act itself, as it creates such a peaceful place. Gardening is meditative and increases self-esteem. We are trying to assign raised beds to certain people so that there’s an increased sense of ownership. I think that there’s therapeutic value in establishing a pattern of responsible behavior.

How does the OTP introduce veterans to gardening and spark their interest in growing their own food?

OTP brings together people who have gardening in their background with people who don’t. Inevitably, someone who comes into the garden who was raised in Mississippi will talk about their grandmother and their grandfather’s garden. And for people who haven’t gardened, it’s delightful for them to see where an onion comes from and to pick a cherry tomato off of the vine and pop it in their mouths. When they taste the explosion of sweetness in their labor, it’s easy for them to eat healthier. Once our veterans have tried our produce in the garden, they realize that they like it.

What kind of changes have you seen in the veterans who have been working with OTP?

I’ve seen people evolve in a number of different ways. The most dramatic instance is when someone comes in and they’re extremely depressed. We had a key player last season who was like that. When I explained what we wanted him to do, he’d say, “I’m a good solider. I can do that.” Over the years, though, he worked closely with me on a couple of projects. One day, he was in the garden and told me, “You know, this program has just saved my life.” And now he’s in Nevada talking about his gardening experiences. To engage other veterans, we’re putting in a small aquaponics system that we worked on last year. We’ll redo it again this year. Additionally, we’re thinking of adding a green house. The veterans responsible for assembling these projects need to have some plumbing skills. Cutting barrels in half, working with PVC pipes, and other tasks all require certain skills. Our veterans have to apply carpentry skills, too. When they have the chance to use their skills again and to learn new ones, they feel useful. These projects bring our veterans out of themselves. They take pride in their involvement and love explaining their work to our visitors. They are able to think about what’s possible instead of what’s impossible.

How do you see the program itself changing in the future? Could the concepts behind OTP expand into other veteran recovery programs?

In terms of the future, we’re expanding our gardens and renting out two greenhouses that we’ve used in previous winters. We have received funding through the department of labor for it to heat these green houses with compost. This work will be a part of a jobs program to teach growing skills to our veterans. A big component of our expansion is sustainability. Using compost to heat our green houses is an example of the sustainable techniques we want to apply.  In terms of expanding into other veteran recovery programs, after the TED talk I gave, I was contacted by a woman in Scotland working with veterans of the British military. Her program used horticulture for veterans’ recovery, so I think gardening is an approach to dealing with difficult issues that can definitely be replicated in other places.

Molly Redfield is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.


Saturday Series: An Interview with Sasha Kramer

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By Olivia Arnow

Name: Sasha Kramer

Affiliation: Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL)

Location: Cap-Haitien, Haiti

SOIL provides ecological toilets and transforms waste into compost for reforestation and agriculture purposes in Haiti (Photo credit: Architects of the Future)

Bio: Kramer is the co-founder and executive director of SOIL, a nonprofit organization in Haiti dedicated to protecting soil resources by providing ecological sanitation services and turning human waste into nutrient-rich compost.

How did you found SOIL? Was your organization founded as a response to the 2010 earthquake?

I’ve been in Haiti since 2004 when I was finishing my doctoral research. With my work focusing on ecology and human rights, I came to realize that the most prevalent human rights abuse is the inaccessibility to basic services that we take for granted. I had a previous interest in toilets from a nutrient-cycle perspective so in 2006 we founded SOIL and our EcoSan initiative in Cap-Haitien. After the 2010 earthquake we expanded to Port-au-Prince.

What are some ways SOIL’s efforts have benefitted local agriculture?

Right now we’re in the beginning phases of distributing our compost to local farmers and thus far have used it in some small-scale gardens and in our very own experimental garden. Our blog highlights some of the crops we’ve harvested using our compost, like cabbage and corn. We want to show the community how to use it and how beneficial it can be before we market it on the larger scale.

We’re excited about potentially partnering with the Ministry of Agriculture and other organizations to make connections with Haitian farmers and distribute our compost. The average nitrogen use of Haitian soil is about 1 kilogram per hectare compared to 200 kilograms per hectare in the United States so we realize that small changes in the availability of nutrients in soil can have a profound impact on agriculture.



Saturday Series: An Interview with Diane Ragone

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By Carly Chaapel

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people that our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone? E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Name: Diane Ragone

Location/Affiliation: The Breadfruit Institute of the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG)

Dr. Diane Ragone, Director of the Breadfruit Institute
(Photo credit: Julia Flynn Siler)

Bio: Dr. Diane Ragone is the Director of the Breadfruit Institute, headquartered on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The institute promotes the conservation and use of breadfruit, a tropical starchy tree fruit, for both reforestation and food.

What sparked your interest in breadfruit cultivation in the first place?

I’ve been interested in breadfruit since I began my graduate work in 1983. I was mainly interested in traditional fruit trees in the Pacific Islands. Then, I wrote a term paper on breadfruit, and I became really interested in its importance to plant diversity and food security. I set out to collect samples of each variety and study them from a conservation perspective. I lived in Samoa for a year, which is a center for breadfruit diversity. From there, I started traveling and eventually collected breadfruit varieties from over 50 tropical islands.

We are a private nonprofit organization that is headquartered in Hawaii. We have four gardens across the Hawaiian Islands and one in southern Florida. For me, the garden is the ideal place to be, as breadfruit is an important collection focus. I connected with NTBG for a partnership as a graduate student because I could help the garden accomplish their mission to discover, research, conserve, and educate people about tropical plants with my own work. I have worked there since 1989 in various programs, and in 2003, the garden created the Breadfruit Institute. Our main breadfruit collection is on Maui, and all the gardens are open to visitors for self-guided tours.