Agriculture / Expert Perspectives / Rainforest Alliance

From Wisconsin’s Garlic Beds to Papua New Guinea’s Valleys

Noah Jackson reveals some of the unexpected similarities between the food gardens of his Wisconsin home base and the food gardens of Papua New Guinea.

It’s cold and it’s raining, not unlike the conditions in Papua New Guinea. My knees are sunk into the soil and I’m weeding through a line of heavily mulched garlic on a farm in Wisconsin. My dog is following me; she knows I’m leaving for another trip. I’m quiet, listening to the sounds of rain hitting the soil and weeds being pulled from the ground. I’m working at a frantic pace — half hopping, half dancing down the row.

Noah Jackson's dog lounges near the garlic harvest.

Days later, I find myself examining a row of squash, beans and corn in Papua New Guinea. In the US, this is a Native American technique known as a “three sisters” planting. The theory is that squash will shade out the weeds and the beans will colonize up the stalks of the corn. This technique, growing plants of different varieties together, is an example of intercropping. The same technique is used in Papua New Guinea; it’s one of several indigenous techniques that co-evolved here.

Yesterday, another farmer shared with me techniques for breaking up dry, clay soils by using cover crops and leguminous weeds. Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms do this regularly. Similar techniques involving planting cover crops are also practiced in the United States.

Farmland in the Waghi Valley of Papua New Guinea.

Back in Wisconsin, when I weed my rows of garlic in the rain, I’m helping to spice the palette of dozens, if not hundreds, of people. Here in Papua New Guinea, coffee farmers are doing the same. One smallholder farmer managing an area of about 2.5 acres (1 hectare) might grow 1,700 lbs (800 kg) of cherry in a good year. After pulping, drying, milling, sorting and roasting, that farmer might produce enough coffee for 20 families to drink daily for one year. As the world’s food supply becomes stressed, I find myself on the lookout for more food gardens.

The valley bottom of Papua New Guinea’s Waghi Valley is quickly filling up. Yesterday, while driving around in the area, my guide and I realized that there is not as much land left as we had initially thought. When land runs out and food becomes a bit scarcer – as is happening in the Waghi Valley — the nearest market might be too far and locals might be forced to explore new options. The result of this creativity: a wave of garden farmers transitioning their lawns to food crops. I’ve seen it in my travels, and some of my friends are doing it in their own yards.

Scaling productivity up can be as simple as planting a few more fruit trees. It can mean growing wine grapes or berry bushes along the fence line of your driveway. I’ve seen this is Sri Lanka and Indonesia: varieties of cinnamon pruned to make live fencing and, simultaneously, provide a second income. Our challenge is not keeping the world out by fencing, but opening up the possibilities of our land. My travels are teaching me that we might have to start looking a little harder for food gardens. It is not only about caring for the soil, but recognizing our needs and meeting them. We might start by growing our own food gardens – gardens that might not be so different from those found in the Waghi Valley.

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