Seeds are sometimes sown in unlikely places. When Brook Golling, Joseph Bornstein and Curt Bowen lost a Nicaraguan friend to a fishing accident, they decided to raise money to build a house for his wife and young son. Though the project was a success, the young men realized their friend’s death was a direct result of poverty; he couldn’t afford decent equipment. They resolved to come up with a project that would address the roots of poverty, not just treat the effects.
Years later, that seed has borne fruit in Semilla Nueva – literally “new seed” – a nonprofit that seeks to help rural communities gain economic independence through education and collaborative projects in sustainable agriculture. Semilla Nueva has been hosting such projects in Guatemala since 2009.
The organization has local roots and will host a fundraiser in Ashland this Sunday, December 2. “Worldly Foods: Everybody Eats!” will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Ashland Community Center.
“The most important thing about Semilla Nueva is the farmer-to-farmer methodology,” says Golling, an Ashland High School graduate. Through a process of training and experimentation, farmers learn which techniques work the best and then teach them to other farmers. Semilla Nueva adopted and revitalized the model from the Farmer to Farmer movement of the 1970s and early 1980s, which was effectively squashed in Guatemala by civil strife.
The overarching goal of Semilla Nueva’s programs is to achieve financial sustainability for the farmers; collateral benefits include maintaining the productivity of the soil, minimizing erosion and creating viable, strong communities.
“Little by little we’re getting groups of leaders together to start teaching in their communities,” says Golling.
Whether for subsistence or profit, over three-quarters of Guatemalans rely on agriculture for their income. Semilla Nueva is concentrating its efforts in ten communities on the southern coast, where farmers primarily grow corn and sesame. This region is potentially one of the most productive for corn, but slash-and-burn methods have degraded soils, increasing reliance on synthetic fertilizers. It’s also an area underserved by the government and NGOs.
Semilla Nueva does not necessarily promote organic agriculture, says Golling. Instead, they focus on relatively simple technologies: no-till and no-burn agriculture, the use of green manures, and agroforestry.
No-Till Agriculture: Season after season of slash-and-burn agriculture releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Bare soil in a flood-prone landscape equals disastrous erosion, as water carries valuable soil nutrients away. Bending the corn stalks over after the harvest, rather than burning them, helps keep the soil where it belongs.
Green Manures: Planting cover crops also prevents erosion, and it adds nutrients back to the soil. Legumes like velvet bean fix nitrogen in the soil and suppress weeds in the process. Pigeonpea fixes nitrogen and also introduces a third food crop into the rotation with corn and sesame. Farmers can sow pigeonpea, which can be eaten dry or fresh, between spent stalks of corn during the dry season. “It has a slightly sweet taste, kind of like garbanzo bean,” says Golling. Growing pigeonpea is an affordable alternative to buying expensive black beans grown elsewhere.
Agroforestry: Chaya, a native tree with edible leaves, can supplement the corn and sesame staples. Being native, it’s relatively easy to grow and doesn’t require supplemental irrigation. “The leaves taste like a cross between kale and spinach,” says Goling. “And they’re high in protein and vitamin C.” Staff member and nutritionist Ann Barkett is working with the women in the communities to develop recipes and techniques for preparing pigeonpea and chaya.
Everybody Eats is the fourth annual event hosted by Semilla Nueva.
“The goal is to bring people closer to the farmers,” says Golling. He and Semilla Nueva co-founder Darren Yondorf will be giving multimedia presentations throughout the evening, which will also include five performances by area musicians and artists.
Admission includes a trip to the taco bar. Standing Stone Brewing Company and Wooldridge Creek will provide adult beverages, and a silent auction will feature arts and crafts from local and Guatemalan artists.
Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door. You may purchase tickets through Semilla Nueva’s website at www.semillanueva.org or by calling (541) 261-5023.
After living in Central America for several years, Golling and his wife Yaoska have returned to Ashland, where he will carry out his duties as chairman for the organization. He will also be recruiting people for Semilla Nueva’s new sponsorship program. You can sponsor a farmer family for twenty dollars a month, which will ensure the farmer has access to education and training, loans for seed, and transportation to conferences and training sessions. In return, sponsors receive a biography and photograph, exchange letters with the sponsored family and receive a monthly newsletter from Semilla Nueva.