School teens use red worms to change dryland subsistence farming
The Nahuelbuta National Park, Coastal Range, Chile
How the project started
The scene is a secondary school (Middle and High), located in a rural Commune called Santa Juana, in the Biobio Region of Chile. As Principal of the Liceo Nueva Zelandia (New Zealand School, a Municipal school dependent on the State educational system), I received the results of a study done by the National Health Service stating that the population of that area presented a higher than average death rate for young children up to 6 years of age, due to respiratory illnesses. The same was true for the adult and elderly population, although the numbers were less alarming. The report also stated that there was a correlation between these health conditions, and the type of food that was consumed by the inhabitants, in fact, the patients were undernourished, but due to an imbalance in their food categories. In short, they ate too much starchy food and too few vegetables and fruit.
The other factor, of course, was the generally inadequate living conditions, i.e. poor quality housing, etc. related to the low income level of the population.
Those of us who were more involved with our community felt that we should be contributing towards an improvement in these conditions, and as we could not do much about the housing situation, we decided to concentrate on the production and consumption of vegetables and fruit.
Rural living in central Chile
Discovering some basic facts
We started off by researching the reasons for the food consumption imbalance, and for this we did an informal survey of some family groups. We discovered that for families living in isolated hilly locations, the easiest thing to do was to provide their families with foodstuff for some weeks,and that this was achieved by stocking up on rice, spaghetti, potatoes and flour. Add some eggs and meat from their farmyard animals and they would be able to keep from starving! Their main life sustainer seemed to be home baked bread.
We started a campaign to introduce home grown vegetables and fruit, and stumbled on the (for us) hidden factors of poor soil and lack of water, among other difficult conditions related to the climate and topography of the area.
Obviously, more and diverse research was going to be necessary if we really wanted to make a difference through our role as teachers in that community.
We were also faced with a very strong resistance to change, on the basis of "this is the way my father always did things, and his father before him". In addition, the community as a whole did not think much of the state educational system, and as teachers belonging to that system, we were obviously suspect.
At this point we should have given up, but those kids were still getting ill due to their low defences against several common respiratory illnesses, so we slogged on, with very little support from our local authorities of that time, and no visible means of obtaining some necessary resources.
Identifying the necessary research
The families we talked to were very polite, but very definite: they were the ones who really knew about their environment and living conditions. As teachers working in the rarified atmosphere of the school, we were obviously just plain ignorant!
We admitted it! They were right!
The majority of the teachers working in the School were urbanites who traveled from the city of Concepciòn to Santa Juana every day, a distance of about 50 kilometers. With all the good will in the world, we really did not know much about living conditions up in the hills surrounding the small urban center of Santa Juana where the principal schools are located
Our starting list of "things to do", was defined as follows:
1.- Learn about "resistance to change".
2.- Learn about the conditions of soil and water in the area.
3.- Find a simple, attractive activity that would go off with a bang, and get it done quickly!
4.- Use the results of the activity mentioned above, to act as a lever for other important concepts and changes.
5.- Start working now! And prepare to continue indefinitely!
Growing strawberries as an impact activity
Vertical growing was chosen for this activity, due to the difficult conditions of the soil and the shortage of water. Vertical tubes were made with black lay flat poly tubing, sufficiently wide enough to accommodate several strawberry plants.
The teachers designed a simple structure using poles that were high enough to install a good length of tubing, but not so high that the users would have difficulty providing water through the top, by hand.
The black poly tubes were suspended from the top of the poles, and filled with compost. Slits were cut in the plastic at irregular heights that formed pockets through which the young plants were introduced. The plants were set to hang over the edge of the plastic.
The strawberries grew very successfully, and we allowed the students to harvest and eat them. They were delighted!
Our "agents of change" then went home and installed similar structures, so as to grow their own strawberries.
The overall image of the teachers improved enormously, we were no longer so ignorant! We found it much easier to communicate with our community after this success.
There are several web-pages that show something similar, and a very interesting one is the blog-spot Agrostart. The original is in Spanish, but the page provides a readable translation and some illustrations.
There is another web-page that shows how to plant the strawberries in a more sophisticated container called a "strawberry bag" Although this is not something we could have had access to, it is interesting to review this page, as it includes a very good video.
Description of the conditions of the soil in the area
The results of our research were as follows:
- The Commune of Santa Juana covers an expanse of 731.2 km2 (about 282 sq.miles), and over 80% of this terrain is hilly.
- The Land Capability Classification of the US Department of Agriculture groups soils into eight classes, according to the plants and crops that can be produced regularly.
- Of these eight, the classes 1, 2, and 3 have arable soils, with few limitations for planting.
- Classes 4 to 8 are in general, non arable, and their limitations increase as the numbers rise.
- The large expanse of hilly terrain that constitutes the typical profile of the Commune, has Class 6 and Class 7 soils, with Class 7 predominating. This is the area where the approximately 7 thousand rural inhabitants of the Commune, live, and send their youngsters to schools such as our "New Zealand School".
- These lands were once "the granary of the Pacific", exporting products all along the coast as far north as California. Due to overuse and inconvenient practices, the soil is now extremely degraded.
- As the covering vegetation began to disappear through lack of nutrients, erosion set in and destroyed the soil cover even more.
- This area is subject to intense rain fall in winter, and very high temperatures in summer. Due to its proximity to the sea, there is no snow in this area, but the temperatures do drop to freezing. In summer the heat can rise to around 35º Centigrade.
- The soil is now mainly clay with a thin covering of low shrubs. As the degradation process progressed, and also due to the changes in the climate, water has become more and more scarce.
- The land is extremely subdivided into small holdings. The experts refer to this area as "interior dry-lands", because they face the Central Valley, as opposed to the "coastal dry-lands", which face the ocean towards the West. Both types are on the side slopes of the Coastal Range, which runs North to South, and in the proximity of Santa Juana, is called Nahuelbuta Range.
- The smallholdings where the teenage students of the "New Zealand School" live, just barely maintain the families that live on them, with some small surplus production which they sell or barter. We are, therefore, in the presence of a quite severe form of subsistence farming.
This then, is the background scene for our attempts to introduce some lifestyle changes.
Raising red worms and using worm castings to improve the soil
The solution we arrived at, was to train our teenage students to install worm beds, reproduce the worms, harvest the castings and incorporate this rich compost into the soil surrounding their homes.
The type of worm we chose, was the Eisenia Foetida, known as Red Wiggler. We obtained a donation through a friendly vet, of a small quantity of pure bred worms of this kind, which we had to learn to install and multiply. Our students were very interested right from the start, and helped in every way they could.
We carried out small "controlled" experiments, such as planting lettuce seeds in flower pots, with three kinds of soil: (1) poor quality barren clay like soil; (2) composted vegetation from beneath the trees; (3) a home made mix with a high quantity of worm humus. The difference in growth of the lettuce was extremely obvious, ranging from practically zero to enormous lettuce in the pot number (3). The students were very impressed, and the entire school community began extolling the advantages of worm compost to anybody who cared to listen.
Now all we had to do was to convince the adult inhabitants up in the hills, probably the most difficult step in the process.
In order to have all possible answers ready, we experimented with very rustic worm beds, simple structures mainly enclosed with wood. We used household scraps and farmyard castings for food, and we offered to donate a handful of worms, a thermometer and some cheap products for testing Ph, to any group who agreed to install the worms on their properties.
Here is where our teenage "agents of change" played a vital role: we set up teams who volunteered to travel to the rural holdings to install the first beds, and also to instruct on their maintenance. We provided each group with an assessment check list, to be filled out by the adult owners of the chosen plots. They had previously cleared a place near their houses where they could easily provide the worm beds with water to keep them moist.
The adults, all members of some students' family, had to assess the behaviour of the volunteers by ticking the check list on questions about effort, politeness, willingness to explain, etc. These results would later be included in the students' school reports.
To our great relief and delight, everything worked!
Some project results
Our initial objective was to motivate rural families to eat more fruit and vegetables. Through our efforts, we did make a difference, although not a very substantial one. The most important result was preparing the inhabitants to be more amenable to various projects about healthy eating that were later implemented by different government institutions, as these topics became more and more frequent world-wide.
From another point of view, our results were spectacular:
- We gained support from official authorities to start a school curriculum based on forestry and agricultural courses.
- We obtained substantial government funding, by competing for these funds through various official project lines.
- In this manner, we set up a small farming enterprise, complete with small tractors and various farm implements.
- Well equipped science laboratories were installed, as well as computer equipment for about 80 simultaneous users.
- We designed and installed a semi-automated green-house, with sufficient space for 80 users, of which half were involved in forestry nurseries and the other half researched the production of vegetables and ornamental flowers
- Most important of all, a completely new school was built, to replace the rather precarious wooden building the School had been using for over 40 years.
- In addition to the necessary classrooms, the new school facilities include an area for weekly boarders, with dormitories, kitchen and dining quarters for 240 students.
- Last but not least, some of the graduate students went on to set up their own small business, and now produce worm castings which they sell to forestry nurseries and other growers from the region.
Installing a worm bed in a smallholding
- The red worm, or Red Wiggler, an apparently humble little creature, can be anything but humble!
- Changes in rural communities take a long time and a lot of patience. This report spans a period of more than 12 years.
- Teen students can be excellent "agents of change", all that is necessary is to encourage them to participate.
- Educational systems and schools have an important role to play in rural communities similar to Santa Juana, Chile.
- The work was well worth the effort.
© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)
DO YOU ACCEPT CHALLENGES?
Would you be willing to lead a project such as the one described on this article?
Informative pages on worms
- Life Cycle of Red Wiggler Worms or Eisenia Foetida and stages
A short description of the life stages of the Red Wiggler
- Worm Castings: A Gardener's Secret to Success
Good information on worm castings
- Earthworms: Soils' Fertility Factories
A good introduction to earthworms