IT is midmorning and already the thermometer has pushed past 90 degrees F. when John Jeavons leads the way downhill toward the terraced research gardens of Ecology Action. The path is steep, sometimes precipitous, and it is soon obvious that this is not the place for city shoes. Nor, for that matter, does it appear remotely suitable for agriculture. Yet the very ruggedness of the terrain is one reason Mr. Jeavons, who heads up Ecology Action research, chose this spot. If he can farm successfully on these slopes, where daily temperatures fluctuate more than 50 degrees in a 24-hour period, then it is likely his methods will succeed in most places around the world.
In fact, Jeavons, blue-eyed, tanned, and wiry from years of close association with the soil, is convinced he has an answer, perhaps the answer, to world hunger. It lies in his low-technology ``micro-farming'' concept that can turn as little as one-eighth of an acre into a significant food-producing unit.
The micro-farm, which would fit neatly into the backyard behind many a United States home, is also designed to settle comfortably alongside an African rondavel, cling to a Haitian mountainside, slip into a forest clearing, or go wherever else in the world a few square yards might be open to the sun and rain. The concept uses soil-enriching techniques so that a small area can produce quantities of food normally associated with much larger acreages. Jeavons calls his approach to farming ``biointensive.''
Biointensive methods involve raised beds, loosening the soil to a depth of 24 inches, and the liberal use of composts or organic fertilizers. The resulting biologically vigorous soils ``have the capacity to produce two to four times the US [commercial agricultural] average, and sometimes much more, while consuming approximately one-fourth the water and 1/100th of the energy per pound of food produced.''
Poorer nations may benefit most
In recent years the concept has moved into a number of third-world countries where it is most needed and where its low technology (hand tools, reliance on locally available organic soil conditioners, and manual labor) make it most applicable.
Ecology Action's publications are being used in more than 100 countries, and its principal manual, ``How to Grow More Vegetables'' (Ten Speed Press), has been translated into four languages. The Peace Corps has taken the French edition to Togo and Benin, and food-raising operations inspired by Jeavons now exist in Mexico, Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, the Philippines, India, and China, where many of the concepts behind biointensive food raising have existed for thousands of years.
Former US Secretary of Agriculture Robert Bergland says that Jeavons's approach ``has done more to solve poverty and misery and hunger than anything else we've done.'' He believes that within the next decade agricultural institutions will begin spending a lot of money researching the things ``Jeavons has been doing all by himself'' for 16 years.
Perhaps nowhere has the effectiveness of biointensive food raising been more effectively demonstrated than in the little town of Tula, in northern Mexico. The land is hard and dry, and rain only comes for two or three months of the year. But Gary Stoner, a graduate of the Ecology Action apprenticeship program, has shown that this is no barrier to abundant food production.
Beyond an improved diet, says Mr. Stoner, the gardens have given once-deprived Tula families a sense of well-being, even of wealth. Seeing the benefits in Tula and neighboring La Pressita, Mexican authorities are beginning to expand the biointensive teaching program into several neighboring states, with the goal of introducing the program into all 20 Mexican states.
Jeavons began biointensive gardening in the 1970s on donated land in Stanford, Calif., and kept meticulous records. ``What we found out,'' he says, ``was that the biointensive methods used less water per unit of land than commercial agriculture and less still per pound of food produced.''
It takes several years of steady soil improvement before biointensive methods reach peak productive capacity, Jeavons points out. At first, ``we got only three-fourths of the US average, or about 3 pounds of dry wheat grain per 100 square feet. But, after seven years, we were at 21 pounds per 100 square feet,'' he says - five times the US average. Improved soil also stores water much more efficiently. Over the same period, water consumption fell from 20 gallons per 100 square feet a day during the hottest time of year to just 8 gallons.
Jeavons has found that few agronomists question the yields he gets from biointensive farming. But they do question whether people will want to raise all their food by hand - the ``hard way,'' as they see it. But Jeavons points out that while the bed preparation involves effort and time, it is a relatively simple matter to maintain the garden - 10 minutes a day for a 100-square-foot bed. By most third-world standards the effort involved is minimal.