Using experimentation to create acres of multiple fruits for food sovereignty and security

Phil Moore
Sunday, 21st April 2013

At the foot of Volcano Maderas in Nicaragua, an experimental research station and educational center has turned acres of pasture land into a multitude of living systems, with food forests, fruit orchards, coffee and herbs.

An experimental research station and educational center, Project Bona Fide (PBF) is as an exercise in regeneration – both culturally and botanically. 

The 43 acre farm was purchased in 2001 by Michael Judd. An interest in tropical fruits, Judd was keen to research local varieties of Mango and Avocado to extend their season and usage. Since then PBF has grown to a team of three co-directors that includes Christopher Shanks who joined the project in 2002 and from 2004 has been at the helm of on ground operations; and Mitchell Haddad, arriving in 2010 works with community relations and runs the volunteer program.

A thirty minute walk from the town of Balgüe, Project Bona Fide rests at the foot of Volcano Maderas, also a national park. Formerly pasture land and plantain mono-crop (the chief export of the island) the farm has been transformed into a multitude of living systems from herb gardens, plant collections and annual crops such as rice and sorghum to food forests, fruit orchards, and areas dedicated to coffee and cacao.

From the beginning Judd covered the land in Velvet beans in a bid to replenish the exhausted soil. His first act set the tone for what would be the signature philosophy of PBF: experimentation. Eventually the beans had to be battled as they smothered trees, and harbored what would become a huge rat infestation. But the beans helped the soil significantly in what became their annual fields. Shanks, who leads operations, reflects on the decision: "We're supposed to have local solutions but we ended up getting rid of the beans - a cash crop grown by many - rather than do it better and make it work."

Hindsight is a valuable tool. It is PBF's ability to adapt, through experimentation, that marks the work done on a local scale and as an example of Permaculture in practice. Recently, an acre at the very bottom of their land was cleared for a demonstration site. Plantains were planted along with native fruit trees and frijol bono. "People will see that transition from Plantain monoculture, which dominates the island, to a stack system that is grown organically, because it's right on the side of the road."

The farm's initial vision was to work with local producers in a bid to help them transition their production from conventional agriculture to organic with the fair trade model in mind. But the concept was, in Shank's words "a little ahead of it's time" and was difficult to implement. Over time the focus changed. The thrust of creating sustainable human ecologies based on sound land ethics and viable economic models remains with food sovereignty and food security at the forefront.

Shanks, a tall, barrel chested man, is both a student and teacher, leading PBF's annual Permaculture Design Course. A hearty appetite for learning and doing, Shanks describes how the farm's role in "adding to the palate of food sovereignty and food security" has been the "question I have been dancing with for a decade and testing here on this farm what is possible. That is my primary drive."

Dedicated areas like the Zone 1 gardens, mixed plant collections, and the forest garden (that includes Coconuts, Papaya and the shade loving Araza, a native of Western Amazonia in Brazil) allows PBF to play the role of an experimental station that shows how plant systems can function together.

Much of the energy is invested into the collections area that includes, at various levels of maturity, and success, Pitanga, Guava, Bay Rum, All Spice, Grapefruit, Pejibaye, Jackfruit, Nispero, Malabar Chestnut and Pomegranate to name just a few. The list also includes volunteers. It appears that even serendipity plays a part in planned living systems. Shanks enthuses about the abundant volunteer Lime tree whose origin remains a mystery: "We feel it's important to codify it and name it so it doesn't get lost. Because this lime may have come from one guy's yard and maybe in 50 years time there are only two trees left."

As the farm moves out to the larger sections like the Mango orchard, Jackfruit forest, Coffee plantations or the Sorghum field this is where a lot of the ideas being played with or certain species being grown in the collections are multiplied out, "to see" in Shanks's words "what kind of synergies or non-synergies are created. Large areas of this farm are experimental – we don't know what they are going to boil down to."

Fundamental to this is the nursery centrally located in Zone 1. "The nursery is our central nervous system, institutional zone one is designed with it in mind to support it and keep us in relationship with it. We have over 150 species of fruits, nuts, medicinals, bamboos and multi use trees and nitrogen fixers in there at any one time. Sometimes that number exceeds over 250. We generally produce 5000-8000 trees per year for site trials, plant exchanges and sale."

In the course of his time at PBF Shanks has been central to the introduction of new plants. From the beginnings his interests lay with how local crops could be promoted in different ways. "One thing that's been interesting in our journey – on our path to botanical liberation – is that certain things we thought we were introducing, we were actually reintroducing. They were here before the Spaniards and they simply fell out of favor. What we found, because they are local, and in some cases native, is that certain plants perform really well." For example, the planting of yellow sapote, or canistel. Originally from the Campeche peninsula in Mexico it is now finding favor with people's tastes and grows well on the farm.

Over time Shanks has developed and incorporated the search for botanically related plants and those from different parts of the world, but which share the same climate. "Every Okinawan spinach on this island came from one cutting I brought from Florida," Shanks states.

"Introducing a new plant to a culture is a very challenging thing." And this is why the work PBF does is generational – demonstrating and offering horticultural techniques takes time. The introduction of Pitanga (Suriname Cherry) and Araza, are being made into drinks by locals; plants used for their leaves such as Katuk and Chaya (popular with the expat run farms and projects on the island) is testament to the cultivation of both people and plants.

As witnessed by the Jackfruit, Artocarpus heterphyllus - a much loved, and used, tree on the farm. Coined, "the archetypal Permaculture rock star" by Shanks, Jackfruit is a tree crop with multiple uses, requires minimal maintenance, and is resilient – in short, a plant of the future. The huge egg shaped spikey skinned fruit, that can weigh as much as 80 pounds, is the world's largest fruit. The flesh can be eaten and the seeds are processed like grains. A relative, the Breadfruit, is being explored for a future project: to introduce the tree locally and incorporate it into gray water systems to help it grow with minimal fuss and care.

"Another part and pillar of what this organization seeks to do is to educate people. We want people to take what we are doing and talk about it."
And what better ambassadors than the workers, guests, interns and volunteers who are welcomed to the farm daily. The support team of interns, who commit to a six month period, ensure the daily running of the farm. Volunteers work alongside local employees, either in the gardens, fields, or helping with the preparation of breakfast and lunch. Volunteers cook for themselves in the evenings experimenting with a wealth of recipes concocted and committed to paper by previous visitors. Around 80 per cent of the food consumed comes directly from the farm. The notion of harvesting, cooking, and eating in, and from, the land adds a quality and satisfaction to the taste.

PBF also works closely with the local community extending their vision in a very concrete way. Cafe Infantil, a children's nutritional program, addresses food security directly by helping three to six year old's get the vitamins and minerals often found lacking in school-age children. The program, helps 70 children, with a breakfast of milk, eggs, fruit and the teaching of tooth brushing and hygiene. Beginning in July 2005 the program is run by a cadre of concerned mothers and as of 2013 is financially independent.

The Mano Amiga Community Center, located in the middle of Balgüe, serves the community with English lessons, a library, an educational kitchen and a computer/learning center. Initiated by PBF Mano Amiga is another example of economic development realized as independence.

Agro-forestry and Permaculture design are the twin pillars of Project Bona Fide. Informing how they both shape and work the land, as well as how they relate and interact with the local culture. As stated on their website, "Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human ecologies."

The wealth of life and abundance of energy emanating from Project Bona Fide is a demonstrable example of regenerative agriculture and land management. Providing a space, and the tools, with which to navigate our current climate is an invaluable contribution to what writer John Berger coined, "pockets of resistance." And it is within, and through, these spaces that authentic and hopeful visions of future worlds are made possible.

To find out more about Project Bona fide visit their website and facebook page: Project Bona Fida and follow them on twitter @ProjectBonaFide 

Phil Moore is on a permaculture tour of the Americas. He tweets as @permapeople