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AHS graduates work to help reforestation in Guatemala

A group of Ashland High School graduates set off to see the world eight years ago and instead decided to change it.

As the young men grew to know and love the people of Central America, they realized one of the best ways to help was to teach sustainable farming to the struggling villagers.

The 2003 graduates are teaching agri-forestry, conservation tillage, green manure and biofuel production — all of which lessen dependence on fossil fuels and agri-chemicals — to five Guatemalan villages.

Inspired by a vision of community and global harmony they say they learned in Ashland, the men have invested $20,000 of their own money and formed the non-profit Semilla Nueva (New Seed).

An arts benefit for the organization is planned at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14, at Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way, Ashland. It will include music, poetry, storytelling, beer, wine and food. Admission is $10, $5 for students and children.

"We've been trying a lot of approaches there since '03 but have found that sustainable agriculture is the key," said Joseph Bornstein, founder and chief financial officer of Semilla Nueva.

"The soils are so degraded now from decades of agri-chemicals that the amount had to be doubled from 2006 to 2008 just to get the same yield ... all the while the cost of fuel doubled. The norm is no longer tenable."

The Semilla Neuva staff see their work as the "true greening" of the Green Revolution, a post-World War II movement that developed high-yield hybridized grains and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to head off famine in the Third World.

"They had good intentions and it worked for a time, but the long-term effects are soil depletion, water pollution and rising costs," said Brook Golling, longtime friend of Bornstein's and an active member of the team in Guatemala.

Golling detailed the team's successes in community building and shifting farmers away from fossil-fuel intensive practices.

"We're working now on agri-forestry, which incorporates tree-planting, using the native madre cacoa tree," said Golling. "You plant it widely spaced in fields. It fixes nitrogen, brings nutrients to the surface for corn to use and you cut off the foliage twice a year and put it in the soil as green manure."

The process lessens the need for petrochemical fertilizers and cuts the expense of farming, said Golling.

Fresh out of high school seven years ago, Bornstein and Golling bought a bus and hit the road to explore Central America, and became fast friends with a fisherman named Alix Fermin and his family. Then Fermin drowned while working at sea, a tragedy they laid to poverty and poor equipment.

The men built a house for his family, which made the widow and child financially stable, and the team became aware and empowered by a vision of social change and working to improve the lot of struggling villagers, starting with their biofuels project in 2005.

Working with former AHS classmates Ben Carrier and the late Ethan Townsend (killed in a hiking accident in China), they trained community leaders in the fabrication of biofuel processors and motors, using mostly castoff junk and waste fat.

They soon realized, Bornstein said, that "agriculture was at the foundation of biofuels and the economic health, social justice and environmental health of developing countries."

One of the unintended consequences of the Green Revolution is that it was successful in the last three generations, leading to a population increase that's now difficult to feed with declining soil quality, said Semilla Nueva team member Curt Bowen, a colleague of Bornstein's from days at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

Sustainable agriculture, Bowen said, is "finding a balance between intensive, Western agriculture and alternative methods used on site. For example, agri-forestry cuts chemical use in half but it also helps the planet, pulling nitrogen from the atmosphere."

Bornstein's father, Jonah, a poet who will read at the Sunday event, said, "I'm extremely proud of him. I wanted him to have a life of ease, but that's not the road he's chosen. It's a lot of hard work and dedication and it sometimes brings tears to my eyes."

In his new fundraising role, young Bornstein is off to New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., seeking to create a fundraising network that includes private donors as well as granting foundations.

"It's a new model we're introducing," Bornstein said, "moving from the old idea of technology transfer to the new model of empowerment."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.