John Jeavons: Blazing the Trail of Biointensive Agriculture

California grower and researcher John Jeavons has demonstrated that hand-dug, biointensive garden beds can produce yields two to six times higher than standard American agriculture while using only a fraction of the water, fertilizer and energy.

| January/February 1990

  • 121-045-01
    "Think big, grow small." By learning how to get fantastic yields In minimal space, Jeavons tackles both world hunger and environmental disaster.
    PHOTO: MAGNUM PHOTOS/PAUL FUSCO
  • Digging in Garden
    At his research minifarm in Willits, California, Jeavons teaches an apprentice special ergonomic tricks that can make digging a garden bed a lot easier.
    MAGNUM PHOTOS/PAUL FUSCO
  • 121-045-09
    Keenly aware that the earth needs help soon, John tirelessly promotes his ideas for growing food efficiently and sustainably.
    MAGNUM PHOTOS/PAUL FUSCO
  • 21-Bed Minifarm Chart
    Jeavons refers more than once in the interview to a 21-bed growing unit that in various forms may eventually produce all of a person's food and compost, and a very modest income. The learning model essentially consists of three beds—one for compost, one for income, one for food—repeated seven times. Both the income and food beds also produce compost material part of the year. As a result, the beds bear compost crops 71% of the total growing-bed time; diet and income crops take up 16% and 13%, respectively. (The planting patterns were developed for Jeavons's locale in Willits, California.)
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS
  • Arm Deep in Soil
    When Jeavons arrive at Willits, he could hardly dent the soil with a spade. Now you can sink your arm into a freshly dug bed.
    MAGNUM PHOTOS/PAUL FUSCO
  • Hexagonal Planting
    Space-efficient hexagonal planting helps maximize yields.
    MAGNUM PHOTOS/PAUL FUSCO

  • 121-045-01
  • Digging in Garden
  • 121-045-09
  • 21-Bed Minifarm Chart
  • Arm Deep in Soil
  • Hexagonal Planting

With his husky build and soft, deep voice, John Jeavons seems at once strong and analytical. Crops and calculations are the mainsprings of this man's work—and on both counts he's been astoundingly successful. Jeavons has repeatedly demonstrated that deep, hand-dug, biointensive garden beds can produce yields two to six times higher than standard American agriculture, while using only a fraction of the water, fertilizer, and energy.

John has blue eyes, a trademark straw hat, and a gentle manner, but these fail to mute his overriding personal intensity. Not much for small talk, he jumps right into the latest gloomy estimates of our worldwide environmental crisis and points out ways his own work might help address the problem. Indeed, one of the most striking things about Jeavons is how he connects talk of global disaster with that of maximizing yields of a five-foot by 20-foot garden bed. "Think globally, act locally," advised former British environmentalist E. F. Schumacher. "Think big, grow small" must be Jeavons's personal version of that maxim.

For the better part of two decades, John's been blazing the trail of biointensive agriculture. Step by step, with little more than garden fork, spade, and compost, he's dug out an alternative that may, indeed, help answer the planetary problems our soil-mining agricultural systems have created. As former secretary of agriculture Bob Bergland once said, "John Jeavons is out of the mainstream of American agriculture—he's 10 to 15 years ahead."

Nowadays, though, the world is beginning to catch up—at least with where Jeavons was. His early books have been translated into five languages and used in over 100 countries. Biointensive projects have been started in Mexico, Kenya, Russia, India, China—the system is even taught in the Philippine public school system! But Jeavons isn't standing still. He's forging ahead, learning how to raise a complete diet in a minimal space, grow compost and "income" as well as food, live out a low-impact lifestyle, and more. (He refused to talk on record about some of his new directions, arguing that they would sound too radical for today—but would be more acceptable in as few as two years.)



In 1990, MOTHER intends to honor a number of people who've stuck to their environmental guns, who've kept their sights on helping us all mend our wounded planet, whether that ideal was in vogue or out. We're proud to introduce this series by presenting the following discussion with John Jeavons (whom we first interviewed 10 years ago), a dedicated researcher who for 17 years has been steadfastly "keeping the faith."

MOTHER: John, I've really been looking forward to the chance to meet and talk with you.






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