Raised on a farm in Northern Michigan, Tapahpunja Dasa was attracted to ISKCON’s “simple-living, high-thinking” message and joined in 1974 in New Vrindaban, where he began growing organic produce. After some side projects over the years, such as missionary work overseas and starting North America’s first Food For Life program in 1982, he restarted his organic growing in 1996, and has been “focused on creating a connection between spirituality and sustainability” for the past thirteen years.
“I believe that if we want the rural, Krishna conscious lifestyle that Srila Prabhupada desired for New Vrindaban—not just generic cow protection or hobby gardening—it must be a centrally located, highly visible part of our outreach,” he says. “When I presented these thoughts to the New Vrindaban management, they kindly granted me a piece of property right in the center of the community, directly across from the temple, to turn my ambition into reality.”
To make the project more accessible to the general public and to secular organizations, Tapahpunja created his own 501 C3 charity organization called The
Small Farm Training Center, which names New Vrindaban as its “host community.”
Over the past six years, he has developed a vibrant apprentice farming program, which draws between eight and fourteen college students every season (from March till November), enthusiastic about getting their hands dirty and learning sustainability. They go through three levels of training: backyard gardening, market gardening—learning how to trade, barter and sell one’s produce at a farmer’s market—and mini-farming, which is performed on a six-and-a-half acre site called The Garden of Seven Gates.
“Rather than just grunt work, I want to give them a rich, well-rounded experience,” Tapahpunja says. “I’d like them to leave with a very solid foundation of why we should be sustainable, so that they can be articulate spokespersons on the issue.”
In return for their work, the students receive room and board, staying at the project’s Small Farm Guesthouse and eating prasadam. Many comment that they feel comfortable and cared for.
There is no pressure to go any further than learning the ABCs of organic gardening, but Tapahpunja does explain to the students that his Training Center’s host is a spiritual community with a beautiful temple, delicious vegetarian meals, philosophical classes, and the renowned tourist attraction Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, which they are welcome to check out.
Those who are more spiritually-inclined do, and, like Tapahpunja in the 1970s, they are astounded at the rich culture and philosophy integrated with the natural lifestyle.
“We have a lot to offer to the worldwide dialogue on sustainability,” Tapahpunja says. “At the heart of it all is the fact that there is really no such thing as sustainability in this world—everything is subject to devastating time. The only true sustainability is our relationship with God. And it’s important to understand that as we attempt to live a simple lifestyle.”
Tapahpunja shows himself to be aligned with this understanding by growing a garden that is specific to the needs of New Vrindaban’s presiding Deities Sri-Sri Radha-Vrindabanchandra, and to the needs of Their devotees.
Providing for the community is a challenge, however. “Right now only about ten per cent of the produce used by the temple is grown in our own garden,” he says. “It’s difficult because New Vrindaban is a major pilgrimage destination, with 600 to 800 people visiting on festival weekends, making it hard to match field production with consumption patterns. On top of that, most of the devotees here are from urban backgrounds, and they want seasonal vegetables all year around, which is impossible. So a big part of my job is convincing the temple management that to support a farm culture we have to get used to eating seasonally.”
Still, Tapahpunja tries to grow a wide variety of vegetables. He’s helped by grant money from West Virginia State University, which is offered in return for data on his yield.
There’s even surplus, which he began delivering to Wheeling soup kitchens as a charitable donation five years ago. Today, he has developed a good relationship with cooks, administration and clientele, and delivers to six different kitchens over thirty times a year—unheard of by any other farmer or agrarian-based community.
“They don’t have a lot of funding, and most of the food they serve people are corporate donations of sugary foods and heavy starches—cheap calories that are going bad in large scale grocery stores and get donated for a tax write-off by large corporations,” Tapahpunja says. “So they are very grateful for our freshly-grown donations. They especially love Swiss Chard, a kind of large beet green, which I grow a quarter acre of each year, and lettuce, which I’ve developed a technique for growing even in the hot weather.”
The soup kitchens, as well as the city of Wheeling, are very appreciative because they can see that this effort is not a cynical photo-op, but a genuine concern for the quality of peoples’ diets.
This charitable work and networking is not only excellent public relations for ISKCON New Vrindaban, but it has yielded yet another exciting project.
“It got me in touch with some local Wheeling gardeners, and about a year ago we decided to team up and share resources, creating the ‘Green Wheeling Initiative,’” Tapahpunja says. “Our byline is ‘A Green Bridge Over Troubled Waters,’ and we regularly meet at the local community college to discuss how to increase our charitable distribution of produce, as well as new gardening initiatives.”
The most exciting of these is an urban renewal project in which members of the GWI install gardens in vacant lots and former industrial deadzones throughout the city. They have installed seven so far, including one on the front lawn of the West Virginia Northern Community College, the biggest community college in the State.
“Working with their culinary arts department, we made a nice garden for them with lots of vegatables and culinary herbs, so that the students could get acquainted with growing their own produce, and realize how much better it makes food taste,” says Tapahpunja.
In return, the Community College arranged for Tapahpunja to meet with representatives of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the Hess Family Foundation, who were impressed with the GWI’s vision to turn Wheeling’s vacant lots into economic and health opportunities for its people.
“They also liked our mood of collaboration and inclusiveness, and our goal of empowering people to become food independent and build community at the same time,” Tapahpunja says. “As a result, they suggested that I write two grants, which I did. They then funded both of them—the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation gave $55,000, while the Hess Family Foundation gave $15,000.”
Tapahpunja says that the GWI’s work is making the citizens of Wheeling more aware of both the health and sociological reasons for becoming food independent. This naturally ties in with cow protection, since cow dung is essential to fertile soil for growing food; and with spiritual communities, where people support each other in a lifestyle closer to the land and the one who sustains us all: God.
In the future, Tapahpunja hopes to continue networking and reaching out to organizations such as PETA and Farm Sanctuary, and people such as young Indian couples, who, despite working in the technological field, are often not far removed from their village roots. He also hopes to launch a new initiative, VARA, which means “best” in Sanskrit and is an acronym for Vedic Academy for Rural Arts. Its mission will be to train brahminically-inclined devotees who can articulate a message of sustainability based on the Krishna conscious perspective.
“Once, while walking with his disciples on the outskirts of Atlanta, Srila Prabhupada took his cane and traced the outline of all the downtown skyscrapers,” Tapahpunja says. “Then he said, ‘Do you see this city? This city and all like it will be finished very soon. Do you know why?’ The devotees were at a loss, groping for all kinds of metaphysical answers. Finally Tamal Krishna Maharaja said, ‘Because they can’t grow their own food?’ ‘Yes,’ Srila Prabhupada replied. ‘Because they can’t grow their own food.’”
“Therefore,” Tapahpunja concludes, “I see food independence as one of our ISKCON movement’s most important missions,