Okay, so first off, I admit I am very late on this post *forgive me.* Every year it seems, October rushes into November and before you know it December is past and gone. That said, although we are midway through November, I wanted to fill you all in on what all I've seen this October.
With one week left, I wrapped up my Spanish tour...
The last week in October, I finished up my Worm Tour de Spain with two interesting visits. The first was to Ecocelta, a compost business northeast of Vigo. I met Sergio and his wife, Maria (a fellow American). Sergio founded the business more than 20 years ago with a small vermicomposting setup, but quickly expanded to a 1 acre+ operation with 5 employees. Ecocelta processes food, chicken manure, horse manure, and mussel shells using both hot composting and vermicomposting techniques to produce a range of products including compost, worm castings, potting soil mixes, vermitea bags, and organic fertilizer pellets--they even have their own cat litter brand produced from the mussel shells! The operation even has its own biogas and vermifilitration system. I was thoroughly impressed by what Sergio and his team have been able to create on a relatively small piece of land with the economic pressures that face all businesses in this field. Visiting Ecocelta was a hopeful reminder that mid-scale businesses can be successful.
Next I visited the lab of the renowned Dr. Jorge Dominguez at the University of Vigo, where I was accompanied by two of his students, Hugo and Alberto. I took a tour of their worm beds, which included multiple continuous flow through beds, IBC beds, and a simple system made of cement bricks. Although, Dr. Dominguez has studied various applications of vermicompost through the years, we primarily talked about the use of vermicompost for wine grape residuals and for treatment of human excrement. Success of the former would contribute to a circular fertilization system for the wine industry and the latter could serve as a low-tech sanitation solution in developing countries. It was fun picking the brain of someone who has been studying vermicomposting for decades! One interesting observation he made was that worms adapt and evolve over numerous generations to their feed types--to the point where you can visibly observe the difference.
After bouncing from one hotel/Airbnb to the next, I was looking forward to settling in at my next stop, a permaculture farm in a country nicknamed "The Warm Heart of Africa."
I flew to Malawi, in Southern Africa, to visit Tikondwe Freedom Gardens.
Malawi is a heavily agricultural country consisting mainly of small shareholder farms. Many of the farmers cannot afford synthetic fertilizer and food insecurity is an issue. To better understand the role compost plays in building soil fertility in resource-limited countries like Malawi, I visited Tikondwe Freedom Gardens in Dowa (the same setting as the Netflix film “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind"). The farm was founded by Dr. Chinkhuntha, a trained economist, in 1982 out of a desire to achieve food security for his family. I found the farm through a distant connection on LinkedIn (thank you, Stacia!) With many permaculture projects I've come across being founded in the early to late '00's, I was attracted to its history, as well as its size (27 acres), and crop diversity.
The farm manages soil fertility without synthetic fertilizers.
Instead they rely on compost application, crop rotation with legumes, inter-planting with legumes, and planting of nitrogen fixing trees. During my visit, I worked alongside field workers from the local village, learning Chichewa (the local language) and studying permaculture. I lived in a house run solely off of solar power with water from rain fed water tanks. It is probably the most sustainable place I have lived, yet that sustainably is driven by lack of an alternative. Poverty is an issue in Malawi and many people comment, upon hearing I’m from America, on the wealth and ease of obtaining material goods in the United States. For me, however, I couldn't help but be struck by the abundance of the farm--both in terms of organic food production and the number of people impacted. The farm has become an asset to the community and exemplifies the importance of local business to sustain a community. As development efforts in Malawi continue, I hope sustainable, community-centered models like that of TFG are embraced.
In Malawi, during the dry season, they can experience 5-6 months without rain--not even a light sprinkle! This was hard for me to wrap my brain around as an Ohioan coming from a state that rarely goes one month without rain. To ensure adequate moisture for their crops, the farm has deployed a number of methods 1) A series of canals flow from the river and can be released into the beds as needed 2) The garden plots are dug one yard deep to help filter water into the beds and the aquifer below, instead of becoming run off 3) Ground water reserves are dug to provide supplemental water during the height of the dry season.
The farm is also partnering with the World Bank to promote reforestation efforts in the local area, to promote local wood production and combat the effects of climate change. It just goes to show the impact one organization, born out of one family's dream, can have on a local community.
The main crops grown by the farm in October are maize and green beans (legume). These two crops are rotated and sometimes interplanted to build nitrogen reserves in the soil. Although the maize is sometimes sold fresh, much of it is stored in huge woven baskets and dried (see the pic). This year, specifically, they stored extra dried maize, instead of selling it fresh, because there is hunger predicted later this year.
Typically, the dried maize is then ground at a local mill and the maize flour is used to make nsima, the essential Malawian dish, which can then be accompanied by various vegetable-based relishes.
The farm also grew a variety of fruits including bananas, papaya, mangos, strawberries, and peaches...to name a few.
Although it is probably the most culturally different country I’ve visited, the kindness of the people made me feel at home. After the isolation I felt during COVID, I loved living in a community where people spent time together without a constant sense of needing to rush to the next activity. Even with the language barrier, people greeted me (greetings are a big deal in Malawi) and helped me as I struggled to master hand hoeing.
I also realized how old the USA is! The average age in Malawi is 17, while in the United States it is 39 years old. I loved being surrounded by people my age, helped along by the friendliness of Malawians, it felt easy to connect with people.
As for passing the time, I got to try my hand fishing in the farm's fish ponds, watch the honey harvest, finally watch Black Panther (I was told it was a "must"), and pass the afternoons chatting and trying to properly chew sugar cane. I also visited the famous Lake Malawi and saw wild monkeys for the first time in my life! It was a fun trip, except I underestimated the sun and received a second degree sunburn--the African sun is no joke, friends.