Altai Community Garden Project
As a way of saying thank you to the local people of Altai village, where our Altai rides are based, we have started a community vegetable garden project. When we asked what we could do to help the village, the people told us 'help us grow veges'. We like to think that bringing people to the area has benefits through the money we spend in the local economy. However it doesn't benefit most people directly, so this is our way of making sure more of the community benefits from our visits.
We are contributing 5% of the price of all Altai trips toward financing the project.
The benefits in terms of improved nutrition, particularly for children, will be great. People are aware of the need to eat vegetables, but the closest source is the provincial capital, Ulgii, a four hour drive away. And many people do not have the money to buy vegetables even if they could get there. Our vision is to work with the local people to create a sustainable source of vegetables grown locally, by the people, for those most in need.
The biggest challenge is the climate. No sooner have the snows of winter cleared, than the chill of autumn is back. The growing season is very short, but on the bright side there is plenty of sun. Water is not a serious problem, as a reliable stream flows past the village. However irrigation is still required in order to get the water on to the garden, as rainfall is very low. Mulching will help with moisture loss.
Lack of local knowledge is also a problem, with no history of vegetable growing in the area. In the wider region there are a handful of other vegetable-growing initiatives, so we are making the most of their knowledge, rather than re-inventing the wheel. The 'soil' is mainly stones and sand, devoid of organic matter, partly as a result of many generations of dung-collecting for fuel (the nearest trees are far up in the mountains, where we ride). One of the first steps, and a long term challenge, is to begin to improve the soil through composting. Animal dung is freely available, but burning it is a competing use. A solution to this may be provided by planting trees.
There are no naturally growing trees near Altai village, but a lot of heating fuel is needed over the long cold winter. This leads to two problems, first the collecting of dung which removes nutrients from the soil, and second, the logging of trees in the National Park. As well as vegetables, we hope to also plant trees, such as the tsaagan khurdan ('fast white') tree, which can be used for both fuel and animal fodder (by coppicing, rather than felling), and shelter.
We intend to post reports here about the project's progress, from first 'turning of the sod', to the first plantings, through to harvest (hopefully!). Also the problems encountered and overcome, and profiles of the local families benefitting from the project. The vegetables which will be planted this spring include potatoes, carrots, onions, and chatsargana (a wild medicinal plant unique to Mongolia). The first season will be one of 'plant it and see', to find what grows well, and what doesn't.
For the project to have a long-term future we need to ensure that appropriate techniques are used. There is no point using artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, when these are expensive and difficult to obtain (and damaging in the long term). We are also aware of the dangers of inappropriate development. We have no wish to change the traditional lifestyle of the people, which has worked fine for centuries, but merely to improve people's lives in a small way.
This project may also go some way to assuaging our guilt at encouraging you to fly half-way around the world, and so contribute to global warming!
John trained as an agricultural scientist in a past life (and is a keen vege grower in New Zealand in the off-season), but the harsh climate of Mongolia is a far cry from New Zealand's benign growing environment. So we welcome input from anyone who has any expertise, or just good ideas, about growing vegetables in difficult climates.