With more than 800 packets of seeds to fit into her backpack, Sue Mangan realised she wouldn’t be taking much else on her trip to Nepal.
The organic farmer from Federal convinced herself she really only needed two changes of clothes and could probably wing it and leave her Lonely Planet guide behind.
Sue and her daughter Jessie were on their way to the Kathmandu Valley, where they would deliver the seeds to a group of farmers they’d been put in touch with just a few weeks earlier.
‘The original plan was to go trekking and experience the delight of walking for hours through pristine wilderness, eating the simplest foods and staying in rural villages,’ explained Sue.
‘However, a few weeks before I left, I contacted WWOOFING Nepal to find out if there were any organic farms in the region we were heading to. My contact, Fanindra, told me of the difficulties being faced by the group of farmers that she represented in the Kathmandu Valley. After becoming reliant on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and hybrid seeds, farmers were attempting to return to traditional farming practices and were investigating organic farming principles.’
Sue – a pioneer of the organic farming movement in the Byron Shire and known to many locally through her stalls at the Lismore Organic Market and Mullumbimby Farmers Market – said the farmers had been trying to save seeds from hybrid plants, with little success. Unlike non-hybrid, open-pollinated seeds, commercial hybrid seeds will not grow true to type when saved.
‘One example the farmers gave was a cauliflower they had tried to grow from hybrid seeds. It grew to well over a metre tall and produced a cauliflower the size of a fifty-cent coin.’
Sue said there had previously been seed banks set up with non-hybrid and open-pollinated seeds but the farmers had limited knowledge of them and didn’t know how to access them.
And so the seed hunt began. Sue researched the climatic zones, soil types and traditional diets of the Kathmandu Valley before collecting as many open-pollinated seeds as she could. Some were donated by local organic farmers, while others were sourced from organic seed companies. Slowly but surely they began to engulf her kitchen table.
In early October, their backpacks crammed with 30 sets of 27 different varieties of seed, Sue and Jessie headed off.
When they eventually met with the farmers it was Dipawali, one of the most important festivals on the Nepali calendar.
‘One of the highlights of the trip was sitting in a room with 25 other farmers, some dressed in their best festival clothes and others straight from their fields with mud on the borders of their saris and between their toes, talking about seeds and seasons with cups of tea balanced on our knees,’ Sue said.
Most of the seeds Sue and Jessie took over were familiar to the farmers, but a few, like kale and snake beans, were new, and caused quite a bit of excitement.
The seeds were a gift to the farmers that will keep giving year after year, as they will be able to save the seeds and be sure of what they will get the next time they’re planted. Sue also gave the farmers seed saving books and soil healthcare DVDs donated by local group Soilcare.
Sue said it was heartening to see the organic trials the farmers were running with traditional and fermented composts based on cow manure, urine and microbes.
‘The improvements in plant health, production and soil quality are helping to encourage the farmers towards the goal of becoming 100 per cent organic by 2025,’ she said.
Sue hopes to return to the Kathmandu Valley with husband David Forrest, a well known organic farming educator in our region, to deliver more seeds and to offer advice and assistance with improving soil health and moving to an organic, self-reliant and sustainable farming future.
‘There has been so much soil degradation from chemical application and there is now so little organic matter or humus in the soil, that there is nothing to hold it in place during the wet season. Tons and tons get washed into the rivers annually,’ said Sue.
‘For Nepal, this transition [to organic farming] is critical for food security.’