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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

King Kamsa's Bhoga-Mart: Why Are We Still Nourishing The Infrastructure Of Dependency

Editor's Note: This blog began in 2008 as a chronicle of the sustainable farming efforts, led by Terry Sheldon (Tapahpunja Dasa), at the Small Farm Training Center at the New Vrindaban Spiritual Community in West Virginia.
We return to that original spirit with a report from the Small Farm Training Center on its 2012 projections, proposals, and challenges
"The Small Farm Training Center (SFTC) is a land based educational center and a hands-on working organic farm. Our purpose is to create community—a web of supportive relationships—by making locally grown organic foods readily available and affordable with the use of simple technology."
Click here to learn more.

King Kamsa's Bhoga-Mart:
Why Are We Still Nourishing the Infrastructure of Dependency?
Dispatches from The Front Lines of Rural KC Development
By Tapahpunja Dasa (Terry Sheldon)
The Small Farm Training Center’s (SFTC) is a land based educational center and a hands-on working organic farm within the boundaries of New Vrindaban Community.  Pursuant to Srila Prabhupada’s specific instructions for New Vrindaban, its mission is to create a green economic model that makes organically grown food affordable and available. The Training Center has expanded it’s activities to include an urban gardening outreach project, called the Green Wheeling Initiative, which was recently awarded $70,000 in grant monies for it’s work in addressing the looming issue of food security.

 The following report was submitted to New Vrindaban’s management team in advance of the 2012 agricultural cycle. It outlines the challenges faced by agrarian devotees attempting to create a genuine rural Krishna conscious lifestyle. For information about the Small Farm Training Center’s projects and apprentice training programs, check out their website at or email Tapahpunja dasa at

Small Farm Training Center
2012 Production Projections, Proposals and Challenges

1), Assessing The Need By Asking The Right Questions
2).   Three Steps Towards Local Food Production
         a). Recognizing Climatic Limitations
         b).  Differentiating Between Small Scale vs Mass Production
         c).  Mixed Spiritual Messages: Separating Rhetoric from Reality.
3). Plan of Action and Projections for 2012
          a). Targeted Vegetable Production for 2012
          b). Key Factors Affecting Vegetable Production Goals
          c). Missing Links in The Food Supply Chain
          d). Prioritizing Basic Infrastructure Development
4). Summary Statement
1). Assessing the Need By Asking The Right Questions
New Vrindaban Community management recently submitted a twelve month vegetable “wish list,” divided into two, six month consumption periods, namely a peak consumption period—April through October—and the off-season consumption period—November through March. The vegetable wish list reflects what the temple and snack bar kitchens are accustomed to purchasing from a local wholesale outlet, Jebia’s Market in Wheeling.

Can local agriculture—the Small Farm Training Center and a combination of area growers—satisfy two large kitchens dependent on a twelve month supply of certain vegetable varieties?  The short answer is “No!,” not easily. We can grow some specialized vegetables in limited amounts (Deity quantities). We can also grow large quantities of greens like chard, root crops like potato and certain “in season” specialties like tomatoes. To consistently supply the most favored varieties—eggplant, cauliflower, and broccoli for example—is beyond the reach of our current production capacity. Why is it beyond our production capacity? What are those challenges? How do we boost production, cater to diversity, address our weaknesses and stimulate dialogue about the role of agriculture in shaping New Vrindaban’s future? Please read on.

2). Three Steps Towards Local Food Production
a). Recognizing Climatic Limitations: The most obvious reason we cannot match Jebia’s year round availability is weather. Imported vegetables from Mexico or California are grown in mild climates. Our growing season of 145 days is interrupted by weather extremes. Incessantly long, wet Springs, followed by blistering hot early summers have become the norm. In the late summer of 2011, for example, record setting amounts of rainfall soaked New Vrindaban’s growing fields for eleven consecutive weeks from August 21st until November 15th.  That eighty day wet spell seriously impacted the fall harvest, spoiled the opportunity to plant annual cover crops and called into question the hope for a successful 2012 growing cycle.

b). Differentiating Between Small Scale and Mass Production When vegetables are grown under favorable conditions, farm workers are repeatedly reseeding and re-transplanting the next generation of crops in large plots of acreage. Even before a mature crop of broccoli is harvested and packed for shipment, a new crop of broccoli transplants is readied to replace them. The new production field is spray saturated with chemical fungicide, followed by a blast of herbicides for pre-emergent weed suppression. Finally, a planting crew poke the baby broccoli transplants through a layer of black plastic mulch that stretches as far as the eye can see. This is not family farming. This is mass production agribusiness, pumping out chemical broccoli for Jebia’s customers—ISKCON New Vrindaban included—365 days per year.

Industrial agriculture—Big Ag.—is a nexus of complex relationships and enterprises. To insure market share, Big Ag. requires contractual agreements, full time office personnel, law firms to guard against liability suits, flat farmland in the thousands of acres,  greenhouses pumping out a continuous supply of new transplants, a flotilla of gigantic farm equipment, dump trucks worth of toxic chemicals and a small army of wage slave migrant laborers. When all these ducks are lined-up—a complexity of relationships antithetical to New Vrindaban’s plain living high thinking mission—you’ll find broccoli on Jebia’s shelves all year long. Broccoli is there consistently and predictably because Big Ag. has declared war—chemical warfare—on mother nature.

New Vrindaban’s topography, climate and culture are not conducive to agri-business.  Instead of wasting time hoping to imitate a mega-scale production model not suited to our small scale mountainous bio-region, we should zero-in on foods we can grow, store and depend on without defying the laws of nature.  If—and only if—there is surplus, should the excess production be sold in the marketplace. That, in a nutshell, is how Srila Prabhupada described the tone and tenure of Krishna conscious rural life.

c). Mixed Spiritual Messages: Separating Rhetoric from Reality
The third step—and biggest hurdle—in attaining a local food supply is ideological. We’re not really convinced that we want food independence…or put more succinctly, we don’t really want to pay the price. Compared to just picking up the phone and calling in an order to Jebia’s Market, the challenge of mapping out the route towards an authentic agrarian Krishna conscious lifestyle is a great inconvenience.

 It’s a challenge that requires an oceanic shift in priorities and a serious commitment to take responsibility for our ecological foot print, especially our waste stream. To insist on eating out-of-season is to invite the consequences of that habit. Getting our ideology on the same page with our purchasing and consumption patterns—and then realigning those habits around our farming practices—is hard work.
Failing to do so, however, is a lapse of consciousness and a sobering confession that we’re not seriously committed to enacting Srila Prabhupada’s mandate for plain living. We long for “seeing Krishna everywhere” and “in all things” but not if it disrupts our international food supply. From a farmer’s point of view, “seeing Krishna everywhere” means recognizing boundaries. It implies not challenging the natural order because that natural order is ….”working under My (Lord Krishna’s) direction…..” (BG 9:10).

The rhetoric: Purchasing produce from anywhere is acceptable because everyone along the supply chain is purified when the bhoga is offered to Lord Krishna.

The reality: At what point does “needing certain vegetables” sour into complicity with chemical warfare against nature? At what point does “Everything can be used in Krishna’s service,” replace local self reliance? Some outside purchasing of vegetables is unavoidable at this point in time.  A review of New Vrindaban’s purchasing pattern over the past 15 years, however, reveals the flight of close to one million dollars ($1,000,000,000) to outside vendors. When the money you’re spending on food from the outside, exceeds the money spent on developing your own food growing capacity by hundreds of thousands of dollars, something is dramatically wrong.

Jebia’s produce is chemical produce—vegetables that cannot be grown without dependency on the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer and toxic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Those toxic residues cannot be washed off. They are systemically permeating every cell of the plant. By choosing to farm organically, we’ve chosen the path of integrity, a spiritual commitment to honor our seven mothers, most notably Mother Earth and mother cow. Poisoning the soil is Bhumi aparadha. When we offer vegetables to our Deities that are grown in glycophosphate contamination soils, are we committing seva aparadha? To depend on Lord Krishna for what grows easily, organically and locally means to humbly accept those yields and vegetable varieties with gratitude and appreciation.

The rhetoric: Organic is too expensive to buy and too expensive to produce, Jebia’s   retail and wholesale vegetable are affordable.

The reality: Jebia’s wholesale and retail prices are artificially low because they are subsidized by tax payer money. Whether you buy a bundle of broccoli or a box of broccoli, the price you pay does not reflect the actual production costs. The consumer is actually paying twice: once at the cash register and again through hidden taxation This may sound inconsequential to a New Vrindaban housewife who feeds her family on food stamps or to a temple manager looking for food bargains, but it’s a death blow to developing a real rural economy or the ability to grow what we eat, eat what we grow, and transmit those values and location specific skills from one generation of devotees to another.  In truth, we are insensitive or unaware—Krishna unconscious, if you will—about where and how our current food supply comes to us.

The rhetoric: We trace our ideological origins and understanding of environmental wholesomeness to the ancient Vedic culture, the remnants of which are still partially visible in modern day India.

The reality: We’re quick to eulogize India’s Vedic culture but slow to admit that Vedic culture operated within an agrarian social and an agrarian economic context. The backdrop of everyday civic life was the presence of flourishing food production and cow care.  That is, in essence, Srila Prabhupada’s image of what he wanted for New Vindaban.

If we fail to understand this point, we’re not really living in New Vrindaban, the Western replica of Krishna’s original Vrindaban.  Instead, we’re living in the city limits of Kamsa’s Mathura, where every food purchase serves to fatten King Kamsa’s treasury.

Commodity based agriculture—the system that produces King Kamsa bhoga—and community based agriculture are irreconcilably opposed world views. Small scale independent farming—the core activity that engenders Srila Prabhupada’s New Vrindaban--cannot compete with a system that hides the real cost of food while destroying the productive capacity of the soil.

As Vaisnavas, we have a moral obligation to reject a food system that represents violence to the land, the cows and land based culture. That may mean taming our tongues by eating a simpler, local diet. It may mean not offering eggplant sabji to our Deities when we know that the production schedule of a California grown eggplant involves spraying the plant with pesticides seventeen times before it’s picked and shipped to Jebia’s.

3). Plan of Action and Projections for 2012

a). Targeted Vegetable Production for 2012: The Small Farm Training Center plans to grow the following vegetables in large quantities in the 2012 growing cycle. The bracketed numbers represent the number of transplants we hope to put out. The numbers in bu (bushels) and boxes is the anticipated harvest of those varieties.
1). Tomato   (400))                                                                  
2). Peppers   (1000)                                                                                           
3).  Okra        (500)                                                                           
4). Cucumber  (200)                           
5). Lettuce (30 boxes)             
6).  Broccoli              (600)                                                   
7). Summer squash   (30 bu)
8). Cabbage (600)
9). Spinach (15 boxes)
10). Radish (15 boxes plus greens)
11). Chard (60 boxes)
12). String beans ( 25 bu).
13). Lettuce (30 boxes)
14) Winter squash (50 bu)
*note: For the past 4 years, 2007-2011, West Virginia State University (WVSU) has donated the seed, the greenhouse bench space, the labor, the starting medium, the containers and even the delivery (450 miles round trip) of approximately 130 flats
of vegetable transplants per year. The retail value of WVSU’s donation was over $2,500/yr. Due to budgetary constraints, WVSU is no longer able to render that service.

b). Key Factors Affecting Vegetable Production Goals:
New Vrindaban Community currently has no available greenhouse for starting either early season or late season vegetable transplants. For this reason, the Small Farm Training Center has hired Nichole Shipman, the vocational agriculture teacher at John Marshall High School, to start 75 vegetable flats of early season transplants including pepper plants, kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts and cabbages.

The remaining late season vegetable transplants will be grown in the now damaged high tunnel greenhouse adjacent the Garden of Seven Gates. Repairs on the greenhouse will begin in mid February. Money in needed for paying outside help to grow our early transplants.  Funds are also needed for starting our own on-the-farm  transplants,. This includes funds for seeds, potting soil and repair materials for the damaged greenhouse.  

In addition to capitalization—money for the right things at the right times—the  2012 production plan cannot be executed without a reliable labor force—the right people doing the right things at the right time. As vegetables emerge and grow, they require protection from insects, weeds and ground hog attacks. Daily vigilance coupled with a rapid response to potential problems is imperative. The absence of any one link in this chain of stewardship—namely, capitalization, labor and vigilant maintenance—spells failed crop production.

c). Missing Links in The Food Supply Chain: Foods not mentioned in the 2012 projected production list are basic staples like dry beans, grains and fruits.  Berries and other perennials such as asparagus are also absent. The reason for this omission is that there is no acreage (besides the ½ acre Teaching Garden and 6.5 acre Garden of Seven Gates) developed to support expanded production. Newly developed growing zones will require nutrient management, a crop rotation scheme and fortification from the ever present deer pressure. 

 d). Prioritizing Basic Infrastructure Development: No crop plan, however ambitious or modest, can prevail without a well financed infrastructure to support it. “Land, capital, management and labor,” Srila Prabhupada noted, must precede any successful endeavor.  New Vrindaban currently has:

-no root cellar facility.
-no grain silo storage.
-no bean silo storage.
-no canning facility.
-no heated greenhouse for starting vegetable transplants.
-no high tunnels for season extension.
-no composting facility to transform raw cow manure into field ready compost.
-no recycling facility.
-no seed storing facility for cover crop seed.
-no designated area (free from deer invasion) for grain and legume production.
-no dependable labor force, except for volunteer apprentices, to supply manpower.

In 2012, we hope to enhance production by retrofitting the 6.5 acre Garden of Seven Gates with field drainage, irrigation, and the erection of two pole barns for maintaining and sheltering farm implements. We are also working on a program of nutrient management and soil structure improvement.

4). Summary Statement: My purpose in documenting the status of the Small Farm Training Center’s food growing capacity, is two fold: First, I wanted to provide a measuring stick to future growers and managers to evaluate performance.  Secondly, I wanted to paint a human face on the act of food production—an occupation that Srila Prabhpada called “the most noble profession.”

Farming, if it is real farming, is not about yields and dollars and cents. It is an art form revealing a portal into Lord Krishna’s creation. The Brajabhumi farmers and cowherders in the original Vrindaban are not shilling and pence men, their motivation is growing foods to offer to Krishna with love and devotion.

In the act of thinking deeply about how to make this report meaningful, I learned a valuable lesson, a lesson I needed to be reminded about. Most New Vrindaban residents know very little about where their food comes from, and even less about the challenging conditions under which it is grown.

May the information harvested here serve as fertile ground for growing  a community of devotees native to the Holy Dhama.

Tapahpunja Dasa
Small Farm Training Center
New Vrindaban Community
February 6th, 2012

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