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Perennial Food Crops, A Pathway Towards Food Security.

A pioneering food production method that minimizes irrigation and labor demands

Photo of Maki Gurung

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Gramin Bikas Namuna Krishi Farm

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Farmer Co-op or Farmer Business Organization

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://reeprepublic.com/

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Gandaki Rural Municipality, Gorkha, Gandaki Province, Nepal

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Nepal

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The middle hills of Gorkha district

What country is your selected Place located in?

Nepal

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

I used to sell fried noodles in the city. One day while I was in the wholesale shop buying the dried noodles, I realized that my shop would run more economically if I made my own. I then started selling noodles made at my noodle stall. Because I made my own noodles, I made more money and the flavor was better. Another day, while I was in the wholesale shop buying the flour required to make noodles, I had another epiphany. Would it be more economical if I produced my own flour? I understood that I had left my land fallow in my village. I realized that everything somehow connects to agriculture. We cannot live without food.

After my realization, I left the city and moved back to where my resources were; where my ancestors had built terraces on steep slopes so it could be consistently farmed. Gorkha is the ancestral place of our family. I moved back where I did not have to struggle paying rent; where my ancestors had left me an orchard of fruiting orange trees. I returned to my village because I saw that life requires cooperation rather than the endless competition of the city. I moved back where I could grow my own food and have enough to share.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

We are located in the foothills of the Himalayas, one of the most difficult terrains to farm in the world. Mountainous Gorkha district is scarce of rain for 8 months, making it drier than the other middle hills of Nepal. Arid landscapes come to a sudden shift once the monsoon season begins, causing some of the tallest landslides in the world. Furthermore, it rains so much that the fertile top soil erodes.

To prevent soil erosion, farming is done on terraced steep slopes. However this solution is not suitable to modern mainstream farming practices. Machinery simply cannot reach the fields. Without access to modern technology, all farming demands excessive physical effort and toil. We carry manure in a bamboo basket using a head strap, clear monsoon overgrowth with handheld sickles, plough the land with oxen, weed by digging multiple times, harvest the crop by hand to carry it on our backs, and we must thresh and winnow the harvest manually. And still, there is so much work left for the people that live here.

The Gurung and Magar tribal people living on these steep hills cultivate finger millet and maize. These arid climate grains have recently grown in importance because outside food could not be transported. Traditionally vegetables were not grown, land was kept for growing grain, and vegetables were harvested from the wild. Any drought year resulted in a famine. After generations of famine, the surviving people maintain some of the toughest and most resilient traditions in the world. Despite the resilient ways of life developed here, the current majority, especially the youth seek opportunities away from the villages.

We did not have any access to normal things of the city: --the ability to buy potatoes at a shop. If you wanted something here, you had to produce it on your own. But times are changing. Television and the mainstream media with modern education have changed peoples’ priorities. The values of necessities have changed, and people wear store bought western clothes made in China, and eat mass-produced vegetables and imported rice. To be able to fund this lifestyle, young people go abroad only to find low paying labor jobs. We are an area in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, where traditional lives have collapsed. We are in an area where sustainable solutions for food and well being are essential for survival. Fortunately, dire circumstances are no stranger to our people. Wisdom passed down continues to help us improvise and innovate, especially when it comes to working with the land.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

270000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

As a result of industrial development, most first world countries have a farming population of less than 1% of the total population. For example Japan has a farming population of 0.6%, of which more than 55.5% are over the age of 65. ^1 This, in the first world is only made possible by the use of heavy machinery in agriculture and transportation of food. In the age of globalization, we too are rapidly losing our farming population to the cities.

The problem we face today is that we are in severe shortage of a farming population, while lacking any industrial farming practices. Due to our terrain and economical weakness, current production of maize and millet is inadequate to the changing conditions.  

The resulting maize and maize leaves are fed back to the buffalo, because of the attitude that rice is the only grain suitable for human consumption. The story is similar with finger millet. There is a general idea that finger millet is food for the poor, and thus the majority of the finger millet produced is made into alcohol. The left over straw is fed to the buffalo during the dry season when fodder is scarce. The traditional subsistence agriculture here has lost its economic value because we have stopped eating it. If these trends continue I imagine that our villages will be devoid by 2050.

Some farmers now in our area have pioneered in economy based agriculture by starting to farm vegetables and cash crops. But because of our very arid climate, vegetable crops have to be irrigated. The source of water is scarce, thus commercial production of vegetables using irrigation cannot be the sustainable solution for everyone. This is resulting in an outflow of our labor force to seek other economic opportunities.

Our people now eat modern vegetables and generally look down on wild vegetables and indigenous cultivated vegetables. The general view is that the foods that are palatable to the western palette are more desirable.

The challenge for 2050 is to produce palatable crops that can be marketed, while using very limited irrigation, while farming in an arid environment, while using the very limited work force, and all this without using any heavy machinery. We have a very serious challenge ahead of us. In the next 30 years, the challenge will only become more difficult as we lose workforce, and as the climate becomes harsher.

Work cited

1. Ishikawa, Masayuki. Moyashimon volume 1, Kodanshya, 2005. Page 184

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

At Reep (the area in Patiswara village where I live and have the farm) we are trying to farm and keep seeds of different perennial crops. These include perennial vegetables, grain and fruit. We are slowly finding out which perennials are suitable for our climate and which ones can survive with minimal care. For example: a cauliflower takes about 90-120 days to harvest. The seeds need to be started in a bed, and when the seedlings are ready they will be transplanted into beds prepared with manure or chemical fertilizer. With extensive labor of watering, weeding and adding fertilizer, each cauliflower plant will produce 1 cauliflower. After the harvest, the plant’s life is finished. We simply do not have enough manpower to do this in a scale in which it is economically viable.

The alternative to this labor intensive cauliflower production is farming perennial cauliflower. Depending on the weather, perennial cauliflower will live up to 2-3 years, has consecutive multiple harvests and does not have to be irrigated during the monsoon when we receive natural irrigation. The plant is called the nine star broccoli but still produces cauliflower. With the same amount of work the plant produces multiple harvests, lives far longer, and requires much less irrigation and care.

Generally speaking, having an apple orchard compared to having a cabbage farm will produce for far longer, and will be far more resilient to droughts and pests. But apples are not an alternative to cabbage. The perennial alternative to cabbage will always have to be a type of cabbage. The alternative to cabbage is perennial tree kale. This is what we are trying to figure out at Reep, and we have already found solutions for almost all of our crops.

Because we have lost our working population and are unable to substitute it with machinery, labor intensive agriculture is not feasible. When the majority of crops we produce have multiple harvests and are drought resistant, we will have high agricultural outputs that do not require an extensive labor force. Furthermore, in an arid area where people do not have enough water for daily use, perennial agriculture will be able to drastically conserve our precious water supply. Perennial crops very dramatically can change our lives.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

With perennial alternatives introduced, the declining population of this area will be able to produce as much as the time when there was a massive work force. People will be able to enjoy the taste of modern vegetables, but with minimum effort and irrigation. We will be able to embrace the benefits of modernity, while keeping the traditional subsistence way of farming, which results in fewer expenses thus lightening the burden on the person going abroad to earn. With perennial agriculture a farmer can use the harvest to feed the family and livestock, while also being able to use the surplus time generated by simplifying farming to produce other perennial cash crops.

Some perennials are also cash crops. Because perennials in general are much more hands off than annuals, the people who farm it will be able to make an income from farming; which until now has scarcely happened. For example avocados are a perennial crop very suitable to our climate and altitudes. Here they produce very abundantly with no irrigation and almost no maintenance. The plants only have to be dug and added compost around the drip line once in 2-3 years, and, with a leguminous ground cover, this can be done even less frequently. Avocados are a cash crop anywhere in the world, and Nepal is no exception. We have even found a way to make avocado preserve (avocados do not preserve well because it cannot be heated) so that we can keep selling it even when avocados are not in season.

We have a vision of the future where people in our communities do not have to leave to make a living. We envision a community where people no longer have to rely on heavy machinery and intensive irrigation. People here can sufficiently produce their own food and cash crops. Our vision of the future is rooted in resilience; where cultivated plants are resilient against drought, while adding to the already resilient people of the foothills of the Himalayas.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Every year, more and more agricultural land is being abandoned due to soil degradation and destruction. The combination of industrial agriculture and factory farming is the leading cause of destruction of arable land and forests in the world. The world climate is slowly and surely changing. With the rains being highly unpredictable and droughts becoming more and more severe, people living in vulnerable areas of the world have suffered and will continue to suffer more from starvation. Food security now relies on transportation from distances that humankind could never have imagined just a hundred years ago. The traditional knowledge of farming in extremely specialized lands such as deserts, mountains, and arid climates, has now been lost due to food simply being imported for money and profits. Even in areas where agriculture has been historically lush, farming now heavily relies on machinery given that the number of farmers has decreased. The input of resources used in agriculture today are far too high, which is not sustainable in any way for food production outputs in the future where resources will be even scarcer.

There will be a day when fossil fuels will be more expensive; before this day arrives we need to find an alternative way for farming which escape the norm of using heavy machinery for farming and can be done with a very small amount of human labor. It must be a system not depended upon fossil fuels and in which the yields can be comparable, if not higher than, what is found in the most researched, advanced, and modern scientific farms.

It should be resilient, if not drought proof, to arid places and so strong that the plants themselves can sustain with minimum interference from humans. It should be able to sustain the populations of the world, even those living in difficult terrains where succulent annual crops would otherwise fail. What kind of agriculture could this be?

Perennial plants can produce a similar yield in food production to the main annual crops that we farm today.^1 Perennial crops do not have to start from scratch the next year, as annuals do, thus they have more energy to invest into the clumping and production of fruit and top growth. A fruit orchard, which is a great example of perennial agriculture, is more resilient to problems in environmental changes than a succulent annual vegetable garden.^2 During the Ethiopian famine of 1983-85, small communities living in higher elevations who depended on enset (Ensete ventricosum) as their food source, a perennial staple crop, were less affected.^3 Because perennial crops have a long life cycle, the plants tend to store water and energy or are plainly more resilient during times of climate caused disasters. The communities dependent on enset [u3] had live staple producing plants that could be stored live while annual cereal crops failed due to droughts. Ensete ventricosum, is just one example of a perennial staple crop. In South East Asia and New Guinea, communities used much more Metroxylon sagu or Sago as a food source. Sago is a perennial staple crop of which starch is extracted from the pith of the stem, very similar to enset.^4 Most regions of the world had perennial staple crops or perennial backup famine foods in the past, such as the hanza plant (Boscia senegalensis) of Western Africa, the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes) of South and Central America, and ramon (Brosimum alicastrum) of Mexico and Central America. In the case of cassava (Manihot esculenta), it is already a staple food of many communities in the developing world because of its resilience to change in weather patterns, which gives safety for farmer’s crops and food for consumers.

In Reep we are developing more areas of crops that care for themselves. We have been slowly expanding ratoon perennial grains such as perennial sorghum instead of maize, pigeon pea in place of lentils, while also completely changing the entire vegetable production area to perennial vegetables. The work load required for farming perennials is comparable to annuals at first, but decreases year by year to the point that a single person can run a whole farm without machinery. Here, we are dedicated to the research of perennial agriculture because of the efficiency and decrease of workload for the already busy farmer.

We are collecting an array of perennial and annual crops that we think is most resilient to the harshest environment of the mountains. These crops have each been tested, and others have been used traditionally in the village by our ancestors. These will possibly be the crops of the future for when the changing climate will affect the rains and temperature all across the globe.

We are able to tell you about how each of these crops should be grown from our experiences. Our environment is harsh. There is a drought in the spring every year and the main growing season in the summer is hit by the destructive rains of the monsoon. All the crops we have tested are either drought tolerant or specialized to grow in a specific season. Most of them are perennial, making them resilient to harsh climates. Where 60-day varieties of succulent vegetables fail, the perennials can thrive without irrigation, weeding, or tender love and care.

Work cited

Toensmeier, Eric. The Carbon Farming Solution, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016. Pages 119-120

Toensmeier, Eric. Perennial Vegetables, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007. Introduction

“Famines in Ethiopia.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia.org, 14 December 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Famines_in_Ethiopia. Accessed 26 December 2019.

“Sago” Wikipedia, Wikipedia.org. 19 December 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sago  Accessed 26 December 2019

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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