Volunteering in a Permaculture Food Forest

Jack Plant & Gail Harland
Friday, 28th March 2014

What is it like volunteering on a permaculture project in Central America? What can be learnt and what can be given? Jack Plant and Gail Harland report their experiences at Project Bona Fide, Nicaragua, a remarkable permaculture food forest that has dramatically diversified food varieties and skills in its locality.

When my partner Gail and I arrived at the small village, Balgue, on the island of Ometepe in the middle of the largest lake in Central America, ‘Lake Nicaragua’, we were greeted by co-directors of Project Bona Fide (PBF), Chris Shanks and Mitch Haddad. They explained to us the goals and accomplishments of the last 10 years. We could tell how close they are to the village community as they waved to almost every local that walked or rode past.

At the farm, we found ourselves slowly walking deeper into the jungle-like forest. It was not until we took a closer look that we realised almost every tree was covered in fruit. Limes, mandarins, grapefruit, star fruit, papaya, kumquat, mangoes, coconuts, bananas, plantain, passion fruit and the farm favourite, jackfruit.

Jackfruit is not native, but thrives in the tropical weather in Nicaragua. It is an enormous spiky green fruit that grows in abundance. Not only can you eat the tasty fruit, which if you remember from your childhood is the flavour of Juicy Fruit gum, but you can also roast the large seeds inside, a great source of protein.

The kitchen is an incredible and efficient area where volunteers charge laptops or phones from solar energy. It is built from natural and recycled materials and they almost always cook on a wood fire. At the PBF farm, nothing is wasted. Food harvested is always put to use, whether it be cooked for breakfast, lunch or dinner, made into chutney, given away to locals or fed to the farms own pigs/chickens.

Taking the trees home 

PBF have currently five full time and 15 part time local employees, half of which have taken a free Permaculture Design Course (PDC). These employees also have land of their own where some have began to experiment with organic and permacultural systems and being part time allows them to take care and grow their own crops in the afternoon. PBF also encourage their employees to take trees to grow by themselves and trade seeds with the locals to spread new fruit varieties into the economy.

The farm grows approximately 100 different species of fruit and within those species they have hundreds of named varieties, and thousands of unnamed varieties. We repeatedly heard Chris speaking of “finding the new mango”!

Everyday we woke up at 6.45am and had a group meeting to dedicate morning jobs. We worked for an hour and then had a very filling and tasty breakfast, always with a seasonal fruit salad from the farm. After breakfast everyone would get back to work until midday. There were always different jobs to be done on the farm and we always had a fair choice to pick what we wanted to do - like harvesting, woodcutting, cooking, digging for water irrigation, fixing, feeding the animals or processing the fruit. Yes, it was hard work but rewarding.

And when we finished we were greeted with a big plate of lunch. Everyone took turns to cook, and it was always delicious. At the end of the day, we could even grab a Spanish lesson from the farm's coordinator - a perfect chance to get more involved with the locals that don’t speak much English.

PBF offers a mixture of courses run by qualified teachers including PDC’s, orchid establishment, timber framing, natural building and internships. They also run workshops in and off the farm involving universities and high schools from Nicaragua. 

New species & food security

When I asked Chris what were the farms accomplishments over the years he said, “Before we came to our community there was a lack of basic knowledge of horticulture, many trees were sick with diseases unknown to locals.

"We brought disease free varieties to the community, distributed them in a system that asked locals to set the value and accepted anything of value except money, we bred out a serious citrus disease and we introduced a 1,000 citrus trees to the food system. We also did similar work with other species.

"We used a 'gateway' like citrus that the locals knew and liked to introduce new species like: jackfruit, yellow sapote and Surinam cherry. This allowed us to build trust and at the same time build a platform to distribute tree crops, trees that would broaden the food security palette of locals.

"Now locals bring us fruits of their well tended trees. We've brought a lot of skill building to the community in this way too, collborating with locals to teach grafting and disease tracking and orchard hygiene. All of these skills have improved production and agro-ecosystem health.”

In just four days of staying at Project Bona Fide whilst Gail and I were travelling in Central America, we encountered a farm with unique and experimental ways of growing new varieties of delicious fruits. We learnt so much about how the farm works, how it gives to its local community and the education offered to people of all ages. In the few days we spent at the farm, PBF was able to demonstrate to us how the organization has helped steward the health and economy of the local town.

Jack Plant is currently studying animal management and wildlife rehabilitation. He started gardening in his own home at a young age and loves bringing wildlife to backyards.

All photographs © Gail Harland.

To find out more about Project Bona Fide visit their websitewww.projectbonafide.com and facebook page: Project Bona Fide and follow them on twitter @ProjectBonaFide

Further resources

How to Make a Forest Garden by Patrick Whitefield for just £12.70 from our Green Shopping site

Watch: The 2000 Year Old Food Forest

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

From the founder of Project Bona Fide: Building a Rain Garden

Punta Monta: Costa Rica's alternative farming

Why not experience new cultures through WWOOFing?

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