From Learning to Leading: Establishing Forest Gardens in Guatemala
By Olivier Allongue - Training Manager
Our fight against climate change begins with modifying the way we farm today. Our current practices cannot sustain production, and evidence from around the world makes it clear that we need a shift towards regenerative, diverse agroforestry systems.
The transition to sustainable agricultural systems is easier said than done, but we have good news. Through the FGTC community, agroforestry practitioners around the world are setting an example by contributing to the global regenerative agriculture movement. Practitioners like Mishell from Baja Verapaz, Guatemala!!
Acquiring expertise as an agricultural engineer through her studies, Mishell became an agricultural technician at a non-profit organization focused on alleviating childhood hunger. An agroforestry enthusiast, Mishell later fully embraced the Forest Garden Approach. Today, she helps families grow family gardens, raise birds, and establish orchard and agroforestry plots.
Having worked as an agronomist for about 12 years, Mishell has observed how diversified systems can change the livelihoods of smallholder farmers everywhere. Especially in comparison to the monoculture systems that are so common in her area. She first came across the Forest Garden Approach after international poverty alleviation non-profit, Feed the Children, funded the Spanish translations of TREES training materials. This gave Mishell the opportunity to begin studying the manuals in her own language. Note: The Spanish versions of the training materials will be added to the FGTC in 2023.
After tackling our training program, Mishell fully embraced the Forest Garden Approach. Going from a practitioner to a certified Forest Garden trainer requires a high level of commitment and motivation to learn. Mishell does not recall the amount of time that she spent studying but did make sure that after each chapter she read from the technical manual, she completed the study guide quiz at the end to verify her knowledge.
With time spent studying, along with the experience she had gained, she eventually felt confident in taking the Forest Garden Specialist exam through APMG, and she passed on her first try. While she was successful the first go around, she did not consider this exam easy and encourages users to really familiarize themselves with the material because some of the questions seem very similar but have subtle differences.
With the certification complete, Mishell was ready to take what she had learned and apply it in her work. Using the Facilitator’s Guide for reference, she gradually guided the farmers she worked with through the Forest Garden Approach.
Two years ago, Mishell began working with a group of 4 farmers (soon to be 6) and has seen immense progress. The farmers were planting only beans and corn for many years and were very reluctant to adopt new ideas
Now, those same farmers, in addition to their beans and corn, are growing cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, onion, potato and chipilín. They are also growing fruit trees such as avocado, peach, lemon, apple, orange, pineapple, and plum as well as alders, pigeon pea (Mishell’s favorite), and even some grasses. The farmers have planted approximately 500 trees between the forest and fruit tree species.
Mishell has trained the farmers to use a combination of grasses and pineapple trees to create living fences to protect their crops. They fertilize their plots with alleys of pigeon peas intercropped with other fruit trees. Additionally, they practice vermicomposting and bokashi methods to improve soil health and fertility around their higher value crops. They have also seen the benefits of cover crop with canavalia (jack-beans) as well as organic insecticides and fungicides.
With Mishell’s help, the farmers successfully moved away from monocrop plots to a regenerative system made up of a multitude of plants, fruits, and vegetables. Reflecting on the experience, Mishell shares that this shift in mentality is indeed the most difficult part of the process. She has found that even if she does a fantastic job explaining the shift, adoption is no guarantee because farmers are often only willing to try new approaches when the advantages will be immediate.
To overcome these challenges, Mishell recommends being patient with farmers as they undergo this new experience and to provide them with constant support at every step of establishment. She adds that trust and awareness of the farmers is critical and that adding small incentives can have great success.
Helping the farmers understand the importance of shifting towards more sustainable practices was one of the most enriching aspects of her experience. It has been extremely rewarding for Mishell to witness the farmers obtaining a level of acceptance and understanding of their role and responsibility in this movement.
We are celebrating Mishell for her passion for the Forest Garden Approach and becoming an agent of positive and sustainable change in her community. We wish her the best of luck as she continues to help these farmers transform their lands and livelihoods.
If Mishell’s experience has motivated you to become a certified Forest Garden Specialist, you can begin your journey here and sign up for an exam here.