Teaching farmers worldwide how to sow and reap an eco-friendly harvest
By Kristina (Johnson ’91) Haar
It’s not hard to have a green thumb in California.
Just think of all the avocados, citrus fruit, grapes, nuts, olives and strawberries that thrive from border to border. Not to mention the home gardens that produce swaths of herbs and vegetables practically year-round. And one doesn’t have to go far to find a farmer’s market or roadside produce stand bursting with seasonal offerings.
Other regions, of course, aren’t so lucky when it comes to a temperate climate and rich soil. And some farmers don’t have the means to grow enough food to sustain their own families much less feed a village of hungry people. That’s where Jake Blehm, MBA ’94, and the crew from Ecology Action, a sustainable mini-farming nonprofit, come in.
Based since 1982 near Willits, Calif., roughly 120 miles north of San Francisco, Ecology Action is essentially a research garden that grew out of a concern about worldwide starvation and malnutrition in the early 1970s.
Its original purpose was to teach classes, collect data, make land available for gardening and publish information on food-producing techniques, which emphasize soil preservation, smallest-scale crop growing and seed preservation. Soil and climate conditions in Willits are similar to those experienced by farmers in much of the world: steep and rocky, with heavy winter rains, prolonged summer droughts and a short growing season.
Today the organization’s Grow Biointensive method has caught on globally, and it provides training for practitioners and projects throughout the United States, India, Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines and Russia, as well as more than 100 other countries. Workshops and how-to publications are made available to farmers and farm advisers, representatives of farm organizations, officials from state and national departments of agriculture, and the public.
“[The method is] particularly suited to small landholders who want to improve their nutrition, food security, income and environment,” said Blehm, who has served as assistant executive director for just more than a year.
Green Revolution technology that began in the 1950s temporarily increased crop yields, but at a tremendous cost in the degradation of soil, water and biodiversity resources, he pointed out.
“By some estimates, we may have only 35 to 50 years of farmable soil left in the world. Unless we do something about it very soon, demand for food and other natural resources will become even more challenging,” he noted.
Planting a Global Garden
Blehm has been getting his hands dirty since he was a kid. He was raised in rural Ojai, Calif., where his dad consulted with citrus and walnut farmers, and helped start a business in agricultural pest management in the 1960s. His family hosted international business colleagues at their home, piquing his curiosity about other countries and cultures.
Blehm attended the College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University (Fort Collins) and took a summer internship with one of his father’s business connections in El Salvador in 1978.
“That experience had a huge impact on me,” he said. “At 20 years old, I was living and working in an extremely poor, developing country just months before a civil war began.”
After that first international experience, Blehm was hooked on travel and becoming a global citizen.
“I knew [my life] would have to include finding out more about the world and those who lived in faraway corners of the planet,” he added.
After college Blehm returned to Ventura to work in the family business. He began traveling more frequently, and his international work prompted his decision to acquire more professional tools. He earned a certificate in international management from Thunderbird School of Global Management in 1988 and his MBA in organizational development from CLU six years later.
In 2001, Blehm became a fellow in the California Agricultural Leadership Program, a premier leadership development course of the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation. The 18-month program culminated in a job offer to work part time as the program coordinator. After three years, he moved to Sonoma County to take a full-time position as director of programs for the foundation, which included three-week educational travel assignments in Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.
“This position really opened a new world to me, and the classes I took at CLU as an exploration of various electives really changed the direction of my career,” Blehm said.
A stint as director of operations at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania – one of the most respected organic agriculture research farms in the world – took Blehm east, but he was soon ready to return to California. In 2010 he interviewed with John Jeavons, director of Ecology Action since 1972.
Being of Service
Blehm conducted his first international training with Ecology Action last May in Mexico and was amazed to see more than 200 people from 22 countries come together to learn the Grow Biointensive method.
“Even those who were learning about the program for the first time had their own unique experiences to contribute,” he said. “It’s much easier to feel optimistic about the future when you see the excitement and willingness to learn coming from such a wide variety of people and places.”
Teaching trips and conferences help spread the word, as does the training of six-month interns from around the globe who often direct significant Grow Biointensive projects in other countries. The Peace Corps and UNICEF are just two major organizations that follow Ecology Action’s advice.
Blehm has been to nearly 60 countries, including Bulgaria, Bangladesh and Vietnam where he has done volunteer service-learning work, and the adventure in sustainable agriculture continues. He recently returned from Malawi and South Africa, where Ecology Action is looking to establish new projects that will help Africans become more self-sufficient in nutrition and food security. This would also improve their income and provide ecosystem services in the form of soil formation, water-holding capacity, biodiversity and carbon sequestration, which helps mitigate atmospheric CO2 and moderate climate change, he explained.
Even as Blehm looks ahead to helping expand Ecology Action’s African program – as well as seeing the Grow Biointensive method take root in countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq and other areas that desperately need to improve their nutrition and food security – he recognizes the value of reaping what he sows.
“There are many ways to make a living and be of service to the world. I’m so grateful that I’ve found a career that allows me to do both.”
His career also comes with an unusual perk.
“I live in the beautiful Mayacamas Mountains of Sonoma County, and one of my favorite things to do is sit outside at sunset and watch the Douglas firs and redwood trees sequester carbon,” he said. “A glass of local biodynamic wine is a nice addition.”
Kristina Johnson Haar is a freelance writer and former Assistant Managing Editor of Muscle & Fitness and Muscle & Fitness Hers magazines.