Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A travel report from India

Linda and Sandy Grimwade are traveling in India volunteering for the next several months. Here is  their first report.

We are now settled in the little village of Chandelao about 25 miles from Jodhpur in the state of Rajasthan in India.

We think that the Philadelphia Master Gardeners would be interested to know that one of the projects we are involved in is developing a high-tunnel greenhouse project for extending the growing season of high-value vegetables. The foundation we are working for has funding for such a project but only a very vague plan for how to implement it. The challenges are formidable, as we are in a semi-desert area, not unlike New Mexico or Arizona. The annual rainfall is less than 20 inches, and it all falls in an 8-week period in August and September. Winter temperatures go down to freezing at night and temperatures of 105 – 115 F are common during the summer months of May to July. Luckily there is some water for irrigation in the region from a canal that captures Himalayan ice-melt run-off, and in addition the local people are adept at water capture and storage in underground tanks and artificial ponds. However, there is little or no food grown in greenhouses in India, despite the fact that it has been successfully implemented in other hot and arid countries, such as Israel and Egypt. Agriculture has been practiced here for longer than practically anywhere on the planet, and is very traditional. Over 75% of the population in this area is involved in agriculture -- mostly on small subsistence farms.

We are hoping that the small pilot project we are assisting with will be successful enough for local farmers to follow. The plan is to build a high-tunnel plastic greenhouse with drip irrigation and highly fertile raised beds to grow okra, peppers, tomatoes and eggplant in fall, winter and spring. The project has enthusiastic support from the village chief and the State Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately, there seems to be no tradition here for the State College of Agriculture to get involved with local farmers and the spread of “best practices” – no equivalent of Penn State Extension!

Our involvement has started with developing a plan for building composting bins, collecting kitchen vegetable waste from the local guest-house kitchen, collecting leaves and prunings from bushes which grow along roadsides and in pastures, and tracking other sources of organic materials. Luckily there is a large supply of cow manure and bat guano, so there will be no lack of nitrogen. The next steps will be planning construction of the greenhouse and irrigation-pipe installation. Then there are several other interesting challenges including acquiring suitable seed, sowing and seedling maintenance, and pest control – did I mention that the site selected is riddled with holes of burrowing mice which will no doubt enjoy the taste of the seeds sown and the produce grown? We may need to plan for chicken wire under the raised beds. The locals rely on cats and cobras to keep the mouse population under control.

We know we won't be here long enough to see the completion of this project but it is exciting to be involved and to put our Master Gardener training to use. Any advice, suggestions, encouragement or useful web sites would be greatly appreciated.

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