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Planting the seeds of a sustainable nursery

Aja with her didi.jpg

I met my didi early on in my service at the 7 a.m. weekly Saturday meetings held in the center of my village. 

I would get up on those days, drink a cup of chiya and walk the jungle path to the meeting where I would sit in the company of mostly Dalit (from the untouchable caste) women, understanding little of what was being discussed. It was through this group meeting that I made connections with most of the women in whose houses we would make improved cookstoves. It was through this weekly meeting that I integrated myself in the community of women living in the center of my village, and it was through this meeting that I would meet the person who would eventually become my community counterpart, my host sister and my lifelong friend.  

The Saturday meetings usually wrapped up around 9 a.m., right in time for the first Nepali meal of the day. At first Kopila sheepishly invited me to her house to eat after the meeting, unsure whether or not I would accept her offer. But as the weeks wore on she no longer had to ask. It became our post-meeting routine for me to stick around and eat with my didi, often spending the whole day at her house, chipping in on whatever projects she had going on.  

Picture from the first initial nursery training I gave in my village
The first nursery training I gave in my village.

Through various conversations with the women in my community, both in and outside of those weekly meetings, it became clear that the largest barrier to growing diverse vegetables in one's garden was access to seed and seedlings. Naturally, seed and seedlings are available in my district capital, Kushma. However, considering the jeep fare, and the lack of free time to go into town when there are kids to feed, houses to clean and fields to plant, very few except the die-hard among the women I spoke with were going to make the trip down the hill. 

So why couldn't such resources be available in our village? The cogs were beginning to turn. 

Early in my service, I asked my didi if I could hold a little nursery training on her land for the women's group. Happily, she agreed. At this hour-long training we made a few beds of broccoli and cauliflower starts, amending the soil and sewing the seeds in neat rows. At the end of this training I distributed a bit of seed to all participants as a way of evaluating who would put the new skills to use and how practical the training had been. 

After about a week and a half I surveyed my team – and of the 25-odd women to whom I'd given seed, five had made nurseries at their homes. Of these five nurseries, only two had produced seedlings that looked like they're survive a transplant. The findings of this experiment were twofold – either women really didn't have enough time in the day to make their nurseries, and so the task got lost in the mix, and/or that growing successful seedlings was harder than I thought as it requires time and meticulous care and attention. The cogs continued to turn...  

Discussions with Kopila about the results of that first nursery training can be considered the nascent stage of what has now become our community nursery project. She too could tell there was demand and interest in planting diverse vegetables among the women in town, but that the skill and time commitment needed to fulfill these demands did not match up. From these observations we began drafting our plans.

In January of last year, with Kopila's input, I drafted a Small Project Assistance grant and received around $1,000 from USAID to fund the overheads for the nursery. Once the funding was secured, we were ready to roll. 

Taking advantage of the subsidized plastic program available from the District Agriculture Office, our two large pieces of greenhouse plastic were only half the cost that they would have been if privately supplied. Getting the infrastructure alone in place (before we could even think about sowing any seeds at all!) was quite the task. Then there was convincing the jeep driver to secure a heavy duty 1000-liter drum to the top of his car for the nursery's simple piped irrigation system. 

Into the forest to cut bamboo for the construction of our two plastic tunnels! A highlight of this process consisted of calling upon the Dalit community to help us haul the remaining bamboo poles to the site of our second tunnel's construction. After all the bamboo was transported, we fed everyone their morning dhal bhaat as a thank you. (My didi and I had prepared some of this meal the  night before in anticipation of feeding around 30 people!)

About midway through the recent monsoon season, we completed both of our tunnels. With all the infrastructure in place, the question loomed: What are the best practices for nursery management? 

For this, I deferred to the experts. The staff at an international non-governmental organization were kind enough to bring me, my didi and another woman from village to a commercial nursery for an informal but incredibly informative training. We toured the nursery, asked tons of questions and got to plant a bed inside the head farmer's tunnel, with his advice and corrections to guide us. The day was a great success. 

The following day as a celebration I took my didi and her friend out on Fewa Lake for a boat ride. Despite her 33 years of age, my didi had never been on this lake, even though it is but a three- or four-hour trip from where she lives. Singing Nepali songs as we paddled around, the Himalayas glinting off to the north, it was surely a moment to remember. Later that day, my didi told me I had made one of her dreams come true (boating!). Little does she know she's continually making my dreams come true too!

Back at home, it was time for business – beds to be turned, amended with compost and smoothed out for sowing. One tunnel would be for tomatoes, both seedlings to sell and a personal experiment in growing this notoriously finicky crop. The second tunnel would be for cold season starts: broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. 

Once the seedlings were sowed, healthy and grown, my didi and I packaged them into little bundles and took our show on the road. For five hours we walked around my village advertising our nursery and selling our wares. It is amazing to think that within those five hours alone, my didi earned as much money as she would have working five full days in the rice/millet fields. 

After that day of selling and advertising, word got out, and now the people are coming to us. (The village word-of-mouth system never ceases to astound!) Since then, the nursery has taken off. The tomatoes have ripened and the seedlings have been bought widely. We are now waiting for the last of the tomatoes before we dig, amend and sow the tunnel afresh with onion seed for the upcoming planting season.  

It seems like the epitome of success as a Volunteer to be able to fade into the background while my didi shepherds people up to the greenhouse to talk business, seedlings and planting practices with them. A particularly beautiful moment of this same ilk: After we made our first 1000 rupees, I realized we needed a way to keep our accounting in order, so didi and I got out a notebook and jotted down some rough tables documenting our sales – rudimentary accounting, replete with scratch marks and line cross outs. After another week or so of sales, I returned home one day to find my didi remaking all the tables with a ruler – neat, organized and clear. My heart was singing! That she has taken such initiative in this whole project reminds me how dynamic our symbiosis has been and continues to be!  

Neither my didi nor I was sure of the success of our efforts when we first decided to take on a project like this. In fact, the whole time we have approached our project with a very experimental attitude, recognizing that we are learning every step of the way. "Practice," my didi says, using  one of the English words she knew even before I came to live with her. Practice, practice, practice. 

I am excited to keep this project going until my service ends in June. I am excited to keep practicing and learning from these experiences with my didi. While I may be leaving Nepal in the not-so-distant future, I will not be leaving the relationships and the work engendered by them behind. My didi has plenty to do and she is happy to keep the project's momentum going. If the niche our nursery now occupies in my village says anything about its staying power, then our nursery ought to be in business for years to come. 

The project above was funded through the Small Project Assistance program (SPA). SPA is a joint collaboration between USAID and the Peace Corps which allows Peace Corps Volunteers to participate with USAID in development efforts, helping communities to implement small, self-help activities, in sectors ranging from health to agriculture to small enterprise development. Click here to learn more about SPA.