Located high in the mountains along the gulf coast of Mexico, Jonotla—hometown of the Himalayan Institute Mexico—experiences rain year round. Moist air is carried over the continent from the ocean which then condenses in the mountains and falls as rain and fog, right at the altitude of Jonotla. The driest time of year still sees rain every few days. For this reason, many of the staple vegetable crops that are sensitive to excess moisture cannot be grown or have short windows of growth, necessitating that the people of Jonotla pay higher prices for vegetables imported to the region or travel to other towns to go to market. Some farmers succeed at growing more fragile crops, but rely on chemical controls to fight the mold, pests, and fertility issues caused by climatic conditions.
Fortunately, the simple technology of greenhouses can solve the problem of too much rain and cool temperatures so that some of these crops can be grown right at home. The HI Mexico greenhouse is currently being used to grow vanilla and tomatoes.
Raised beds, which improve drainage, are planted with tomato seedlings. Tomatoes easily rot and experience blight if too moist. Tomatoes are traditionally imported to Jonotla from other towns in the region.
In three weeks, the plants have grown rapidly under the favorable conditions of the greenhouse: warm and not too wet. Applications of aged cow manure feed the plants. Here, Energy Farming Program Leader Arizsandy installs guide strings to support the growing plants.
One and a half months after being planted, the tomato plants are full grown and beginning to bear fruit.
Marigold flowers (seen with darker, narrower leaves) are interplanted within the tomato beds to deter pests, which can be a problem in the crowded greenhouse environment.
Greenhouse technology can be as simple as plastic stretched over a small wooden frame then placed over a bed on the ground, or can be larger scale, such as the HI Mexico bamboo-frame house. At any size, the materials necessary to construct a greenhouse are relatively inexpensive and are readily available to farmers in the Sierra Norte. Growing in a controlled environment that is favorable to a particular plant is one method of avoiding chemical pesticides, fungicides (especially in the case of tomatoes), and fertilizers which become necessary when growing plants outside of their preferred environment.
The Himalayan Institute’s Energy Farming program utilizes organic and biovedic land cultivation techniques. By avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the Energy Farming program is able to grow healthy crops while improving the fertility of the soil. Some of these techniques that are currently in use at the Tibetan Rabgayling Settlement include intercropping, vermicomposting, and micro-rainwater harvesting.
One acre of castor has been intercropped with the pongamia. Castor is used medicinally as a laxative, a lubricant and also as a source of bio-fuel.
Often, tree-based cash crops take several years before they are producing market-ready harvests. During this time, farmers still need a source of food and income. Intercropping is an excellent solution to this problem. At the Tibetan Rabgayling Settlement, pongamia trees have been planted in rows which are 5 meters apart. This gives the farmers plenty of room in between rows to plant food crops and faster yielding cash crops. Pongamia trees typically take 4 to 5 years before they produce seeds that are suitable for bio-fuel extraction.
Vermicompost is mixed into the soil at the base of each pongamia tree.
Vermicomposting is an organic composting technique in which various species of worms are fed organic waste. The result is an excellent, nutrient-rich organic fertilizer which can be added directly to the soil to improve plant health, crop yields, and root growth. In addition, vermicompost reinvigorates the soil by adding microorganisms and improving the soil’s physical structure and water holding capacity.
When the pongamia trees were first planted, the extra dirt that was dug out to make room for the tree and compost was used to form a ring around each tree. This ring helps to contain rainwater and prevents the run-off that would occur if the ground was flat. Pongamia thrives with lots of water, but it also has a deep tap root which enables it to survive the harshest of dry seasons. Like vermicomposting, this technique also helps to improve the soil’s water holding capacity.