Sunday, August 16, 2009
So, pasted below is my final "report" to the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. After stressing about it for weeks and trying to organize my absurd amount of interviews and information, I talked to the Watson staff and they reassured me that it needed to only be a long letter home. Its obvious impossible to sum up a year in 5 pages, so they just want to hear some reflections, lessons learned, and challenges.
I am not fully satisfied with this report at all, but I sent it in because the due date is fast approaching. I will begin working on more academic, organized reports soon and will hopefully post here. They will be sent to some of the great seed-saving groups that have helped me all year.
Click Read More to see the entire report
Watson Final Report “Crops and Cultures: The Preservation of Heirloom Varieties”
Adam Forbes – Pitzer College
August 1, 2009
Dear Watson Foundation,
I am now flying back home and saying goodbye to a year of travel, seeds, and transformation. For months I have pondered what it would be like to be here, sitting on my last flight bound for the USA. There is no sense of finality or ultimate conclusion like I expected. I am sad to see it all end, but excited to tackle to next chapter of my life. My lessons have built up over the year and seeds have come to mean the world to me. They are more than a protest against Monsanto, but a symbol of freedom, a carrier of values and traditions, a tool for ecological agriculture, survival for peasant farmers, and the basis for all life. Local seeds connect us with our history while also carrying hope for the future of humanity. They provide tasty, healthy crops which promote a different way of life, are an integral part of community, resist pests and disease, adapt to climate change, provide options for breeding, and much more. Put simply, I have spent the past year studying traditional agriculture and crop diversity in India, Italy, Thailand, Ethiopia, Canada, Peru, and Greece. I have not done formal research per say, but have embraced a wide range of experiences in an attempt to learn about every aspect of this international seed saving movement.
At the start of the year, I thought my research would be a study of the loss of genetic diversity and the effect it has had on the world. However, the hope I have found through the seed-saving movement has been the core of my year. I have seen that diversity survives much better than expected and many people around the world are fighting to keep not just our distinct seeds, but our diverse cultures and ways of life. The free exchange of seeds among farmers, based on cooperation and reciprocity, continues to maintain an astounding amount of agricultural diversity. Using traditional seeds we can help to improve farmers’ lives, and promote a better way of life. Seeds are needed for all aspects of agricultural development. Breeders need a diversity of seeds to create more drought resistant or productive crops in the future. Peasant farmers who cannot afford hybrids and expensive chemical inputs depend on a diversity of seeds to produce the food and products their family needs in challenging environments. The reasons are endless and each day this year I learn more about the importance of seeds, their uses, and connections to cultures and farming systems.
Aside from all I learned about sustainable agriculture, the past year of independent travel have given me a chance to step back and examine what my life is about. The best thing about the Watson is that it is about more than just research, it is about learning and growing as a person. It is about being truly free to follow your heart and passion around the world. Before I left college, my professor (a Watson Alum) said to me “This trip will change you forever! Good Luck.” At the time I didn’t know what he meant. I now return home and can firmly say I am changed forever. The change comes not from a single moment, a certain memory, or an unforgettable mountain view. The change comes as a result of all the days I’ve shared with people and their seeds. I have seen the world and am filled with positivity and hope that I never had before.
Perhaps the greatest realization I have come to all year is that the world is a kind place. I have been continuously blown away by the hospitality of strangers. Everyone from elite Greek businessmen to poor Ethiopian farmers have fed me feasts, hosted me, taught me, shared laughs, and exchanged seeds. My hosts and friends have shown me that there is an infinite number of ways to live this life and view our world. I have been provided a glimpse into some of the other ways people live, love, dream, and last but not least prepare their food. In the end I concluded that there is more which unites us than divides us. We all are yearning to live a happy life, eat good food, find love, and gain some sort of respect or admiration. Our values and ways of living are defined in very different ways. However, there is a similar thread which links us all together.
None of what I’ve done this year would have been possible if I had not opened my heart and every essence of my being to listen and connect with others. I have tasted all foods at least once (including raw meat in Ethiopia), tried my hardest at each language (at least 5), slept on mud floors with 12 children, laughed when others laugh, cried when others cried, stared into strangers eyes and listened to their stories. Each person I’ve met this year has had a different lesson to teach me. I never truly valued the power of listening until the Watson experience. I used to always be the one talking, teaching others, and taking control of the situation. This past year I surrendered all control over my life and in turn saw how easy it is to learn from others.
While the year has flown by it seems like a lifetime ago when I left. I can barely remember when I first boarded the plane to India over a year ago. I do remember I was scared, lonely, and completely unsure of how the year would unfold. Somehow, it all worked out better than I ever could have imagined. People keep asking me how I made so many contacts and found my way to all the inspiring groups and incredible places. Miraculously, my whole year evolved organically. Each person I met would introduce me to another kind, inspiring person.
One of the most powerful experiences was my time in Punjab, India. This is a prime example of the benefit of being flexible and letting the journey evolve. After hearing about a farmer’s freedom movement from someone I met on the train, I called the organizer. Through broken English and Hindi I explained why I wanted to come. Umendra told me to meet him at the station at 4:30 AM the next day, when the first train arrived. Our phones then disconnected and I boarded an overnight train with no idea of who this man was or even if he would meet me. To my surprise, Umendra met me right when I stepped off the train. For the next two weeks they organized every minute of my time with interviews, tours, farm work, community seeds banks, family stays, meetings with doctors, and much more. I was immediately accepted as a brother in the farmers’ freedom movement and got to learn about their struggle for ecologic agriculture, biodiversity, and local seeds.
In India, I met a couple who ran the Institute for Sustainable Development in Ethiopia. They ended up hosting me, providing me with a translator, taking me to the real centers of diversity, and much more. A seed saving group I heard about while in Canada has helped to organize my whole time in Greece: taking me to remote mountain villages, putting me to work in the fields, and bringing me to speak at a conference. Just two weeks ago I stumbled into the village which my family is from with a terrible grasp of the Greek language and no idea of where I would sleep. Again, a kind old man hosted me and filled his days with showing me seeds and teaching me all he could. These are just a few small examples of how my year has evolved miraculously from the very first day to the last.
The past year has been a year of adventure, truly epic adventure. I have been pushed to extremes I never imagined possible. However, through these challenges I have learned the most. I still cannot comprehend all I have seen and felt. My photos remind me of a strange mix of memories from diverse rice harvests in India to pesticide covered villages, dark seed banks, colorful potatoes, strong local beers, glorious meals, laughing villagers, formal interviews in Rome, massive conferences, tiny smoke-filled kitchens, oca soups, black breads, brightly colored fields, and large temples. Many times I wake in the morning to vivid memories of digging potatoes in the Andes or riding through the mountains in the back of a pickup truck filled with Thai rice breeders. I must close my eyes, take a breath, and convince myself that this is all true. I know that each of these experiences has changed me and shaped who I am today.
For once in my life I couldn’t blame anyone else or make excuses. This was my journey and everything that happened was a result of my choices. Each morning I woke up and had the freedom to do what I wanted. I could have relaxed on one farm all year or vacationed on beaches. However, I forced myself to constantly tackle new challenges, interview as many farmers as possible, run up another hill to find a family seed bank before dark, travel to one more area to learn about their agricultural practices, or drink another potent liquor just so I could connect with the old villagers. One realization I came to was regarding my intense workaholic tendencies. After being told to relax in at least 5 languages, the lesson finally stuck. Over time, I also worked past my white guilt and shame I felt from being a privileged American. I put aside much of my ego and expectations, resulting in deeper social connections than ever before. Having so much time alone with my thoughts helped me to confront issues in my life. I learned to listen, not only to wise old women, but also to my own hearts desires. I did not have my mother telling me what to do or some grand goal to achieve. I finally accepted that the only requirements I had were ones I placed on myself.
This year has also shown me the power of simplicity. For twelve months I lived out of only a small pack. I stayed with many people who owned significantly less than me. However, these kind people gave up everything they could to make me happy, a complete stranger. The villagers in India, Thailand, Ethiopia, Peru, and some parts of Greece had very few possessions, but laughed more than anyone I’ve seen. They took time with family to enjoy good food and showed me that basic happiness is as much a part of living as any “success” we have been trained to strive for. I have become confident that I will never change the world. An individual can only do a small bit, but through our connections the actions ripple out and affect many others. While I saw many beautiful, joyous villages, I am not idealizing their situations. I did also see a farmer dying of malaria, children with distended bellies sweeping the leftover rice fields, slums of thousands of people, widows of war, and much more. Seeing the incredible complexity of our world and the problems we face, I have become less idealistic and extreme than when I left.
This trip has put things in perspective for me. I am more inspired than ever to work for positive change and have a clear vision of what my path in life must be. Life is fleeting at best and we must enjoy each minute we are given on this wonderful planet. After years of being fed depressing information on globalization and the state of our world, I have now benefited immensely from the globally connected nature of our planet. The diverse people I have stayed with have shown me what it means to live a good life. We will never go back to some ideal simple existence that may have existed in the past. However, we will continue to grow and adapt, like our local seeds. There are concrete ways I can help by teaching others, promoting ecologic agriculture, organizing community seed banks, and growing healthy food.
While tackling these efforts in the USA, I am confident that I can stay connected to this international struggle. For once I have hope a brighter future exists. I have met enough inspiring people to keep me motivated for the rest of my life. The solutions are even more complex than the problems and the only way we can win is to work together. Someday, we will harvest the power of the sun, honor authentic diversity, create sustainable farms, invest in children instead of war, and learn from each other through mutual respect.
The Watson Fellowship gave me the power to take my life in my own hands. I followed my heart and it led me to the most magical places. Nothing was perfect, but I learned to be happy with imperfection and to embrace uncertainty. Some lessons I learned may seem mundane, like the ability to talk to strangers on the street for hours or the various ways Peruvian farmers store potato seeds. However, each new memory, experience, and skill has helped me to grow as a person. At the end of the year I cancelled my trip to Mexico because I felt an intense need to learn about my own heritage in Greece. Miraculously I found the village where my ancestors were from and even got to learn about our old wheat varieties, water mills, and agricultural festivals. The experience did not answer my questions about who I am or what my life means. The Greek villagers simply helped me to accept my lessons of the year. Unlike nearly all the people I stayed with, I have lost my connection to a place and even a distinct culture. Despite this, I am now beginning to grasp who I am and am able to happily spend many hours alone with my mind.
When I first conceived of my Watson proposal I knew I loved seeds and I knew that they were important politically. I was afraid of what the future held. For years I had a quote on my wall, “Seeds are the very beginning of the food chain. He, who controls the seeds, controls the food supply and thus controls the people.” This fear and the facts of how much diversity has been lost filled me with negative expectations. During my first weeks in India I was immediately shocked at the diversity of crops Navdanya was growing and conserving. After working in the fields, I spent hours listening to the various uses for each vegetable and the ways to produce the unidentifiable grains. From this moment on, my year became a study of positivity. I quickly learned that seeds inherently carry the expression of hope. I never imagined there were so many individuals, initiatives, communities, and organizations all over the world deeply engaged in safeguarding seeds.
While some farmers and organizers I met with knew about the political ramifications of local seeds, the majority did not. I was told many times, in many languages, that “Seeds equals life” or “If we don’t have access to affordable, locally-adapted seeds we don’t have access to food.” Seeds do not represent a fight against Monsanto or globalization for most farmers. Seeds most often represent food or survival. The second most important reason I saw was taste. Even in the most poor, drought-prone regions of Ethiopia the villagers would rave to me about the taste of their local varieties. Countless old women told me that they couldn’t enjoy the crops from hybrid seeds. Even the cows wouldn’t eat the wheat straw or rice bran from improved varieties. I saw that hybrids or improved varieties have a great value when they can be grown with adequate water, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. However, many farmers do not have access to these inputs. They experience severe yield decline after a few years or become trapped in a “fertilizer treadmill” of buying more and more to supplement their degraded soil. In Punjab, thousands of farmers suffered from cancer and severe debt as a result of their “modernized” agriculture. Nonetheless, these people did not sit back and complain. They were filled with pride and excitement for the future. Instead of relishing in their sorrows, they proudly displayed the local seeds they were growing again, taught me how to make organic fertilizers, and fed me every traditional dish they could imagine.
Not only do the crops from local seeds taste better, they often cook faster and are a crucial part of traditional dishes. In Ethiopia the farmers continue to grow a red teff (a native grain) because it grows on degraded soil and can make the most incredible injeera. In Peru, many farmers grow over 100 native potato varieties in their field because each variety has a different texture and taste (they also resist different pests or climate conditions). I did see overall that there is a general whitening of our foods and extreme homogenization of our agriculture. However, people of all walks of life are resisting this. I am so glad that I travelled to a range of countries, including highly “developed” nations like Italy or Canada and “developing” countries like Ethiopia, India, and Peru. I was shocked at how far-reaching this issue really is. Citizens from doctors to peasant farmers are passionate about the importance of agricultural biodiversity. I saw different crops in each country, different agricultural systems, diets, recipes, seed saving methods, and cultural traditions.
The most inspiring projects I saw were ones that combined the old with the new, while actually working with the people. Unfortunately, in many efforts like the Green Revolution in agriculture we have totally ignored traditional knowledge. The scientists who pushed these approaches on the world never actually listened to the farmers, like I did this year. The scientists had good intentions in wanting to produce a higher yield of rice or wheat per acre. But, they did not know that Indian farmers typically grow up to twelve crops in each field and the “minor” crops were even more important to diet and nutrition than the rice. The scientists did not ask the farmers how important the wheat straw was to their animals or even what the climate conditions were like. Now, people like Ethio-Organic Seed Action and even the International Potato Center are actually speaking to villagers and honoring the thousands of years of accumulated knowledge. Participatory Plant Breeding, Community Seed Banks, and other efforts combine modern scientific techniques with the complex traditional knowledge of subsistence farmers. These efforts are dynamic and participatory; they actually benefit the people who need it the most.
None of our food that exists today simply appeared in the wild. For over 10,000 years farmers have selected, bred, developed, and grown crops. All of our current agriculture relies on germplasm which the world’s traditional farmers have developed and protected. While we in America are very disconnected from our food systems, approximately 1.4 billion people still live in families who rely on farm saved seed. We must value the incredible knowledge of these farmers and improve it slightly with modern methods. The future of the seed carries within it the future of humanity.
Giving up practically everything I know and love to travel the world alone is not an easy thing to do. However, the rewards far outweigh any negatives. I cannot put into words exactly how this journey has changed me yet, but I know my life will never be the same. I have more motivation than ever to work for ecological agriculture and seeds, but have also seen the value of relaxing with friends, listening to others, and sharing in a long meal. I cannot ever thank the Watson Foundation enough for this experience!
If you click read more, you can see my first 3 reports from my Watson year. In true Watson style, they are not academic or rigid research reports. They are emotion filled letters to the foundation to give them some sort of update on my experiences, travel, and study. You can find them below on my blog, but I thought I would just put them in one post here.
First Watson Report
Crops and Cultures: The Preservation of Heirloom Varieties
Preface to My Report:
Trying to sum up the past three months in a concise report is an extremely difficult task. Over the past few days I have attempted to start this report many times and given up when I became overwhelmed with all the memories. Today, I typed 10 pages attempting to sum up my experiences and did not even get halfway. In the simplest terms the past three months in India has been a roller coaster ride of challenging situations, excellent tastes, foul smells, educational experiences, eye-opening moments, piercing headaches, and inspirational interviews. As I reflect on my time spent in India countless memories rush back. I remember walking through the “cancer villages” in Punjab with pesticides filling my nose and mouth. I remember the old- nearly toothless woman as she climbs down into her seed bank and returns with countless varieties of spices, millet, amaranth, rice, and beans. I remember laughing with farmers as we harvest rice and crying with farmers as we discuss their debt and the death of their son. India has shocked me, depressed me, and provided me an immense amount of hope for the world – all at the same time. I could write fifty pages on just one day spent touring farms in Garwhal or in Punjab. Nonetheless, I will attempt to sum up my experiences in a somewhat cohesive manner so you get a sense of my journey.
I woke up groggy as our plane neared Chennai and looked to the man next to me. He was praying passionately over images of Krishna; clutching the faded pictures tight to his chest, moving his hands in a rhythmic pattern. All of a sudden, I became exuberant as I realized that my trip was beginning and this was the start of a year of freedom and personal growth. However, these happy feelings were soon changed drastically. After landing in a chaotic, dirty, and extremely muggy Indian city at 3 am I was hassled by taxi drivers, swindled into a more expensive room, and pestered incessantly by hotel staff. As I finally lay down in my room I began to cry uncontrollably. The tears mixed with my sweat and the lingering water from the shower that wouldn’t dry. It seemed as if things couldn’t get any worse.
Three months later, I am now preparing to board another plane to leave this magical land and am filled with feelings of sadness that I never thought I would feel. The original sense of anger towards the filthy streets, incessant honking, and extremes between rich and poor have now morphed into a love for the chaos that is India. After three months I have come to understand why yoga and meditation emerged from this region. India is an intensely spiritual place in which religion infuses every part of life. However, it is also a truly chaotic and insane country that requires the patience gained through yoga or relaxation to deal with it happily. A week after my tough introduction to life in India I smiled for the first time as I woke up to see the sun rising over fields of corn, rice, and lentils. I had been traveling overnight from Delhi in a crowded and hot Indian bus. However, I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear as I saw the dappled light of the early morning sun shine down on fields of villagers waking to the day – collecting water and beginning their work in the fields. Only one week into my trip I was beginning to accept the extremes of India and constant up and downs that made up my experience here.
Now after three incredible months I have adjusted to the retched smells and striking poverty, the different notions of time and the constant hassles of being a white person. I have also adapted to the massive gaps between rich and poor in a country where some people have four cell phones and drop hundreds of dollars on drinks while others who are sick from pesticide-laden water lie on the street receiving no help. As I try to remember the details of my trip, all the memories of challenges in India somehow mix with the delicious food, plethora of unique seeds and associated stories, colorful dresses, friendly families, inspiring social movements, toothless old women with bags of beans, energetic children and soulful music to create a vibrant tapestry of life in this developing nation that will stick with me for years to come.
My three months in India have developed spontaneously, as I had hoped. The only major challenges I have faced are language barriers and some health issues (mainly chronic migraines which began before the trip). Other than that I have been incredibly lucky. Not only have I escaped the many ailments that stalk travelers here, but I have also been given countless opportunities for which I am eternally grateful. My research time began at the Navdanya Biodiversity Conservation Farm. While working here I was able learn practical skills related to seed saving and organic agriculture. Additionally I was given a glimpse into the workings of an NGO dedicated to addressing these issues of seed saving and food security. Hard work on the farm was interspersed with ample reading time, learning Hindi, and over 26 interviews with farmers in the local region. My reading and interviews with both Navdanya staff and local farmers provided me a well rounded view as to why seed saving is so important, what the state of agriculture is in India, and what can be done to address the agricultural crisis that we are facing worldwide. Navdanya has done everything from starting seed banks to teaching compost workshops, educating farmers about food policy, and creating a market in the cities to sell organic produce from small scale farmers. They are a brilliant example of a successful NGO that is empowering rural farmers by reconnecting them to their roots of traditional agriculture, seed saving and cooperative sharing.
During my interviews, some farmers spoke to me simply – telling me that seeds are life and asking how anybody could survive without seeds. Others talked to me about the great taste found in native varieties and cooked a delicious meal for me from traditional recipes. Others still taught me about the many complexities of modern agriculture and the green revolution. I have learned more from my talks with farmers and first-hand observation than I learned in all my university classes related to food combined. The narrow notion I had of the importance of biodiversity and seed sovereignty has been shattered as I have been exposed to the reality of agriculture here in India, where thousands of farmers have taken their lives as a result of debt or even failed hybrid seeds. Luckily, every time I have learned some depressing information, I have also been exposed to hope. This hope comes in the form of native rice varieties adapted to saltpan and flooding, which have saved agriculture in Orissa after the 2004 Tsunami. The hope comes in the form of a poor farmer going against his neighbors and family to create an organic farm in the middle of a desert of genetically engineered cotton and pesticides. Hope comes in many forms during this trip. It has filled my soul and given me the energy to tackle all the challenges of India. After what I have seen I can now dream of a brighter future and reject the slightly pessimistic attitude that plagues my mind.
Using the oasis of the Navdanya farm as a home base I traveled to Punjab, two different areas in the Himalayas, Delhi, Hardwar and other local jaunts. In Punjab I was first deeply depressed by visits to “cancer villages” in which 30% of the inhabitants have cancer. I spoke to women whose toxic breast milk killed their babies, looked into polluted waterways that were once rushing rivers, and felt the burn of pesticides in my mouth and nose. Despite all this, I also saw an incredibly inspiring movement that is using the symbol of the seed as a way to galvanize a diverse mass social movement. In one crazy week we met with farmers (ranging from 1 acre to 400 acres), lawyers, professors, activists, journalists, and doctors regarding this movement against the green revolution and genetic engineering. The sheer number and diversity of people passionate about this movement shocked me. In the middle of a polluted land, thousands are working together to address issues of health, nutrition, pollution, seed ownership, and most importantly rural sustainability. I didn’t truly know the vast effects of modern agriculture and the inherent contradictions until viewing the situation first-hand here in India. To me, Punjab is a symbol both for the harms of chemical agriculture and the possibility of a positive rural future based on traditional crops and sustainable agriculture.
My two visits to the Himalyan hills exposed me to different social movements addressing these same issues. However, in the hills all is not lost like in Punjab. There is still a culture of seed saving, cooperation, and sharing among neighbors. In one region I visited every house has a seed bank attached, which is intricately carved and built into the earth so it is always cool. In these regions I saw how people can live happily and peacefully without relying on the market. During one family stay, we only ate things from their farm for four days and it was delicious! The inhabitants of Garwhal directly rely on the environment around them for food, medicine, tools, and their entire livelihood. In turn, they recognize the importance of their traditional crops, agricultural practices, and diet. Even rural farmers have become aware of the complex science and data that shows the loss in nutritional quality from hybrid or genetically modified food.
India has exposed me to a drastically different life. Through my work with numerous different NGO’s and social movements I have been pushed to ponder my own existence, the impact I have on the planet, and my future role as a farmer and social activist. Old notions I had about sustainable agriculture were reinforced while I learned an immense amount of new information regarding the green revolution, genetic engineering, the importance of traditional varieties of crops, and the various ways social movements can be organized. Theoretical knowledge learned through numerous conferences and books has combined with first hand experiences and memories to create an infinite web of new thoughts and ideas in my head.
I leave India enlightened about the negatives of the current path we are on and extremely hopeful that a possibility exists. The original feelings I had of loneliness and selfishness that I wasn’t doing enough to help have slightly faded as I have embraced the Watson experience. I am eternally grateful to be given this opportunity and cant believe I have 9 more months to go. These three months have flown by, but I feel as if a lifetime has passed since I left the states. I fear I will never be able to convey what I have learned on this trip to others – its just too much. However, I move on to Italy tomorrow, continuing to live in the present and ready to tackle whatever lays ahead. Namaste and Ciao!
Watson 6 Month Report - Italy and Thailand
Before I begin I must first say how crazy it is that 6 months has passed! On one hand, the time has flown by. On the other hand, it seems like a lifetime ago when I was in America. Halfway means a lot but also means that many more challenges lie ahead. No matter what, it is a large milestone. There were times when I never thought I would make it this far. Now I am here and I am filled with energy and hope. Nearly all my feelings of homesickness or just plain sickness are overshadowed by beautiful memories from the journey so far and excitement for all that lies ahead. The Watson journey for me definitely has its ups and downs. Some days I feel deeply unsettled, confused as to what I’m actually trying to accomplish, and frustrated by living in foreign cultures. Inevitably these feelings fade as I connect with farmers, interview passionate organizers, and help plant seeds. Once again, I have spent the past two days reflecting and trying many times to sum up the past three months. I have concluded that an accurate summary is truly impossible. Instead, I have decided to simply update you on random memories and my feelings and emotions at this time. Hopefully, you can check out my blog or photos to see more of my voyage.
I left India weighed down by the heaviness of massive Mumbai slums, cancer villages, and pesticide poisonings. However, inside a flicker of hope burned brightly. Over the past three months I have had time to let the lessons from India brew within me and be put to words. These lessons have been reconfirmed and expanded upon countless times by Italian farmers, a worldwide gathering of food culture, scientists in Rome, and an incredible movement here in Thailand. At the beginning of this trip I felt motivated by the need to do something to address the devastating crises facing our food. Now, I also feel motivated by hope, good food, a joyous life, and connection to the land. The seed saving world has revealed itself to me as not a movement against something, but a movement of hope and positivity.
There is an infinite amount of negative information in this world and to be honest I have had enough of it. Over the past 4-5 years I have read, studied, and heard an exorbitant amount of depressing facts on our food system, the state of the environment, the oppression of many through globalization, systematic racism, sexism, etc. I am glad to have learned about the negative effects of our social and environmental systems. However, I have had enough! My education has motivated me and led me down a path which I feel is my ultimate destiny. Now I feel confident of my path in life and my true dream of how I want to live. I am ready to fully dwell in positivity!
What really has touched me deeply on this whole journey are the hundreds of stories of hope I have experienced. When I left India I feared that this was a truly unique experience and I would not meet passionate people like that again. Italy proved this all wrong. While the conditions are drastically different, I was equally inspired by the Italians connection to the land, their respect for an ancient food culture, and the passion of so many to protect our agricultural diversity. I met a friend in Rome and we spent our first few days talking farming, composting and seeds while eating unbelievable food and wandering around the coliseum. After a week of working on a farm growing many ancient Italian grains and pulses we headed north to Terra Madre.
In the most basic sense, Terra Madre is an international Slow Food conference put on every two years in Torino. However, there is no way to explain in words the size and power of this epic event. For four days Slow Food brings over 7,500 delegates from at least 153 countries together. The delegates are farmers, chefs, students, organizers, and food activists from around the world. The motto of the event is "Good, Clean, Fair food" and it is billed as a "worldwide gathering of food communities" All these words prove to be superfluous and fall short in explaining the energy, passion, and inspiration that is Terra Madre.
Close your eyes for a minute and imagine an Olympic stadium filled with thousands of "peasant" farmers dressed in their traditional garb. Imagine farmers from Senegal in red gowns mingling with pierced students from Brazil and the USA as a slew of inspirational speakers rally us all together. There are translations into 7 languages and the largest cultural diversity I have ever seen. The opening ceremony brought me to tears numerous times as I soaked in the energy of this Olympic stadium filled with people passionate about the same thing as me. I cried as I watched farmers carry in flags from over 150 countries and became joyous when speakers ranging from Prince Charles to an American middle school student spoke about the agricultural system and how we can get good, clean, fair food.
The next four days were filled with workshops, meetings, absurd amounts of food, dances, and parties at night. However, the real power for me was found in the many informal conversation and seed exchanges held with the diversity of people. At the same time as Terra Madre is Salone Del Gusto - a humongous fair of good, fair food. There was a whole selection dedicated to products from Terra Madre delegates. These stands with farmers and producers from around the world had unique products or food varieties that Slow Food is working to preserve. All these food products have their roots in traditional agriculture and are deeply connected to culture and history. There was quinoa from Peru, unique beans from Sicily, red fife wheat from Canada, Pear wine from Norway, white honey from Ethiopia, true wild rice from USA, and hundreds more. The Italy section had an incredible diversity of cured pork products, cheeses, pasta, cardoon, celery, and much more that represented the diversity of Italy's food heritage. I tried to break the world record for how many free samples you can eat of various cured meats and cheeses! I think at one point I had at least 50 used toothpicks in my pocket (a dangerous endeavor, but someone must do it).
I will reiterate that the real inspiration came from conversations I had throughout the days and nights with cheese makers from Italy, seed savers from Japan, peasant farmers from Mali and Senegal, farmer friends from India, seed savers from Togo, and so many more. Once again the international language of agriculture, seeds, and a friendly smile proved to break down all barriers. To be honest, I was most excited by all the young people I met. There were over 1,200 young people from around the world. They inspired me immensely with their passion, music, and creative ideas (my favorite part was when a seed saving activist from Bolivia led us in a song about seeds).
The rest of my time is Italy was filled with trains, hot springs, intimidating interviews in Rome, unbelievable food, and a tour of organic farms in Umbria. The tour was the second part of a farmer exchange between Californian and Umbrian organic farmers. For a week we were all treated like kings. Our days were filled with three hour long meals of handmade cheese and pasta, prosciutto, local bread, wine, fresh olive oil and much more. I was continuously impressed by Italian food culture as well as the importance they place on old varieties and the recipes or practices associated with them. We got to tour and meet farmers who raised sheep, grew ancient varieties of wheat, had incredible olive oil, and even a wildly passionate lady preserving over 50 types of ancient fruit trees (most varieties were at least 500 years old and she was the sole keeper of many of these culturally important varieties). After this tour I spent a whole day interviewing staff at the Global Crop Diversity Trust in the UN FAO headquarters. I learned an immense amount this day on the more large scale approach to seed saving, but also felt incredibly out of place with my sandals and 2 Euros (I had lost my ATM card). Overall Italy was much less challenging than India, but still eye opening and mouth watering. Who knew seed diversity could taste so damn good!
A frantic exit from Italy and quick transition to Thailand left me feeling quite confused and actually depressed. I arrived 11 days late to the Pun Pun green building and seed saving internship. Pun Pun is an organic farm, seed-saving operation, and sustainable living and learning center. At first I had a hard time connecting to other foreigners. I didn’t want to learn a new language and felt very disappointed by the disorganized nature of seed saving at Pun Pun. However, I settled into life on the farm and really enjoyed having this relaxed and educational time. My days became filled with building an adobe house, taking care of some gardens, organizing the seed bank, interviewing farmers, and swimming whenever I got a chance.
Pijo, the Thai man who runs Pun Pun with his wife Peggy, is most passionate about seed saving. He relates seed saving to broader philosophies on self reliance and simple living. Over time Pijos' ideas began to sink in deeper and I recognized how little time in my life I had spent actually relaxing, focusing on work I love, and connecting with others. I stopped criticizing Pun Puns shortcomings and became inspired by how they had taken this awful land and turned it into such a productive farm and community. I still felt overwhelmed by being around so many other foreigners, but also enjoyed our spontaneous dance parties and deep talks at lunch.
I gave two presentations on seed saving and my year to communities of foreigners and Thais at Pun Pun. As I prepared for the first talk I studied facts about seed control, loss of biodiversity, pollution, etc. However, all this faded as I looked through my pictures. Joyous tears filled my eyes when I remembered sons who had lost their father to cancer and gave up a job as a chemical engineer to become natural farmers. My ears felt the joy again of a 90 year old woman’s laughter as she led me into her cool seed bank and showed me seeds of millets, pumpkins, cucumbers, red beans and green amaranth. The presentations both ended up being long winded crazy rants about how much hope there is in the world, the immense amount of biodiversity still left, and how seed saving is the answer to so many questions. These positive thoughts are all I am able to think about these days.
After finally becoming comfortable with friends, building and farming at Pun Pun I had to pack up and leave. Once again the sad feelings which arose dissipated as I reached Joko Community Learning Center in Northern Thailand. Seed saving is their focus, but they use it as a focal point to start many school groups, train women with aids, provide healthcare and diet information, organize community forests, teach farmers plant breeding for their needs, etc. For days I just kept finding out more and more programs they have. Once again I was amazed by how welcoming and kind people are to me when I simply say I am studying seed saving. One of the staff met me at the bus station and organized every waking minute for me. I stayed in the village with their volunteers. It was great to be the only foreigner again and struggle with language. I loved cooking with them, doing interviews, meeting farmers, exchanging stories with farmers, eating with old women who grow 37 different types of yams, and much more. I got to go to a large festival celebrating rice diversity and their farmer field school. This helped to end my Thai experience on an incredibly high note as I soaked in their performances and deep connection to rice, helped give out seeds, spoke with passionate farmers, and learned once again about how deeply valuable crop diversity is to health, self-reliance, sustainable agriculture, farmers power, taste, religion, and culture.
Even though I am typing in a loud bar in Bangkok I can still close my eyes and be transported. My mind fills with smiling images of ancient fruit ladies in Italy, rice growers in Thailand, bakers in Italy, subsistence farmers in India, and thousands of farmers dancing together at Terra Madre. In some ways I feel like this is all some magical dream. Past ideas which I blew off as idealistic or silly now prove true around the world. I feel ecstatic in my conviction that through farming and saving seeds I can do more than just be happy and have the opportunity to fondle many beans. I can also select crops to grow well on my land, preserve our history, spread good tastes, become self reliant, bring back ceremonies and recipes, feed people good-tasting food, and most importantly spread the beauty of diversity. In diversity there in strength and survival. Climate Change is coming, but these crop varieties can adapt to the conditions, help us to adapt, and reconnect us to the land! What a journey this is! I wonder what Ethiopia holds.
As long as there are old women with seeds and organic fields, I am happy!
9 Month Report
It is a calm rainy morning in Cusco, Peru. The coca tea warms my throat and the Andean rain brings a feeling of freshness to the world. Once again, I am amazed that another three months has passed. Time has flown by, but it seems like ages ago when I wrote the last report in a crowded Bangkok restaurant. Since then I have been in Ethiopia, Canada, and Peru following my dream around the world. I left the states only 9 months ago a confused college graduate. My passion in life was certain, but I still struggled to figure out how I fit into this crazy world. Since then I have seen 6 new countries and travelled to many places I never dreamed of. Put plainly, my life has revolved around seeds: their propagation, importance, diversity, power, symbolism, meaning in different cultures, and use. The hope I have found through the seed-saving movement worldwide has been the core of my year and is something I could write for days about. I often feel like I’m overflowing with hope and respect for the power held in a seed.
However, the Watson Fellowship is about so much more than just my research. These 9 months of independent travel have given me a chance to step back and examine what my life is about. I have come to see that we learn the most through challenges. If I had simply stayed with my friends in the USA I would be comfortable and happily settled now. Instead, I have been immensely challenged both emotionally and physically. Giving up practically everything you know and love to travel the world alone is not an easy thing to do. There are times when I felt so alone it seemed as if no one in the world even knew I existed. Oddly, these feelings often came when in a city surrounded by millions of other people. Nights alone in Addis Ababa were tough as I couldn’t eat dinner without having crowds stare, beggars followed me at each turn, and young men tried to sell me anything you could imagine. I was a white face in a sea of black faces, unable to speak the local language.
There were other times I felt so constantly bombarded by people I desperately wanted to just run away and scream at the top of my lungs. There were also nights when I cried myself to sleep after hours of explosive diarrhea and vomiting (I never knew it was possible to do both at the same time!). I have spoken with farmers dying of malaria and felt children pulling on my pants to get just a piece of my bread. Through these challenges and many more I have been pushed to reexamine what my boundaries are. I have become comfortable in my own skin and have learned what it means to feel strongly out of place. Most powerfully, I have come to see the many similarities between peoples and cultures around the world. I now believe John Steinbeck was right when he said that we don’t have our own soul, but just a small piece of the much larger soul of humanity.
My journey has led me to gain a deep respect and appreciation for the human spirit in its many forms. I have shared laughs with chemical salesmen, beggars, elite landowners, scientists, farmers, racists, and everyone in between. I still subconsciously judge people based on the way in which I was raised, but now really enjoy looking past individuals harsh exteriors to see their human spirit shining within. We all are yearning to live a happy life, eat good food, find love, and gain some sort of respect or admiration. Our values and ways of living are defined in very different ways. However, there is a similar thread which links us all together on this crazy rock we call earth. This realization came to me one day in a busy market in Ethiopia. I was forced to sit down and laugh hysterically. All of a sudden, as I stared out at the mob of faces I saw that we were one and the same! I felt the anger of a drunken man inside me as he yelled uncontrollably. I saw myself in the rich businessmen pushing their way through the crowd and I felt the hunger of a desperate beggar deep in my stomach. Colors and defined faces faded away. They were replaced by a blurred mix of love, hate, devotion, dreams, and desires. Since then, I have felt content to stop searching for some huge esoteric meaning to life.
I am beginning to embrace the simple honesty of who I am. Throughout my whole life I have spent insane amounts of energy trying to impress others or define myself in relation to those around me. I was never cool per say, but I was the “compost man”, the “garden manager”, the club president, the environmental activist, etc. I hid my negative qualities and strived for some image of what I thought I should be – something that people would love and respect. Well, this year I have been away from all those who love and respect me. As a result, I have seen that I don’t have to work to impress people, it’s more important to be happy and healthy.
Many of the places I have visited this year have taught me that life is simpler than we have made it. Basic happiness is as much a part of living as any “success” we have been trained to strive for. I have become confident that I will never change the world. An individual can only do a small bit, but through our connections the actions ripple out and affect many others. Perhaps it is more important to live each day to the fullest, be joyous, and give respect to those around you than to work constantly to change the world. Life is fleeting at best and we must enjoy each minute we are given on this wonderful planet. After years of being fed depressing information on globalization and the state of our world, I have now benefited immensely from the globally connected nature of our planet.
The diverse people I have connected with have shown me what it means to live a good life. We will never go back to some ideal simple existence that may have existed in the past. However, we will continue to grow and adapt (like our local seeds). The universal nature of humanity will shine on as it has for so many generations. In times of need, leaders will step forward and movements will spread. I do not believe humanity is on a course destined for destruction. This is one possibility, but there is another path I see. Communities around the world will unite and develop local solutions to solve our many problems. Once again, food will be seen as essential to culture and life. Authentic diversity will spread and remind us all what it means to be connected to a place. We will harvest the power of the sun, create urban farms, invest in children instead of war, and learn from each other through mutual respect. Yes, this is an ideal dream. Nonetheless, this path is just as possible as worldwide destruction is! I am not saying all will be perfect. This year has taught me to be happy with imperfection and to embrace uncertainty. Armies will fight, lovers will come and go, money will be lost, land will be destroyed, and sickness will spread. But, I believe in the end we will recognize the power of food, community, and the basic necessities of life.
The Ethiopian people have shown me that there is no reason to live without hope! I stayed in areas in which farmers had faced two wars, droughts, and famines. However, they still celebrated their coffee ceremonies, danced together, relished good food, and laughed over local liquors. Hope shines in the eyes of Ethiopian farmers who trade seeds and develop new varieties which adapt to their land. It shines in the Thai children as they show me their school gardens, the happy seed sellers in Canada, the resilience of the Dukhobor community in British Columbia, and in the mountain villages that keep our ancient diversity alive. Around the world people are uniting in their awakening that we cannot continue “business as usual.” They are not just sitting back and complaining about all that’s wrong with the world. They are uniting to work for a positive solution that enables us to live a joyous life.
Ethiopia was a month filled with crop diversity, cultural diversity, passionate farmers, skipping with children, some vomiting, and plenty of good laughs with fellow seed savers. I was challenged on many levels, but left the country even more motivated and inspired than when I arrived. Through my travels and many interviews I have seen that diversity in crops is directly linked with health and diversity of human cultures. The crops and their resilient seeds have co-evolved with the cultures and eco-systems of their respective regions. When we lose crop varieties from a region this is not just a biological loss, but a loss of cultural systems, human livelihood, and farmers freedom. We lose not just an inventory of plant materials or genes, but an incredible storehouse of knowledge of how to grow and use the plants. The knowledge comes as a result of generations of men and women experimenting, selecting crops for their diverse needs, building on the knowledge on their forefathers, and passing the skills to their children. Each farming family has diverse criteria they use to determine how to spread their risk, produce enough food on marginal conditions, and satisfy local cultural needs.
Our food today did not just appear in the wild, it exists because of the hard work of so many farmers. Ethiopia is a center of crop diversity for durum wheat, barley, sorghum, coffee, and chickpeas. For years we have taken seeds from these people to develop our modern agriculture. Now, many are fighting to keep the seeds in farmer’s hands. The Ethiopian famers blew me away with their agricultural practices and complex local seed systems. In a country where nearly 90% of the population is farmers, agriculture is the central part of life. The power of farmer’s ancient knowledge can be seen quite evidently in an Ethiopian highland field with its extremely infertile, dry rocky soil that is filled with a diversity of colorful crops. These crops satisfy families nutritional, economic, gastronomic, alcoholic, and spiritual needs. Other tourists I met in Ethiopia could only talk about the extreme poverty and flies on children’s faces. However, the memories that stick out in my mind are of colorful dances, joyous families, and diverse fields. Ethiopia showed me once again how important diversity and seed saving is not just for survival, but also for community sufficiency and the enjoyment of life.
As a whole, the past 3 months were especially educational for me because I experienced so many drastic transitions. Flying straight from Ethiopia to Canada threw my body and emotions upside down. My first night in Vancouver I woke frequently to dreams of dry Ethiopian fields. For days I relished the hot water and flushing toilets, but felt disgusted by the excessive consumption. People fought in Addis Ababa over 5 cent bread while people in Canada dropped 8 dollars on a beer or 25 dollars on a breakfast. How can we explain these extreme differences? Why are some born with so much privilege while others are born with nothing? How can so many of the rich be mean and unhappy while many Ethiopian villagers in mud huts can be so kind and joyous? These questions and my withdrawal from Ethiopian coffee left me sleepless for days. However, I was cheered up my first weekend in BC by Victoria’s Seedy Saturday (nearly 2,000 people in attendance).
Seedy Saturdays began twenty years ago in Vancouver. The idea of the event was to bring together people from various fields to work together for the common goal of conservation of open pollinated seed. There are now over 70 Seedy Saturdays or Sundays in Canada and the idea has even spread to Britain. In my month in Canada I got to attend six Seedy Saturdays. At first I was very confused over how to apply all the lessons I learned this year to North America. However, I was continually inspired by the local food and local seed movement in Western Canada. The concept of food security is taking North America by storm and awareness is spreading to the issue of seeds. At each event I interviewed seed sellers, chatted with gardeners, swapped seeds and shared stories of my travels. Aside from attending these amazing events I lived with a passionate seed saver and gardener who runs “Seeds of Victoria.” She reminded me of the importance of seed diversity for gardeners in North America and taught me how to run a small-scale seed business that benefits the local food system. Other seed sellers like Dan Jason inspired me with their stories of community seed banks and small-scale grain growing.
In my first three weeks in Peru I have gotten tours of the Centro Internacional de Las Papas, visited many markets, tasted potatoes prepared in ways I never dreamed of, frolicked through Quinoa fields, and learned about the massive amount of native crop diversity here in the Andes. Once again, this locally adapted crop diversity is very important for marginal farmers because of their adaptability, pest and disease resistance, consistent yield without expensive inputs, taste, and balanced nutrition. The range of colors and varieties of potatoes in one field is truly astounding. There is beauty, health, and stability in diversity.
The farmers and activists I have met continue to show me that the power is in our hands to make change for the better. Yes, there are challenges. However, there are no excuses as to why we can’t keep our hope alive. The future is ours to grab and I see mine filled with seeds, healthy food, dance parties, friendship, love, and community. I do not need to change the world, I just need to improve the lives of some around me and have fun while doing it.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
And so it ends...
I am currently in Athens Airport waiting for my flight home. There are so many feelings, emotions, thoughts, and experiences I could write now. However, its hard to begin. I am sad to see it end and a bit nervous to return to crazy America, but very excited to see friends and family.
For months I have pondered what it would be like to be flying home. Now I am here and there is no sense of finality or grand concluding realization. My lessons have built up over the year and seeds have come to mean the world to me. They are more than a protest against Monsanto, but a symbol of freedom, a carrier of values and traditions, a connection to cultures and histories, a tool for ecological agriculture, survival for peasant farmers, and the basis for all life. They provide more tasty, healthy crops which promote a different way of life, are an integral part of community, resist pests and disease, help us to adapt to climate change, provide options for breeding, and much more. Using traditional seeds we can help to improve farmers lives, preserve diverse cultures, and promote a better way of life. Seeds are needed for all aspects of agricultural development. Breeders need a diversity of seeds to create more drought resistant or productive crops in the future to adress our food crisis. Peasant farmers who can not afford or hybrids and expensive chemical inputs need a diversity of seeds to produce the food and products their family needs in challenging environments. The reasons are endless and each day I learn more about the importance of seeds, their uses, and connections to cultures and farming systems.
Aside from seeds this year have taught me an amazing amount about myself. Before I left my professor said to me 'This trip will change you forever. Good Luck' At the time I didnt know what he meant. Now I return a different person than a year ago. I have seen the world and am filled with a positivity and hope I never had before. Perhaps the greatest realization I have come to all year is that the world is a kind place and the importance of community. Everyone from elite businessmen to poor ethiopian farmers have fed me feasts, hosted me, taught me, shared laughs, shared tears, and taught me what it means to be a good person. They have shown me their is an infinite number of ways to live this life and view our world. However, there is more which unites us than divides us. By learning to listen and being open and I have embraced all the world has taught me. I cannot put into words exatly how this journey has changed me yet, but I know my life will never be the same. I have more motivation than ever to work for ecological agriculture and seeds, but have also seen the value of relaxing with friends, listening to others, and sharing in a long meal.
I cannot say exactly what my life will hold when I return to the states, see family, and work on my friends farm in California. Iam excited for all of it too. Its emotional to know this stage of my life, the research, and personal journey is over. However, it does not feel like an end. Only a new chapter begins. Another story to be written, more seeds to grow!
Got to run to my flight! I will edit later and write much more.
Monday, June 22, 2009
A Night in Addis
A man travellin' alone gets to thinkin'
He thinks about things he never thought of before.
He thinks about the rich and the poor,
why some will kill for more
while others are happy to have none.
He thinks about sex, prostitutes, and love in all its forms
About starvation and deforestation.
The man sees beautiful mountains and tastes sweet food.
Why do some win and others lose?
Why do we destroy all we have and continue to fight over whats left?
He thinks so much that he cant think anymore
and he decides to just put one foot in front of the other.
Soon, there's less good and less bad.
There's just the feel of a bed after a long day, the joy in music, and the smile on a hungry childs face
The thinking persists in some form until he doesn't see faces on the street anymore.
He sees the human spirit in all its ugliness and beauty.
Death continues, men fight, seeds are sown, lovers roll in bed
The rich buy 5 dollar beers while the poor fight for 5 cent bread
All the while, the human spirirt shines bright -
filled with choice and hope for the future.
A man gets to feelin all that really matters is a full stomach, a healthy body, smiles, and love in its many forms
He lusts for his family, friends, and a connection to the land.
His lust turns to understanding and all of a sudden theres fewer questions than before.
One foot must go in front of the other and each step illuminates the next
Joy lies somewhere in between the 5 dollar beer and 5 cent bread
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Once again, I’m not advocating returning to some idyllic past. Everyone in this world should be able to satisfy their basic needs (healthy food, clean water, adequate home, etc). This year, I have been most excited by the projects which combine modern technology or scientific methods with traditional knowledge. The world has been globalized. Even rural villages in the Andes with no roads and no electricity know about Britney Spears or Obama. In the most remote villages there is usually someone who is passionate about “western” or American ideals. This does not mean we should sit back and just say, “Oh well, globalization has happened.” On the contrary we must work harder than ever to protect the culture and diverse livelihoods which are left. For once we must honor people’s traditional knowledge, but enhance it a way that actually benefits them and empowers people to evolve with the times. In terms of seeds, ideas like participatory plant breeding or community seed banks are spreading at an astounding rate.
I have seen Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) or Participatory Variety Selection (PVS) in India, Thailand, Ethiopia, and Peru. The basic idea is to connect farmers with scientists in order to develop varieties better suited to local conditions and needs. In the breeding or selection, farmer’s knowledge is considered first, scientists then add empirical thinking and modern methods. Varieties are selected or bred in farmers fields based on the combined efforts of villagers and scientists. Traditional farmers with no chemicals are not called poor or backwards, but instead are honored and respected. As a result, farmers get plants which are more productive and adapted to their land, resistant to pests, diseases, drought, or other challenges. The seeds from these experiments can then be saved and farmers continue to develop and select them based on changing conditions or needs.
Community Seed Banks (CSB’s) is another method which has inspired me greatly all year. They take a diverse range of sizes, shapes, and organization. The basic idea is that CSB’s help to protect and promote local varieties. They ensure farmers have access to seeds which are adapted to their land, needs, and desires. In Garhwal CSB’s help to ensure farmers continue to grow their varieties, which have been grown and saved successfully in these harsh conditions for thousands of year. In Punjab the CSB’s return traditional varieties that have been lost and promote a natural or humane agriculture using the low-input seeds. In Ethiopia an incredible amount of diversity is still connected to local cultures and farming systems. However, farmers face catastrophe and seed shortages as a result of drought, war, erosion, etc. Here, the Community Seed Banks return seeds from the national gene bank, which are good for drought or current challenges. They also develop, protect and spread seeds that grow best for the farmers or those which may disappear during these challenging times. In Canada, CSB’s help home gardeners and organic farmers access seeds that grow well for them, taste exceptional, or a part of their history. From the Potato Park in Peru to the Farmers Freedom Seed bank in Punjab I have been continually inspired by how effective the CSB’s are and how important they are to local communities.
Ranging from small mud huts to large concrete buildings I have visited over 20 community Seed Banks. All CSB’s are organized and run by local community members. They are a dynamic and participatory way of preserving agricultural diversity. Many have other projects associated with them including women’s support groups, micro-lending, compost training, agriculture experiments, marketing, and even organic certification. While there is no exact model to follow, mostly all CSB’s lend out seed at the start of the season free of charge to farmers. Initially these traditional, landrace, or local seeds have been collected and grown out by involved farmers. No money is involved and farmers get quality seeds when they need them (often not the case when they attempt purchasing hybrids). The farmers who received free seed are then expected to pay back the amount of seeds they received plus 10-25% interest at the end of the season. In this way, seeds are multiplied each year and given out to new farmers who want to join. The seeds continue to be grown and farmers share their experiences or suggestions with different methods. Some CSB’s sell the extra seeds and use the money for community projects. Nearly all farmers I spoke with involved said that the seeds they got through the CSB did better than the hybrids and needed fewer inputs. Some said they were happy to taste tomatoes from their childhood again, while others said it was the first year in a decade they had enough wheat to fulfill family needs. There is a lot to tell about community seed banks and I will write more later. What I love about these efforts is that they combine scientist’s desires to stop the loss of agricultural biodiversity with villager’s diverse needs. Instead of forcing a “western” method on to farmers, CSB’s are dynamic and participatory.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Overall, life is great. Greece has been an emotional roller coaster ride of emotions, but filled with amazing experiences. Some highlights include harvesting wild oregano in Ikaria as the sun sets over the sea, travelling to the village where my ancestors are from, volunteering on an organic farm with my Italian friend, visiting passionate organic farmers here in the north, travelling to the remote mountains where people still save their ancestors seeds, and much more.
I am now settled into Peliti (a seed saving community) in North Greece and I couldn’t be happier. My belly is full, my skin is dark from the sun, the calluses on my hands grow with each day, and my thoughts become filled again with seeds and farming. Yep, this is the life for me! I get to work hard outside and see another side of the seed saving movement. I am filled me with hope and inspiration once more!
Below I posted a few journal entries and blog posts. I have attempted to edit them and make them coherent. I believe they are worth reading if you have any time. They are not just about seeds, but also about my Greek adventures. I just figured out a way to post part of the entry on the front page. If you want to read the rest, click "Read More" at the bottom of the post! This way my blog is not so crowded. If you are not interested in Greece, scroll down to see past reports and photos from India, Italy, Thailand, Ethiopia, Canada and Peru.
All of my Greece photos to today are now on my flickr site. Click the link on the side of this page to view them! I have selected a few random shots and put them on this page. Hope you are all well and I will see many of you soon when I return in less than 3 weeks!
I have been carrying this quote in my pocket, so I will now share it here.
Today we are not called upon to give our lives as the brave scientists at the Vavilov institute did. We are not even required to be scientists or ambassadors, for remember it was the “amateurs” who domesticated our food crops and helped create diversity. Instead, we are called upon to help preserve the local diversity handed down to us. Whether we be scientists or politicians, farmers or factory workers, gardeners or teachers, we each have a special role to play in passing this gift onto the next generation. The manner in which we meet this challenge will determine how or whether – future generations will live on this planet.
“One thing is certain,” writes Bentley Glass. “We cannot turn the clock back. We cannot regain the Garden of Eden or recapture our lost innocence. From now on we are responsible for the welfare of all living things, and what we do will mold or shatter our own heart’s desire.”
From Shattering by Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney
The Pomak in this area are some of the only people left in Greece with the ancient agricultural knowledge, animal plows, and diverse seeds. Read my post below for more information
During and after the Second World War it was difficult to travel in and out of their area because of their close proximity to the Bulgarian border (which was communist).
As a result of their isolation, Panagiotis found an impressive diversity of plants, seeds, and animals when he first began travelling in this region. Since 1997, these people have been a source of seeds and knowledge for Peliti. I listened to tales of the Pomak people and Panagiotis collecting missions as the fog cleared over the green hills. The area suddenly felt different as we began to observe people in traditional Muslim clothes. Not typical in Greece, many people were out working very early in the morning. At this hour, most Greeks are still sleeping off their souvlaki, wine, and music from the night before (partly joking, but often true). Along the way we stopped in a larger village to buy bread from a local bakery. The people had a distinctly different look, with blue eyes and often blonde hair. Sadly, much of the land was covered in Tobacco fields. Even at this hour, the fields were full of men with black caps and women with colored scarves and gowns weeding and spraying the tobacco. None of them wore protection while spraying and old ladies with extreme osteoporosis still bent over to weed. Like much of Greece, most of the young people leave here to go to the cities. Not exactly the bucolic mountain village I was imagining.
After a few hours of driving through lush valleys filled with rivers, cotton, and a few old men riding their donkeys slowly down the road we got to our first destination. We were now high in the mountains, far from the cotton fields below. All around us, animals grazed happily. As soon as we stopped an older man came out to greet us. He had a calm smile and embraced us warmly. This man was a friend of Panagiotis. One farmer we met earlier had been hiking up this valley and he had stumbled on Achmed’s farm. The village is small and extremely simple. There are no large concrete houses like the rest of Greece and many houses are still made of stone. The families are largely self-sufficient and grow almost all their own food. Rye is the principal crop in this area. It was exciting for me because it was the first area I had been to where Rye was grown. Ached had both winter and spring rye. He showed us the seeds and explained when he planted and harvested each. The rye was used to feed their animals (goats, cows, and sheep) but was also important to the human’s diet. It was primarily made into flour for bread. Achmed explained how the winter Rye this year had been destroyed by dogs and weather. Luckily, he had plenty of Spring Rye seed to plant in the same field.
After a month in Greece, I would never believe that a place like this existed here...
For me, Greece seems very developed and modern. Even the small gardeners use rototillers, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. However, here everything is done by hand with no chemicals. Like so many countries I’ve visited, animals plow the land. Donkeys or mules are the beast of burden in this region and the farmers continue to use them not for fun, but for survival. Until recently they did not have electricity and were isolated from Greece. In turn, the knowledge of how to prepare the land, grow food, preserve food, and live in a community has remained central. Even today, the villagers become largely cut off from the rest of the world during winters. After showing us his rye seeds, Panagiotis collected a range of traditional corns from Achmed. All the seeds were stored in a barn made from local wood, with a roof of the rye straw. To this day, they still select the rye not just for taste or history, but also its ability to grow well in the mountains and its use as thatching for roofs. Achmed explained to his that the rye comes from his grandfather and even farther back. He said they have never stopped growing it in this area, and it is important for both the animals and humans. Achmed and his wife also save seeds from beans, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. He never buys seeds and was confused when I asked if he had ever tried growing hybrids. All seeds he grows are from his family or community. If something ever happens he acquires local seeds from his neighbors.
We got a tour of Achmed’s fields, which were scattered over the hills. I felt like I was back in the Andes again as we scampered through steep fields to try to keep up with the farmer. They had just finished cutting a large field of grass by hand to store for the winter (with a scythe). Achmed showed me the rye fields and explained how the cut the crop with a small sickle and then thresh it by beating it on wood. Like nearly every place I’ve been the grain is then winnowed by pouring it from above and utilizing the natural wind to blow away the chaff. I thought that I would never find a place in Greece where people still harvested the grains by hand, but here it is! I have been disappointed when various wheat farmers showed me their combines from America or special new equipment (not to say this is all bad, but I could learn about large combines in America if I wanted). It is amazing to see that once again the mountains are the last place where not only seeds, but traditional knowledge still remains. I could spend years learning from Achmed all he knows about the land, growing rye, raising animals for both milk and meat, grafting fruit trees, etc.
We enjoyed a fresh glass of milk (amazing), loaded up the car with corn and white cherry trees (a special Greek Variety) and continued on our journey. Achmed was amazed that an American had travelled around the world to see his seeds and I was joyous to have been able to come here and learn a small bit of the traditional knowledge. After driving for about an hour we stopped at one of the many hot springs. It was nice to see the local men and women walk to have their daily bath in the thermal water. The water was much too hot for me, but an interesting experience nonetheless. Sweaty and dazed we continued our voyage, stopping to take photos of various rye or oat fields, high mountain villages, and unique breeds of cows. We enjoyed a late breakfast of warm bread, olives, cheese, and fruit.
All of a sudden, Panagiotis turned sharply off the main road onto a small dirt road. He explained that we were now beginning our journey to the next village of the day, much farther and more remote. We stopped a man in his truck and Panagiotis asked directions. The man refused to give us directions for over five minutes and kept saying the village we wanted to go to was too far. He said it was dangerous and we get lost on the dirt roads many times. The first time Panagiotis came here in 2003 there was not a road to the village. He hiked to the village with a photographer friend. After getting lost many times, he finally arrived. They stayed one day, collected seeds and took many photos. These photos were spread through Peliti and journalist friends came to do a story. Soon after, the local government apologized and put a “new road” to the village. Today we had the luxury of driving to our destination, but still had many hours on dirt roads and possible wrong turns with no people to ask.
This area was markedly different from the last. It was much drier and hotter. Instead of lush, green hills there were steep, harsh mountains. Along the way we saw a few very isolated villages high in the hills and stopped various old women who pointed us in the right direction and continued to tell us it was too far. Miraculously we reached the village after a few hours. Many of the stone houses were abandoned or dilapidated and the place had a strange, sad feel to it. Panayiotis may have sensed my feelings of disappointment after such a journey and explained that even if a place appears poor when you arrive, you have been given the beautiful trip here and can always find something of value.
My sense of apprehension dissipated as our second kind host greeted us. The man lives in a beautiful, incredibly simple stone house with his wife. It is built into the hill under a large tree and is surrounded by a vegetable field, fruit trees, and many animals. Our hosts were extremely happy to see the photos which Panagiotis showed of his previous visit here. These astounding images of bean seeds, tomatoes, and their traditional farms and houses were featured in various articles and Peliti publications. Both the husband and the wife beamed with joy as they looked over the photos and welcomed an American into their home. They were ashamed to let me see inside but filled with pride that I had come to see their seeds and farm. The border of Bulgaria was within eyesight and over a glass of slightly fermented milk they explained how hard times had been before. The majority of people had left as a result of this. During the war, they would be yelled at by Police for even looking at the Bulgarian border. Up until a few years ago they had no road, electricity, etc. All supplies they needed had to be carried up the steep mountain from kilometers below. Due to both the lack of a road and the politics they were extremely isolated from any neighbors. I couldn’t believe that the path we had come up was the “new” road, which they were so happy about. It was an extremely challenging, rocky road but at least they could drive supplies up with a 4X4 whenever they needed them.
Both the husband and wife were very excited to show us their vegetable fields. They save their seed from everything they grow and explained to me that the varieties were all very old. They have never bought seeds from down below, but they once bought chickens. The purchased chickens could not survive more than a year here because they couldn’t fly and escape the predators. Their local chickens are able to evade hawks, survive off little food, and produce excellent eggs (which are tastier and they say have little cholesterol). They grow three varieties of tomatoes. One is grown and saved because it is fast and produces early, the other is excellent for sauces, and the third is their favorite. It grows very tall and produces tomatoes like none they’ve seen anywhere else. The inside of tomatoes sparkle and our host explained they taste excellent no matter how you eat them. They said that there is no reason to try new varieties because these grow well here with only manure and little water, and produce better tasting tomatoes than they could ever buy. They also grow 2 types of potatoes, 2 types of pumpkins (one is black), 3 types of corn, and at least 8 types of beans. Our hosts excitedly explained why they are good (whether for taste, fast growing time, or color). When I asked about how they prepare the land for planting our host immediately showed me his aged manure and the equipment they use to plow. He then asked me if I wanted to see how they do it. Before I could answer he had ran to get their work mule. It was wonderful to see the simple process of how they harness the mule and use it to plow. We each got to take a turn plowing and they were full of pride top explain their methods and tradition.
After plowing, the wife called us over to the shade where she sat with their bags of seeds. I was blown away by the bean diversity they still grown and consume. Beans are my favorite seeds, not just because of their beauty and diverse colors. In one form or another, beans are crucial to nearly all self sufficient people or ecological farmers. They are extremely nutritious (protein) and also help to restore the land by capturing nitrogen for the soil. Through a series of three or four languages we learned as much about the beans as we could. The husband translated from Pomaki to Greek and Panayiotis then translated to English for me. Some of the beans were excellent dried in soups, while others were fresh. One variety could survive with no water, while others grew very tall up the corn. They continually told us how old these beans were and said their grandparents had used these beans here and their grandparents too. After collecting some corn, bean, and potatoes we got a tour of the animals. The chickens, sheep, goats, donkeys, and cows were all very unique and were adapted to live well in these harsh conditions, with only a bit of cracked corn as a supplement.
We ended our visit by sharing another glass of milk and I asked every question I could think of. It was very inspiring to see these people still lived here and kept the seeds and knowledge alive. However, it was very sad to hear that only about 5 people remained in the village. They told us stories of the hard times and how their sons are now working in England, Germany, or Athens. It is a strange irony how they were proud to tell us of their sons Mercedes, but they continue to live in such a simple way. They didn’t answer when I asked what would happen to their farm and seeds later. Luckily Panagiotis has met these people, but there are many other villages in this area with no young people. As the old people get sick or pass away we lose not just the seeds but the agricultural systems and extensive knowledge of how to live and farm in an ecological way (they use no chemicals and their crops looked great!).
I asked my last question about how they preserve their food for the winter and we spent the next half hour hearing recipes and seeing their various canned products. A few of the things they make are cheese, yogurt, pickled vegetables, tomato sauce, and various canned meat products. As another gift, they gave me one jar of goat meat in a bottle from last year (looks extremely unappetizing, but I’m sure it’s good). We bid our sad farewell and continued the journey through rough mountain roads.
The road improved slightly as we got down into the valley. The heavy rain began all of a sudden and we spotted a shepherd standing in the rain. We asked him for a ride and he politely declined, saying he had to stay with his animals. The rain covered him as he smiled from ear to ear and wished us a good journey. Like their animals and plants, they are very hardy people! For over an hour we guessed which dirt road to take, hoping we would make it out. Miraculously we emerged onto the paved road that brought us to the closest town. We were very happy to have made it out of the rough mountains and rain (the car badly needed oil), but shocked to be thrown back into busy urban life. In only an hour we were transported to another world. The rough mountain roads, mule-plow, and colorful beans seemed like a world away!
I am very glad Panagiotis took me to see these special people. They are some of the last in Greece still retaining and farming their ancestor’s seeds. For them, the seeds still mean survival and their historical story has not been broken. Many have started to grow traditional seeds again through Pelitis’ work, but very few retain the agricultural knowledge and continue to grow the local crops on the same land their ancestors did, with no machines and no chemicals. These remote areas were more developed than most places I’ve been this year and the people do buy flour and many other things from the market. However, the connection to the land and much of the knowledge still remains. This morning I ate the eggs from their chickens and fondled my new bean collection. Another magical adventure!
Less than a week ago I was in Athens- tired, alone, and sinking into a deep sadness. I found myself wondering what the hell I was doing here, why I have lost my ability to be social, and what I was trying to accomplish. With only a month left to go in this epic journey I became anxious to get home and could think of nothing else other than my friends and family back in the states. However, I am now settled into Peliti (a seed saving community) in North Greece and I couldn’t be happier. My belly is full, my skin is dark from the sun, the calluses on my hands grow with each day, and my thoughts become filled again with seeds and farming. Yep, this is the life for me! I get to work hard outside and see another side of the seed saving movement. Once again I am amazed by the unique directions people take with preserving local seed. This movement is more widespread than I ever could have imagined.
The current agricultural situation here in Greece is obviously quite different from Ethiopia or India, but there are still many similarities as to why these seeds are important and the approaches being taken. Like nearly every project I’ve studied this year Peliti is a grassroots movement. It preserves an immense amount of agricultural diversity (over 1000 varieties) by connecting people to each other and working outside of established channels. The goal is to keep seeds in the hands of farmers and gardeners. Participants freely share and exchange seeds (as well as other goods and services) for a variety of reasons. As I’ve seen all year many value the more tangible aspects of traditional or heirloom varieties: the taste is much better, they grow with less water in the hot Greek summer, the plants are stronger and need no fertilizer, etc. Some are aware of the politics involved: they save and share their seeds out of fear or a desire to be free from corporate control. Lastly, many are involved for social and cultural reasons – they see how important these plants were to ancient Greece or their ancestors and they want to continue this history. The varieties these people grow have been given to them by the grandmother or they were found in an ancient Greek archaeological site.
Peliti was founded and is run by a man named Panayiotis Sainatoudis. Panayiotis and his family have taken me into their home, fed me, put me to work, shared seeds, and tried to explain every aspect of Peliti to me (through broken English and Greece). They renew my hope for humanity and our struggle for a happier, healthier, and more ecologically sensitive life. On my third day of volunteer work we finally found time to sit down for an interview. It was wonderful to learn about how Peliti works and what they have been able to accomplish. However, I was equally moved by Panayiotis’ life story. In the early 1990’s Panayiotis helped to organize agriculture courses here in Northern Greece. During January of 1991, a friend gave Panayiotis a packet of diverse seeds from an American seed bank. Panayiotis was immediately enticed by the feel of the seeds and the beauty of the Native American corn. A year later, while distributing invitations for his brother’s wedding in his birthplace, he saw a short-stemmed black maize plant. Panayiotis asked the old woman working in the garden about the plant. She happily explained to him that it was for making popcorn for her grandchildren and presented him with a few seeds. Panayiotis has called this “the corn which changed my life” and always carries some seeds from this plant in his pocket.
During our discussion he passionately handed me seeds from this life changing plant and asked me to continue the story. It was a powerful moment for me and one which filled me with joy. Throughout this entire year I have carried one colorful bean seed in my pocket. It is the first plant that exposed me to the beauty of seeds and the first one which I saved seeds from. Whenever I have gotten nervous, scared, sick or lonely on this voyage I take out my bean, breathe deeply, and rub it gently. It reminds me why am I here and provides me with hope for the future. I have never told anybody about this bean, so I was thrilled to see another man had a similar practice. Perhaps we both sound crazy, but at least we are not alone.
After receiving these corn seeds and the story from this old woman, Panayiotis asked for seeds in each house he delivered a wedding invitation to. By the end of the day he had an armful of corn, pumpkins, beans, etc. Since this day Panayiotis has always had seeds on his mind (like me). He has developed the habit of asking everywhere he goes about what seeds the people cultivate. Gradually, he began to ask other questions as well, such as how they cook their food and how they preserve it.
Panayiotis left the city life and lived in a remote village in the mountains of Northern Greece with no money, in a house with no electricity. In the spring of 1995, at a moment of personal breakdown, Panayiotis became aware that the subject of local seed varieties was the most important topic for him and he began Peliti. Peliti began as a personal need for Panayiotis and slowly it spread and became a “point of reference and medium of expression for many people.”
Panayiotis spent years seeking out the cultivators of local varieties in Greece. He travelled all throughout the North and much of the country with no money – hitchhiking, walking and relying on the help of friends or strangers. Throughout these hundreds of trips he collected over 1,200 varieties of traditional seeds. In the mountainous villages near the border of Bulgaria, Panayiotis was surprised to find that nearly every house saved their own seed and many had noticeably different varieties. He followed people’s suggestions about where there were local seeds still left and journeyed to the most remote areas of Greece. Aside from collecting seeds he learned many lessons which changed his life. Some of the lessons he learned that “nothing happens by chance”, “when we decide to do something the whole universe conspires to help us succeed”, “we have nothing and nobody to fear apart from ourselves”, and that “we are significant and important irrespective of our economic condition.” While Panayiotis and I have very different stories it was amazing to see that seeds had a similar impact on our lives and we have come to learn some of the same lessons. Both of us have been led to incredible places and people through a passion for seed. We have benefited greatly from the kindness of strangers, seen how bright the human spirit is, and learned that we create our own destiny. Panayiotis put many of my own thoughts about this past year into eloquent words. Like him I have seen that when I fully put my mind to something it seems as if everything happens to help me reach my goal. Additionally, the most unexpected challenges or situations are the ones which often teach us the most (nothing happens by chance).
Starting in 1997 Panayiotis began travelling to the Pomak villages in the Xanthi province in Northern Greece. The Pomak are an ethnic minority in Greece. “Political, religious, linguistic, and other factors have led to their isolation.” As a result of their isolation, Panayiotis found an impressive diversity of plants, seeds, and animals. Since then, these people have been a source of seeds and knowledge for Panayiotis. This is also a similar story to ones I heard in India, Thailand, and other countries. After the seeds are lost, many passionate seed savers like Panayiotis travel to the isolated mountainous regions where people still rely on locally adapted seeds for survival. The majority of the traditional seeds being grown now in Punjab, India come from those collected by Vijay Jardihari in the Himalayas. In Thailand, many of the traditional varieties being grown and distributed by Pun Pun come from the isolated Northeast. In a way, my entire journey has been to these isolated, diverse places. Nearly all year, I have lived in mountainous areas where people still maintain agricultural diversity. Panayiotis explained to me that Greece has a huge amount of seed diversity because agriculture has been practiced here for nearly 10,000 years and because the land is extremely diverse with mountains, valleys, etc. The same is true of nearly all countries I’ve visited. Ethiopia has especially remained a center of crop diversity because of the mountainous and diverse terrain, isolated areas, and long history of farming. Similar factors led me to India, Thailand, and Peru.
Throughout the rest of the 1990’s Panayiotis worked at the Cereals institute in Thessaloniki, attended many seminars on biodiversity, spoke about his travels, and continued collecting seeds. After collecting over 1,200 varieties Panayiotis realized he needed to find a way to maintain these before they all went bad in his house. He organized various meetings that began to plan for seed exchange events in Greece. These first meetings were the beginning of a process that ended in the “Pan-Hellenic Local Seed Varieties Exchange Festival,” which is now in its 9th year. This past year over 1,500 people came to this festival, from small gardeners, to large farmers and even Athenian lawyers or businessmen. The yearly event begins with speeches and a closed exchange between farmers who came with seeds. The public is then invited to come and get the seeds they want from the farmers and gardeners. All seeds are given for free and people are recommended to grow them out and bring seeds back next year or give them to others.
Panayiotis continued to travel and live in the most remote areas of Greece. For nearly two years he stayed in a settlement of around ten houses scattered over the mountainside without electricity, telephone, television, etc. He worked the entire agricultural cycles with the people and collected seeds. Once again, seeds were a crucial part of life for these people because they needed them to survive. They couldn’t easily go to town to buy seeds and these traditional varieties were adapted to the harsh mountain climate. Panayiotis found many houses to be nearly self-sufficient and some cultivated up to 17 varieties of vegetables. A sample of all the seeds Panayiotis collected was sent to the national gene bank. Throughout all of these journeys to Greece and Bulgaria, the keepers of the seed taught Panayiotis what it means to be a good person. Similar to my own journey, the rural farmers showed Panayiotis that for seeds to be saved we need to make changes in our self. The journey has taught us both the power of community.
In 2000, Panayiotis organized the creation of a network of farmers and gardeners who still grew local seed varieties. Each year since then they have published a book with the names of these growers, their phone numbers, and the varieties they cultivate. Anybody who purchases this book from Peliti can contact the cultivators directly to request a small amount of the seed they desire. Now, 142 farmers and 18 animal breeders are participating in this network. As a result of this grassroots work, over 1,000 varieties are being actively preserved. Like many other community seed banks or village networks I’ve seen, Peliti is dynamic and participatory. The seeds are not simply collected and stored in a freezer. They remain in the people’s hands, continue to evolve, promote sustainable agriculture, and support local culture. The story of our agricultural history continues through Pelitis work and the cultivation of these seeds.
In addition to the annual festival and book, Peliti also created April 7th as the day for local varieties in Greece. The first year began small, but celebrations or events have now been organized throughout much of Greece. Peliti works extensively with school groups. Panayiotis and his wife spend much of their time speaking and teaching, often to children. They have helped to create dozens of school gardens. The school children are also actively involved in the April 7th events for local seed varieties. Peliti provides various schools with traditional seeds and knowledge. The seeds are then grown by children in their classroom. When the plants are big enough they are given free of charge to interested farmers and gardeners. One school in Greece now distributes hundreds of free plants every April 7th in the central square of their city. The mayor provides a truck and people come out to get free plants, connect with each other, and learn about Peliti’s work.
One thing which is amazing is that Peliti is run entirely by volunteers. Panayiotis makes his money from the sale of books and donations. However, throughout the country and its islands there are volunteer groups that help to organize events, teach children, collect seeds, and much more. Panayiotis spends much of their time giving speeches, and presentations to schools. They also distribute out around 8,000 envelopes with seeds and 6,000 plants. All the seeds come free of charge from farmers or gardeners. The seeds are packaged and given to anyone who requests them. In total, they estimate they have distributed seeds to over 50,000 farmers, amateur gardeners, wine growers, etc.
What started out as a dream with no money and little organization has now involved into a widespread movement in Greece, and “the most important Ngo for the collection, preservation, and dissemination of local varieties”. Peliti has received extensive coverage in the media and is now supported not just by farmers but by many businessman and urbanites in Athens. In 2001 when an article was published in the Athens news about Peliti, they attached a packet of local corn to each newspaper (12,000 in total). Additionally, over 130 musicians and artists came together to create a CD and series of events for Peliti. The CD, “Singing for Peliti,” is now being sold to raise money for the further development of Peliti’s community. They are working to create a home base and more permanent community. Seeds remain central to Peliti’s work and they have succeeded in spreading not only seeds but stories and knowledge to many in Greece. The work continues here each day.
Panayiotis tells his story and about the work of Peliti with such passion and hope. He frantically ran around the office to show me various stories, photos of events or collections, and seeds. His energy was contagious and I couldn’t help but feel joyous to be back among another seed fanatic and brother. A major lesson I have been pondering the past weeks is how kind strangers have been to me and how everything has seemed to work out amazingly. Numerous times through this voyage I would get upset that something didn’t work out, I missed my bus, or got lost. However, each time it has worked out for the better. I had a crazy idealistic dream when I began this trip and an unwavering passion for seeds. Somehow, the journey has surpassed even my wildest dreams. All my dreams and hopes have come to be a reality. Panayiotis summarizes his life’s story and the story of Peliti with a similar sentiment. He believes we can accomplish anything we truly set our minds to.
“Everything created by a human being has passed first through his imagination: the clothes I wear, the computer I have in front of me, the houses we live in, the cars we drive. In the beginning everything seemed like intangible dreams. But, with patience and persistence they became a reality.”
You may read this and label Panayiotis and me as dreamers or idealists. However, we are not alone. Countless farmers, organizer, politicians, or average citizens this year have shown me the power of a dream and persistent dedication. One small example was a farmer in the highlands of Ethiopia. It was his dream to have a fruit tree farm. Everyone had told this man he couldn’t find water on his land and it would be impossible for him to dig a well or successfully grow fruit trees. For over a year he slowly dug a well. He made a rope out of horse hair and other fibers to pull the dirt and him out at the end of each day. Over 8 meters deep, he finally hit reliable water. This farmer then collected scrap pieces of tires, metal, and other “junk” from the city. With no previous knowledge he designed and built a hand pump that could irrigate his land and two neighbors. When I visited, his land was now filled with incredibly productive fruit trees. They had formed a group of innovative farmers in the area and were experimenting with organic fertilizers and pesticides, pruning techniques, and other methods they developed. The farmers in this group were making much more money than before, did not have to ask for food aid, and could afford to buy supplies for their children.
The story above is just one small example of a dream coming true through persistent work that I have seen this year. The large majority of people I’ve met and worked with are fighting against all odds. Companies, government, neighbors, and even family are often against them. Despite this, we are able to prevail. When Panayiotis first had the idea to publish a book with all the growers of local seeds he had no money, computer, or ability to publish a book. One wealthy Greek man from the city called right as Panayiotis was pondering how he could possibly create this book with no money. The man had read about Peliti in the paper and asked how he could help. He immediately committed to giving all the money needed to publish Peliti’s first book and from there the network began.
When not interviewing Panayiotis, or eating excellent vegetarian meals prepared by his kind wife Sophia I filled my time working in the garden. It felt great to be using my body again and they appreciated the work. I also helped a little to organize the seeds and Panayiotis took the time to tell me many stories about the different varieties (where they had come from, how they are used, how little water they need, etc.). During free time I have been biking to the river and enjoying life in the lush mountains of Northern Greece.
Another interesting aspect of Peliti is their work with wheat. They help to conserve around 10 ancient wheat varieties. Wheat came to Greece from the Fertile Crescent and has been cultivated here for over 8,000 years. It has been a crucial part of Greek culture and many stories, myths or songs depict wheat or bread. Peliti has helped distribute the seeds of Tritium Monoccocum to various growers here. This ancient wheat, often called einkorn, is the ancestor to our modern wheat. It has a hard hull, which cannot be removed easily, but is an extremely hardy plant and was important to ancient Greece. As a result of Peliti’s work three farmers are now growing Einkorn on a large scale and are connected to a mill in Athens which will soon start to sell flour. Peliti has also helped return Mavragani, black wheat, into cultivation. They have received small amounts of this and other seeds from the national gene bank. The samples are then grown out by farmers, multiplied, and distributed. Numerous varieties of ancient wheat and unique tomatoes would not be grown in Greece today if it wasn’t for Peliti’s work.
Weekend in Thessoliniki
This past weekend Panayiotis took me with his family to the city, Thessaloniki. Our main purpose was to attend a large agricultural fair on Friday. However, once again Panayiotis showed me extreme hospitality as he sacrificed his time to drive me around and introduce me to farmers. The farmers we met were truly inspiring. First of all, they got me excited again to be back in America working on my own farm project with friends. They also taught me a great deal about organic (or biologic) agriculture here in Greece. The first man we visited grows over 7 packed acres of organic vegetables and over 50 acres of organic wheat. Unbelievably he does all this on his own! He also collects many aromatic plants (oregano, thyme, etc.) and bakes and sells bread from his wheat. All the products are sold in local markets and Archilehas grows many ancient varieties to Greece. One wheat was given to him by an old man who said it bakes excellent bread and is grown by very few people. Other traditional beans and tomatoes had been selected by Archilehas because of their excellent flavor and hardiness to resist pests and climate conditions. He grows some hybrids but finds the taste is much worse and sometimes the plants don’t perform as well (sometimes they grow great). Many people are excited by the taste of his heirloom varieties, but some Greeks in the market won’t buy the products because they look different or strange. For a few hours Archilehas ran us through his farm picking anything that was ready and stopping to have us taste as much as we could. He worked incredibly hard and cannot sit still for a second. However, from the first moment we met you can see the joy and passion in his eyes. Like many organic farmers Archilehas truly loves his work. He said that he does not make enough money for how much he works, but you can see his contentment as he moves through the farm explaining his favorite bean or growing method (also a bean fanatic like myself).
One other farming couple we met was one of the first organic farmers in Greece, true pioneers. They were busy preparing for a summer solstice (St. John?) celebration, but stopped to serve me tea and explain their farm to me. While they grow a huge amount of organic, healthy food, their main passion is fostering community and farmer to urbanite relationship. They don’t like to use the word consumer and try to get the buyers of their products to become involved with the farm as much as possible. They have formed a committee of community members who work with the farmers to decide what will be grown, how the products are sold, and how the farm is run. These volunteer members help to organize events and design a system that works best for all. They have had a farm stand on the honor system, but are now working to create a better model. Children scampered around us preparing for the celebration that night where they would mill the small bundles of wheat they had cut and bake bread together. Aside from organizing community, these farmers were also working to return culture and traditions to the area. Some visitors came from the city while were there and explained to me how important the farm is to their lives. Another powerful day in which I could more ideas of what I want my future farm to look like!
In the morning we went to an organic farmers market. Panayiotis introduced me to many kind farmers who told me about why they grow the local varieties (their taste mainly, but also their colors, history, and strength). Many farmers also told me about the difficulty in growing old varieties because of the strict EU regulations. Technically, any variety grown and sold must be on the EU list. To get a variety on this list is very expensive and complex. In turn, there are only a few old Greek varieties on this list. To be certified organic, farmers are also required to purchase organic seeds each year and it is very difficult for them to use their own wheat or barley from the past year. The organic or biologic festival was nice, but not thrilling. The majority of the vendors were selling beauty products or other organic goods to elite clients. Some farmers had beans, sauces they had made, olive oil, and organic meat. Relatives of Panayiotis were there selling jewelry as well. The jewelry was all made from seeds collected in Greece. It was very beautiful and helped to raise awareness about seeds. Perhaps the most exciting part was the traditional music and dancing. I love seeing Greek dancing and it was interesting to see how the music and styles were different here in the north (Turkish or Balkan influences).
The past few days I’ve been back working in the garden and biking through the hills. Tomorrow, Panayiotis and I will hopefully embark on a journey to the mountains near Bulgaria. Panayiotis keeps saying it is a surprise, so we will see what this adventure has in store for me!