Organic Matters

Features Issue 18 Aug, 2010
Text by Selena Malla

JUST A SHORT DRIVE AWAY from Kathmandu, down a wonderfully smooth road beyond New Thimi, is situated a “little paradise on earth”, as one guest describes it- Appropriate Agricultural Alternatives’ organic farm in Gamcha Village, Bhaktapur.

Coming through the farm gates, you feel as though you have entered a different world. An old red and white Rana house stands proudly overlooking the lush green farm premises. A barking dog, moo-ing cows, a child contentedly eating an organically grown carrot. Apart from the occasional airplane that flies by, the AAA farm looks, sounds, smells, and feels natural and healthy.

What does it mean for a carrot to be organic, you ask? Organic foods are grown using natural alternatives to chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Organic farming methods can produce excellent crops, help preserve and replenish the soil, and pose fewer risks to the environment and human health.

The organic farm was started in 1987 by Judith Chase, an American woman who, liking the area, decided to settle there and grow organic vegetables. When AAA was established as a not-for-profit NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) in 1990, the farm relied heavily on external funding, which came mostly from Canada, Germany, and the United States. During her eight year stay on the farm, Judith trained over forty local women in organic farming methods, brought in milk cows, and greatly expanded the variety of vegetables grown. Many of the women she trained still sell their produce through AAA. Judith also trained individuals from NGOs and expatriates’ gardeners. When she left, the farm and its management went through what the current director calls a “chaotic period”, where different people headed the organization, and business declined. When Silvia LaFranchi from Switzerland stepped in as director, she put major efforts into further expanding the variety of food offered, marketing AAA, building contacts with restaurants, and setting up delivery to consumers. Happily, the farm revived.

The farm, whose property is on lease, now provides employment to eleven staff. Three of the staff members are women, and four live on site with their families. The wives of three farmers take care of the guesthouse, which brings additional income to the farm. At any one time, there are five or six workers tending to the farm. Workers earn a minimum monthly salary and receive a percentage of the profit that AAA makes. Dutch national Silvie Walraven, a former VSO (Volunteer Services Organization) volunteer for community development work in Nepal, has been AAA’s director (a voluntary position) for the past two years. The first year, she lived on the farm; she now lives in Kathmandu. Working with Silvie, also voluntarily, is Annick Monbaron from Switzerland, who now lives on the farm and takes care of marketing and accounts. Annick had previously been working in Nepal on a Swiss firm’s road construction project.

In addition to the Rana style house, the farm has smaller typical hillside houses. One house contains a small office and living quarters for the residential staff. The “Museum” is a two storied building that houses many relics from the times of Judith Chase and her husband, who used to train potters in Thimi. Around the backside of the main building is the farm’s guesthouse, which accommodates ten visitors at at time (although up to fifteen have stayed there).

Step into the guesthouse and you immediately notice how cool it is inside. As your eyes adjust from the bright outdoors, you notice the colorful floor tiles and rugs. The indoor climate is very pleasant in the summer time ­ but this doesn’t mean you need to be from the North Pole to enjoy your stay in the winter. Though chilly in the cold months, a kerosene heater is lit inside and a wood fire is made outside the house, each of which warms things up significantly. A peek into the refrigerator in the kitchenette (all major cooking is done in a separate building) reveals some essentials for midnight snackers: beer, cheese, jams, bread, and pesto sauce. The guesthouse is simple and true to the style of a village house. Clay floors add to its authenticity. The bedrooms are up wooden stairs. A Van Gogh decorates the wall of one bedroom, but to enjoy the ultimate picturesque view, just look out the windows onto the farm and surrounding areas. Up another set of stairs is a huge room for many people to share, particularly suited for guests who bring children. A massive bathroom is located outside the guesthouse, well equipped, and well lit.

The guesthouse was initiated to make the farm self-reliant. Two Dutch volunteers did most of the work on it. Currently, three “bahinis” (Sushila, Ganga, and Binda) maintain it and make visitors feel at home. The basic rate for an overnight stay in the guesthouse is Rs. 1,200, three home-cooked meals inclusive. The meals, naturally, are prepared using as much of the garden produce as possible. Special rates are available for VSO, Peace Corps, Nepali citizens, and group bookings.

The guest book, inscribed in many languages, is testimony to the enjoyment AAA’s guests experience: “We knew the vegetables were good, but we also found out that staying here is even better,” writes one. Staying on the farm “has been an experience to remember,” notes another. A “magical place,” “an Oasis of Peace,” “we’re already planning when to return”.

In addition to offering healthy food, clean air, and a taste of authentic Nepali farm life, the farm happens to be a bird watcher’s delight. Among other birds, a bright blue kingfisher frequents the farm.

On AAA’s farm, these healthy farming techniques produce some very special fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Chestnuts are a rarity in Nepal, but flourish on this farm. Some of their other specialty products are Japanese pears, avocados, blackberries, and plums.

Dairy products are also a highlight of the farm’s produce. Two cows and two calves provide milk, manure, and lots of moo-ing. The farm’s milk, cheese, cream, and cream cheese are all very popular with customers. The milk is pasteurized at 75 degrees Centigrade before it is sold. (Any further heating, explains Silvie, will lower the nutrient content of the milk.)

Besides offering fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, the farm makes jam from excess fruits; pesto sauce, which uses basil as a key ingredient; and herbal teas. One of these combines lemongrass, rosemary, basil and chamomile.

Produce  Customers
It turns out that the kingfisher is just one of the farm’s ardent fans. AAA has been a regular supplier of fresh vegetables to a number of hotels and restaurants in Kathmandu. Among their clientele are Chez Caroline, Fire & Ice, LaSoon, the Yak & Yeti, the Shangri-La, and a couple of other businesses in Thamel. The farm’s variety of lettuces in particular is very popular with restaurants. Individuals who buy the organic products are usually expatriates. Silvie Walraven would like to raise the level of awareness among local people, and hopes to expand her customer base to include more Nepalis. “Our mission is to spread the production and consumption of organic produce,” says Silvie. Awareness-raising campaigns and the incorporation of organic farming ideas in child education may be in AAA’s future plans.

Home delivery
So how does an individual go about buying AAA’s products? One needn’t go all the way to Gamcha Village. Sit back and relax; the products are delivered to you. On Tuesdays and Fridays, an AAA van delivers to Kathmandu. Wednesdays are for Patan, and Sundays for Swayambhu and Bhaisipati. What¹s more, on Saturdays, AAA has a stall at Mike’s Breakfast, Naxal, from 10 to 2 o’clock. Ram Upreti and Phurba Sherpa are the staffers in charge of delivery. Ramesh Khadka and Devraj Dhakal manage the daily deliveries to restaurants and hotels. The home delivery system has really benefited the farm’s business, says Phurba. “Famous pani bhayo (we also became famous),” he happily adds.

Since its inception in 1987, AAA has come a long way. The farm has explored the benefits of organic farming and has introduced them to farmers and consumers. AAA provides jobs and strives to continue its progress in the organic farming sector by constantly improving production techniques.

Why Eat Organic?
Tribhuvan University recently reported that 75 percent of Kathmandu¹s vegetables contain pesticide residues. (Although the specific chemicals vary, similar levels of residue can be found throughout the world.) Because most Nepali farmers (and many of their counterparts throughout Asia) have been told of the benefits but know little about the risks of or alternatives to agricultural chemicals, use of these chemicals- including some that are obsolete or banned in other countries- is widespread in Nepal, and many are used incorrectly. Silvie cites an example of tomatoes, which she terms “notorious” for being pesticide-tainted. Prone to fungus, they are treated with chemical pesticides just before harvesting (normally, vegetables should not be treated in the two-week period prior to harvest). When bought, non-organically grown tomatoes therefore have a high concentration of pesticide, much of which will go straight into consumers’ mouths.

If that discourages you from partaking of your favorite tomato salad, take comfort in the knowledge that organic vegetables are actually what vegetables are meant to be: good for you. They are grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and use farming techniques that maintain or improve soil quality and preserve ecosystems. Not only are organic vegetables better for you (including offering more nutritional value) and for nature than their non-organic counterparts, they taste much better too.

So the next time you bite into a veggie, ask yourself this: is it ORGANIC?