It isn’t as though the good reverend, Ed Everrett, both Baptist missionary and neon sign maker, never tried planting a kitchen garden in all the years Rancho Sordo Mudo had been growing and expanding in Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley halfway between Tecate and Ensenada.
“Rancho Sordo Mudo translates into “deaf-mute ranch” and is home to deaf orphans as welt as a boarding school for deaf children. It covers about 500 acres, most of it rocky hillside, some of it scrappy citrus orchard. The reverend’s house looks across the valley from high on the hill A little lower down other family dwellings follow, then tool sheds and workshops, main kitchen and dining hall, dormitories, classrooms, apartments for staff and teachers, and a gymnasium. Luke grew up all but deaf, so it was only natural for his parents to extend their calling as Christian missionaries to include deaf children. They settled in Mexico 25 years ago to teach sign language and love of Jesus while leaving the rest to faith — all the buildings, the land itself, the food on the table, the clothes on their and their wards’ backs.
Running a little low on beans? Pray for more. It always works, the way Luke tells it.
While the rancho showed signs of healthy growth over the years, the food garden persisted in its failure. Despite everyone’s efforts and good intentions, the plants never thrived. As a consequence, in place of garden-fresh produce rich in vitamins, minerals, and trace elements, the food on the table had usually seen far better days. Most of it had been donated from north of the border, breakfast cereal that had exceeded its shelf life and hardened in the box; frozen, broasted chicken parts too old and too tough to sell; forlorn vegetables. Money ever ran low. And everyone’s diet suffered. Poor nutrition is particularly hard on children, especially those who are learning to communicate for the first time. Concentration is a key feature of their new school life. But concentration is fueled by good food.
Through a friend of a friend, word of the plight of Rancho Sordo Mudo reached John McMillin in Seattle, Washington. He was assured that his skills were needed in the Guadalupe Valley. The situation seemed desperate enough, and desperation is what usually attracts McMillin’s attention. Or, looked at through the other end of the telescope, by the time clients get around to asking McMillin for help and advice, they are truly desperate, if not hopeless.
Sixty-four-year-old John McMillin is the head of the business school at Northwest College in Kirkland, a suburb of Seattle. Northwest College has nothing whatsoever to do with Northwestern University, a mistake McMillin admits to making while reading road signs as he drove down the freeway. He was looking for a job at the time and thought that he might as well check out this Northwestern University satellite campus. It wasn't until he was actually chatting up the dean of the college that it dawned on McMillin he was hustling a job from the Assembly of God Church. Northwest College had been the Assembly's campus for the past 36 years. It was here that young A.G. missionaries prepared their minds and spirits to take the word of God and love of Jesus out to obscure parts of the world.
As is often the case with a stroke of good luck, McMillin's timing could not have been better. The college had been notified that if it didn't come up with a liberal arts program to flesh out all the Bible study and classes in missionary skills, it would lose accreditation, a rough translation of which meant that students would no longer qualify for student loans.
There's nothing quite like money to get an administrator's attention, no matter what the college or the curriculum. It just so happened that McMillin had a Ph.D. in an esoteric field of business — quantitative systems and decisions theory — as well as degrees in history and fisheries. He told the dean, “If you’ll let me talk to your science department and link up business with science, then consider the business school a done deal.” And so it came to be. Professor McMillin. He didn’t even ask what his salary might amount to, a pittance as it happened, nor the nature of his workload, which remains considerable. His motives were of a focused and ulterior nature. Access to the students. That's all he really wanted. McMillin had a plan.
In the field, considering a problem, John McMillin plants his feet wide in the stance of a flatfooted prizefighter. He jams his fingertips into the front pockets of his jeans and hunches forward to get closer to the problem at hand. Either that or he is down on his knees to get a better look at a plant, to shove his hand into soil, even to taste soil for what it may be missing. He is always in motion. This charming, determined man of stout, rugged shape doesn't seem to have the time to mask his passion for what matters to him. In fact, time may well have a different significance for McMillin, both the time it takes and the time that’s left. After all, here is a man who has spent the better part of his life attending to one famine after another in lands where time ran out.
He has a full head of white hair receding back from a high, broad forehead. His nose has a raptor’s cut to it. His laugh and quick smile belie the horrors he has lived through and pull the unwary in close. The smile is a brilliant, half-cocked flash full of white teeth and Irish welcome-mat warmth. But his eyes, soft and green and concerned, suggest something far more complex is at hand than a hearty greeting and a slap on the back. They remain steady in a way that implies appraisal. There is a tempered edge to this considered calmness, a yogic ability to remain completely present yet one step removed, watching. The laugh that rolls up out of McMillin’s ample belly is at once filled with mirth and incongruity, with gusto, yet something else lurks there as well. The eyes lead you on, take you in to the core of the laugh where another sound, like night wind blowing through rabbit brush, struggles to be free. McMillin’s eyes have seen the cause and know what you couldn’t possibly imagine.
These eyes have seen thousands of people die in one long night, the reaper’s scythe sweeping through the pitiful hordes. McMillin stood among the dying and helped those he could. And all through the night his pounding heart, in a private tattoo, accompanied the plaintive sound of starving women keening for their losses. Keening predates fire and language. The shriek rises out of African soil to call the dead back to the earth. It is a sound that once heard is never not heard. It is a sound that can be found deep in McMillin’s laugh, a sound tucked behind his friendly smile, a sound damping down the flame in his eyes.
In his time he has helped 500 starving mothers give birth to their babies in a 20-hour day. He has buried 20,000 corpses in a single Ethiopian valley, then helped the living plant sorghum above the dead. And he has come home to bury his own dead, his son of 19 years, his wife of 20 years, killed in a Pasadena intersection by a young drunk driver. And he has gone back out to what he calls his little projects, in Africa, in Central and South America, in Eastern Europe, Mongolia, Russia, Central Asia, and now Mexico — wherever the poor have been forgotten and seek his help. He goes. And he helps in the best way he can. And then he comes back home, ever appearing, ever disappearing, moving like a wraith, like a rumor of hope among the hopeless.
“If I have a gospel to preach,” McMillin says, “it has to be that when it appears there is absolutely nothing you can do, you have to do something. You always have to do something.” That first winter, now two years gone by, McMillin and Bill Randolph, a colleague from the college science department, traveled down to Rancho Sordo Mudo to see what was what. And really, it was the good fortune of the rancho that it was within relatively cheap striking distance of Kirkland, that it provided a safe and clean environment, and that it had a real problem. It could therefore function as a field classroom. McMillin and Randolph would return that spring with a group of students and get to work. Had it just been McMillin all on his own, he would have offered advice if asked, he would have shown the Everetts what they needed to do, and then he would have disappeared, because to a man such as McMillin, the Ed Everetts of the world and their families and their orphans are incomparably wealthy.
McMillin expends his energies not just on any poor, but the poorest of the poor. The poor that international aid organizations let slip by without a second glance. These are the all but invisible poor that the poor piss on. “Normally, when a family is earning $100 a year, I’m done,” McMillin explained. “I’m on to other projects.” His bottom line is simple: lactating mothers and children under the age of five. Rancho Sordo Mudo could offer neither. But it had its possibilities.
Spanish wine conglomerates have planted thousands of acres of the Guadalupe Valley in vinifera grapes. The grand vineyards control the water in the valley and will have poisoned and sucked dry the aquifers in another 20 years or so. They will move on, leaving the poor behind. It is a Third World cash-crop situation, though a situation with training wheels in that nobody in the neighborhood appears to be suffering too much. Not yet, at least. But remove the wheels for a moment and shift peripheral vision to see what could come. Look at cash crop situations in Ethiopia and its kind, lands where famine appears to be as endemic as life and death, and the situation turns nasty.
Peasants live malnourished existences because all their efforts go into growing an export crop usually aimed at the American or European market, not food for the indigenous hungry. The best land is given over to these export crops as are the water resources and any aid the Ministry of Agriculture might provide. The cash of the so-called cash crops does not end up in the impoverished and usually illiterate farmer’s pocket. What foreign capital is gained goes into national priorities such as arms purchases to fight ongoing civil wars as in the case of Somalia and the Sudan, or into ill-conceived industries that benefit the fewest of the few. International aid is meant to take up the slack, but all it really does is destroy local market economies and unload American surplus grain, a benefit to the American farmer but not his hungry counterpart subjected to a carbohydrate diet. The American government pays voluntary organizations by the ton for all the grain they give away, so that is their primary focus, not building up local economies supported by local agriculture. It is a downward-tending spiral that grinds people to dust, the poorest and the weakest people first.
Life looks fine in the Guadalupe Valley right now. The wine grapes ripen in the sun, and the petrochemical stench of fungicide fills the air. But the time will come when both the soil and the water give out and the poor are left behind. The story is an old one. In his lifetime McMillin has seen it played out in more languages than he can name.
He and Bill Randolph walked the rancho property looking for the best place to establish a food garden. That would be the base line, the garden. People have to eat. But McMillin never stops there. He is a professor of business, after all, and he looks for systems that can function as microeconomies, systems that can be self-supportive, systems that cost absolutely nothing to put in place or maintain, yet systems that can eventually deposit cash in the pockets of the poor. The questions, McMillin likes to say, are incredibly complex; the answers are simple. All you need to do is get the nitrogen cycle up and running. No matter what the individual dynamics of his many little projects throughout the world might be, McMillin installs the nitrogen cycle at the base. It is the one grand engine that keeps all life going, and its beauty is found in its simplicity: Plants take up water and nutrients out of the earth as well as energy from the sun; animals eat the plants and convert the food source to protein; animals defecate, urinate, die, and disintegrate, thus providing the earth with nutrients; plants take up water and nutrients out of the earth as well as energy from the sun. Once the engine is running it all but provides for itself, and food and money can be plucked from just about anywhere around the circle.
Wherever the nitrogen engine is running effectively, waste no longer exists.
Mountains rise on either side of the Guadalupe Valley, old mountains pushed up out of the sea then worn down like old teeth with no bite left in them. There are no sharp edges to be found among these mountains. All are rounded with age, broken down, crushed by time. The hills that rise behind Rancho Sordo Mudo are littered with giant, rounded boulders that, given the action of wind and rain, heat and cold, will one day be no more than sand underfoot. Closer to the valley floor the steep hills give way to the more gentle incline of the alluvial fans. Any nutrients that might have existed in the sand and rock covering the fans have long since been washed away by the several inches of rain that fall each year, usually all at once.
The fields John McMillin and Bill Randolph walk across on the rancho property have little to no agricultural value in and of themselves. In some places a few passes of the fingertips sweep away surface rubble and expose hardpan. Yet where most see only wasteland, McMillin sees ample opportunity for fertility. “I see hardpan,” McMillin says, “I know I’m home-free.” He is reminded of those desert lands just to the south of the Sahara, the ones not yet consumed by encroaching sands. He has this plan about stopping the Sahara in its tracks, a plan he has put into effect in several valleys in the Sahel. These valleys, once threatened with desertification, blossom now with the lush proof of possibilities most sane men would brush aside as mad schemes. So the problems of Rancho Sordo Mudo, the ones that stopped all food gardening efforts to date, don’t seem all that daunting to McMillin. He has been there before.
The ground underfoot won’t even grow weeds and invasive grasses. It is just scuffed, bare ground. But in one place a long teardrop of faint green droops down the slope of the alluvial fan and pools at the bottom where the land flattens out near the two-lane highway to Ensenada. The teardrop tells McMillin that there is water in the soil draining off the hills and mountains, moving in a specific pattern. And where there’s water, life is possible, the nitrogen engine is possible. So it is here, on this barren, God-forsaken hillside shunned by snakes and lizards, avoided by roadrunners and rabbits, that Eden has its best possibilities, at least according to McMillin, if not to anyone else.
“The first question is always the same,” McMillin explains. “What is the nearest source of nitrogen?” Since the people he normally works with have no money, often no tools, sometimes not even any clothes to speak of, the nitrogen source has to be free. “It changes from country to country,” McMillin says, “but usually that means some kind of sewage-polluted water. Our belief is that sewage pollution contamination is simply an overabundance of some strategic input. All we have to do is dilute it.”
If the water is pathogenically loaded, then knock out the pathogens. “It’s so easy to kill pathogens,” McMillin explains, “no matter how deadly. Run water in a film over a thin membrane with sunlight hitting it, the UV light will kill anything. I don’t care if the pollutants are chemical or radioactive or whatever, there is always a biological solution to any microelement.” And the underlying beauty of the solution is the cost, which is negligible, and the implementation technology, which invariably is simple. No bankers needed. No hardhats and computers required.
In India McMillin tapped gin slops from gin mills, a virulent polluter that was destroying the aquifers. In El Salvador the answer was the leather dust sweepings from the floors of a shoe factory. In one place it is the wastewater used to wash out Coca-Cola bottles, in another the leftovers from sugarcane processing. There is always something.
In the Guadalupe Valley the greatest source of nitrogen was the grape waste left over from wine processing, that and the stems plucked from the grapes before they were crushed. At one of the grand wine estates, fantastically beautiful show horses produced an abundance of manure. So too did the quail raised at a small quail farm down the road from Rancho Sordo Mudo.
McMillin never assumes that he knows best what to do in any given situation. If the people he works with don’t define their own needs and discover their own solutions, with his guidance, they never claim a project as their own, and it never works. So he begins with a question: What do you want? “The answer,” he says, “is always food or potable water or both. Sometimes income. Once we have established what the bottom line is, then the rest is just problem-solving.”
In any McMillin system, part of the problem-solving inevitably includes fish. He believes too strongly in the nutritive power of fish protein and the omega-3 fatty acid chain, and the fish fill an essential role in the nitrogen cycle. The garden soil needs the micronutrients provided by the fishponds; the people need the protein provided by the fish; the fish need the vegetative waste provided by the garden.
The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are widely debated. McMillin doesn’t care. He has seen too many listless children in too many cultures return to the real world of childhood with the addition of fish protein to their diet. “There’s a lot of mythology and a lot of folklore,” he says, “but I think the truth of it is the omega-3 oil chain replaces broken linkages in the myelinated sheath around neurons in the brain stem.”
John and his wife
Break those linkages, McMillin suggests, and the learning and acquisition portions of the brain become insulated. The obvious effects include most forms of attention deficit, the inability to sit still, excessive sleepiness in the afternoon, the inability to concentrate or follow a series of commands, a profound lack of judgment. Any number of clinical studies deny that restoration or replenishing of damaged myelinated sheaths occurs. McMillin freely admits that he doesn’t know what the truth is in the matter. “But in the field,” he says, “when we’re talking about anecdotal evidence, I can tell you when I get fish derivatives into kids under the age of five who display gross attention deficits, they turn right around. The results are spectacular.”
His field experience includes his own home. When McMillin remarried, he and his wife Linda adopted two girls. McMillin delivered the oldest girl and took possession on the spot. The baby was weaned off crack and alcohol and raised on raw fish. In grade school she tests into high aptitude categories. The same is true of the youngest girl, though her initial problems were far more profound.
McMillin got her just before she was to be consigned to a permanent medical care facility. She was 18 months old and living in a medical care foster home. At birth the drug levels in her blood would have killed a full-grown man. She responded to no one, never making eye contact. Her limbs were frozen, her head misshapen from lying on her back for a year and a half. Her hair felt like coarse steel wool. She produced an overabundance of mucus, which she constantly swallowed. She was labeled profoundly retarded and was headed for a human junk heap.
“When we got her home and the papers were all signed and the adoption officials walked out the door,” McMillin said, “we pulled the tubes out of her, took her off medication, stopped giving her any dairy products or sugar, and started feeding her a slurry of raw fish and V-8 juice.”
John and Linda McMillin held their youngest daughter for the next two years, literally. They massaged her arms and legs back into full motion and reshaped her head with constant massaging. Her hair became silky, her eyes began to sparkle, and at some point she began to look at people, not through them. “I’ll tell you,” McMillin said, “the first time she stopped me at the door on my way to work to say, ‘Daddy, I love you,’ man, I just about fell right down on the floor.” She is small for her age, which is six, is gregarious, and like her older sister, tests off the aptitude charts. But she will have some residual problems that seem to center on judgment. “That’s because we didn’t get her soon enough,” McMillin says. “If you can start that fish protein with vegetables right away, it makes a world of difference. In fact, the results with kids over the age of five aren’t anywhere near as spectacular.”
So McMillin focuses his efforts on chronically malnourished children under five and malnourished lactating mothers. It is here he takes his stand. His goal, like his means of achieving it, is simple: Break the cycle of hunger and you break the back of poverty.
And it starts with the soil because children and their mothers can’t get the micronutrients they need from poorly nutrified soil. Lactating mothers need calcium, magnesium, zinc, boron, selenium, and other trace elements to produce healthy babies. Children need the same elements in their diets to be able to sit still and learn. Without such basic nutrition, the chronically malnourished poor become extremely vulnerable to every passing infection and epidemic.
“Our world is going down the tubes fast,” McMillin says, “unless we focus on issues of women’s health and not men’s welfare.” Mothers lose their energy in the face of an inadequate diet. And in most of the Third World it is the mother who provides virtually all of the care for the family. She plants the crops and works the garden. She harvests the food. She hauls the water and cooks the food. She nurses the children. Take away her energy, and all who depend upon her become threatened. Reduce her ability to feed herself and her children nutritious meals, and generations of malnourished, weakened, slow-learning, deeply impoverished peoples are the result. McMillin has seen it again and again in culture after culture, in one country after another. And he has also seen the cycle broken and the flowering of humanity that results.
McMillin got started young feeding fish to the starving. During World War II, his father, a League of Nations technical ambassador attached to scientific missions in Central and South America, helped prepare for the end of the war by building up fishing industries, primarily the albacore fisheries of Peru, Chile, and Ecuador.
“It was a rapacious fishery,” McMillin recalls, “and my dad knew it, and he knew it was wrong. But he was salting fish and packing barrels and shipping them off to Europe to prepare for massive postwar starvation. That’s what pushed him on.”
John worked with his father and never really did go to school in any conventional sense. “My father believed in memorizing the poems of Robert Service,” McMillin recalled, “and learning Latin, both of which I did. School didn’t really start for me until I went to university, and I wasn’t even very conventional about that.”
Father, with son in tow, left for Europe in 1946. John was 16 when he first confronted mass dying at a liberated concentration camp. The events shaped his future. “My dad was analyzing the health of the refugees from Eastern European camps, and he knew something was terribly wrong when the death rate held steady despite providing these people with nutritious meals,” McMillin said. “We’d open the camp, feed the starving rich army rations, essentially a meat and potatoes, high-protein diet, and the deaths increased. So we started feeding them a fish chowder instead, a slurry of salted fish, butter, sugar, and oatmeal. And the death rate rapidly fell right off. This was a pretty dramatic way of calling into question the value of red meat, which was something of a revelation for me.”
Young McMillin returned to attend college in the United States by way of famines in India and China. His education was interrupted by the Korean War. First trained in the exotic languages of the Hindu Kush at the military language school in Monterey, he ended up sneaking and peeking behind North Korean lines, stealing maps, bills of lading, studying the railroad. “It was an extension of my college work in economic systems analysis,” McMillin says today with a laugh. “I have always been fascinated by systems.” His field work, in this case, was brought up short at the end of an enemy bayonet that tore open his face and stomach. He spent years in and out of military and civilian hospitals recovering from wounds and reconstructive surgery, cursing morphine, and putting his life in some semblance of order. Oddly enough, his father had spent three years in a French military hospital recovering from wounds he suffered in World War I, and when he returned to the United States from France he propelled himself through an M.D. and then, at Stanford, a Ph.D. in a subject of his own devising, something akin to what today would be called ecology.
“My dad had a great concern about hungry people,” McMillin says, “and I have to think it filtered down to me. He was orphaned at age 11 and became the sole support of six brothers and sisters out in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. He grew up highly sensitive to being hungry, to going to sleep hungry. I grew up feeling that hunger was stupid and that no child should have to go to sleep that way. I guess without intending to do so, I’m carrying some of my dad’s ideas forward.”
Father and son argued about the future of fisheries. John McMillin became convinced that the viable future could only be found in freshwater inland fisheries, primarily as a marriage of fisheries and agriculture. His father favored the ocean for its limitless resources. “It turns out I was right,” McMillin says, “though for the wrong reasons.” Neither father nor son could have imagined the boom in tropical populations. Nor could they have imagined the days of factory fishing and drift nets and vast stretches of the ocean left as barren as the Sahara.
John McMillin’s interest in inland fisheries came early, in South America. As he watched his father assist in the buildup of the albacore fishery, he also noticed the poor go hungry despite the incredible offshore nutritional wealth. It seemed more practical to young McMillin to establish fish farms in the interior, among the poor, making use of a magnificent South American freshwater fish called paku. But governments saw no reason to support such concepts, not with a seemingly endless resource lying offshore. McMillin’s point was conveniently overlooked: that the poor couldn’t afford to participate in the offshore nutritional wealth when the local price of albacore was determined by the price of a can of tuna fish sitting on a shelf in an American grocery store.
“When the ocean resource weakens and dies out in a wild state,” McMillin explains, “logic alone brings you inland to freshwater fish. Cold-water saltwater fish need vast stretches of open ocean to feed and survive. That’s what they are geared to. Crowd them into a pen the way they crowd farmed salmon and you immediately have problems on your hands, diseases that you have to treat with antibiotics and the like. Plus the threat of diseased fish escaping into the open ocean. A fish like paku or tilapia is just the opposite. They live in crowded conditions in warm water, and they feed at the opposite end of the food chain. They are born to be farmed.”
Young McMillin had first encountered tilapia in Peru while he was working with paku and had tried to breed them, learning a few things along the way. But he didn’t understand the power of tilapia until he met the fish in its home waters, in East Africa. With his father’s help he had gained passage in 1948 on a ship bound for Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania. His basic plan was to hitchhike north from there to Cairo by way of the African highlands. “I had always heard about them,” McMillin said. “So I wanted to see them.”
This particular statement has driven the majority of the wanderings in McMillin’s life. “I had always heard about the Trans-Siberian railroad,” he might say, or “I had always heard about the lands north of Afghanistan,” or “I had always heard about the nomads in the southern Sahara,” and so off he went on the train or by camel north of Afghanistan or by thumb into the Sahel. But an odd traveler by anyone’s account, for McMillin always traveled with vegetable seeds to hand out and, whenever and however he could.
One such unsuspecting beneficiary of McMillin’s private madness was a woman in Irkutsk, in Siberia, known as Freda. She was a train platform prostitute when McMillin’s Trans-Siberian train pulled in to the station. She conducted her business standing up, surrounding herself and her client within the folds of an enormous overcoat. McMillin was attracted by the lines on her face. “She just looked like somebody you would want to know, so I started talking to her,” he said. This, it turns out, is also typical of McMillin. He tried out some Urdu and some Pishtu and got nowhere. But he got a bit of a rise with Italian, and she responded with Portuguese, the language of her father. “One thing I have learned,” McMillin says, “you can always make some kind of contact, some kind of communication.”
In this case he communicated that he wasn’t interested in Freda’s services. In fact, he asked if she liked being a prostitute, if it was something she wanted to continue with in her life. Freda allowed as how she’d rather find some other work. So McMillin asked her, “If I show you how to grow fish, will you do that and sell the fish?” knowing that if she did she would also eat the fish and improve her own health. Freda agreed.
As committed to fish farming as he may be, McMillin isn’t one to make a habit of traveling with fish in his luggage. In this case, however, he had stopped in Warsaw on his way east to visit the tiny fisheries department at a university, a two-man operation devoted to studying carp production. The two professors had provided McMillin with ceramic jars filled with carp and fitted with cork stoppers in the hopes that he would be able to deliver the fingerlings to an associate at a museum in Irkutsk. And McMillin had been happy to oblige, much to Freda’s good fortune.
McMillin retrieved vegetable seeds and a jar of the carp fingerlings from his luggage. He explained how he expected her to prepare her soil and plant her garden and dig a trench pond for the fish. He told her he would be back in three weeks to work with her and get her rolling.
John McMillin (in sunglasses) explains planting techniques to his students at Rancho Sordo Mudo, 1993
“When I came back,” McMillin said, “I had to look all over for her. She wasn’t at the train station anymore. She had started a small farm. I gave her $50 to invest, and I told her I would be back in a year. When I went back, she had opened a little restaurant, Mama Freda’s. That was 20 years ago. Should you ever go there, tell her I sent you and she will treat you like royalty. Today she’s the wealthiest woman in Irkutsk.”
But in Dar-es-Salaam, McMillin heard about a nearby famine tuning up. “One thing I quickly understood about famine,” McMillin says, “is that it has nothing to do with lack of food. In 100 percent of the cases I have encountered, the cause is always the breakdown of the infrastructure.” In Tanzania in 1948, indigenous rebels fighting British overlords had dynamited the railroad and halted truck traffic, cutting off a half million people in a remote province. Eighteen-year-old John McMillin headed overland to the famine grounds and helped out as best he could, which over time to him has come to mean that as soon as you get the dying under control you turn your energies to the living, to problems of localized food production and stable microeconomics.
He found tilapia in nearby lakes, but the fish were all stunted. With the presence of one female fish in a body of water of enormous size, male tilapia will devote as much as 20 percent of their weight to gonad development. Since the age of the fish (eight weeks) and not their size determines sexual maturity, this makes for a lot of tiny tilapia. But in Peru, McMillin had learned how to determine the sex of the fish, and he taught the technique to the local farmers. Once they started growing only males, the size of the fish exploded at a blistering grow-out rate. Within nine months the farmers had developed an economic base for recovery, and within two years the famine was gone and there was no longer a need to import food.
Tilapia occupy a place of natural symmetry in any of McMillin’s projects that include the fish. They are mouth breeders. They scoop up fertilized eggs and raise their offspring to fry size in their mouths. In a crowded environment such as a fishpond, the young are thus protected during the most vulnerable time in their lives. Perhaps most important of all, tilapia are not carnivores but filter feeders that thrive on blue-green algae. And if that isn’t available, they will switch to green algae. And if that isn’t available, then they select rotifers, and so on through a series of some 180 different foods. “As long as we have sunlight and water,” McMillin says, “we don’t have to feed them, because the process develops its own food. Where there is no pelletized food, there is no capital investment in pelleting machines, no engineers, no imports to the system. Think small and think simple.”
In McMillin’s system he feeds the fish, the phytoplankton, and the zooplankton by tuning up the nitrogen engine. If no other source of nitrogen is available, human waste in the water provides nutrients for blue-green algae. “Anyone,” McMillin has said, “is capable of pooping in a pond. It isn’t a complex issue.” Nitrogenous waste from garden plants provides nutrients for rotifers. The fish feed on both the blue-green algae and the rotifers, converting the nutrients into omega-3-fatty-acid- rich fish protein. Their animal waste, in turn, provides nutrients for blue-green algae. “The key to good tilapia in this setting,” McMillin says, “is a rich variety. They become highly prolific when provided with the chopped-up waste from adjacent raised-bed agriculture. And the raised beds, when they are watered with fishpond water and fed with the nutrient-rich scum that collects on the bottom of the ponds, deliver fantastic, nutritious crops. Feed the soil and the soil will feed you.”
Marketing plays an important role in the system of fish-ponds and raised beds. The fish have immediate value to the people growing them as a step away from malnutrition. But the fish can also become a steady source of income in the community. “If we were marketing to a Western, domesticated taste,” McMillin says, “we would polish the fish for the last three weeks on a diet of ground-up barley and oats and corn to achieve a bland, sweet product. But not so in East Africa, where we grow tilapia in flooded rice paddies and long ditches instead of ponds. There the fish are polished with ground-up peppers and rancid cooking oil. When they are steamed and packed in cans like sardines, they have a sharp bite to them and a fishy flavor. The Saudis love it and look for the label.”
Another labeled product can be found in West Africa, where McMillin helped revive a freshwater fishery in Mali. Here the biointensive gardens provide a bounty of tiny, hot peppers of a particularly vicious quality. The harvested fish are thrown into a big vat filled with water and ground-up peppers, which stun, kill, and flavor the fish in a unique way. The fish are then cleaned and dried in the sun and, once properly labeled, have a strong market value throughout the region.
There was, of course, a slight problem in Mali, much like there was at Rancho Sordo Mudo. The ground underfoot would not support a garden, let alone a finely tuned biointensive garden. 'Nor would it hold water in and of its own. So much, it seemed at first blush, for fishponds. The solution was based on backbreaking labor. No elegant farm machinery. No petrochemical soil enhancements. No specialists. No World Bank inputs or overpaid overseers. Just a little imagination backed by a lot of sweat. The average American farmer would thrombose at the thought alone.
Imagine you are in Mali and all but empty-handed, and poor people are starving or hungry. And they are looking at you. And you are standing on sand-covered desert hardpan looking out upon the hopeful faces of a lot of malnourished poor people of color who you know are going to do great things with fish protein. So what to do? This is a basic McMillin conundrum, though one with an eventual, sweated-out answer.
Simply dig the trench long and straight and with sides and a floor shaped like a flour scoop. Get a big roller and a lot of fresh manure. Camel manure will do just fine. Pack it on the sloped sides and rounded bottom of the trench and roll the manure into place. Let it dry. Fill the pond with water inoculated with an algae that will form a layer of slime on the manure. If the pond holds water, consider yourself lucky. Otherwise, apply layer after sunbaked layer of manure, filling and refilling the pond with innoculated water, until you finally have a trench that will hold water. Then add young fish. The manure in the walls of the trench encourages and feeds the phytoplankton that feed the fish.
The nitrogen engine. As simple as that, in Mali. Elsewhere the basic technology has to be reshaped to meet the needs of the environment and the people at hand.
In Bangladesh, for instance, the problem was a sect of poor Moslems of the wrong stripe for the majority population. Pariahs, they supplied young boys and girls for the baser needs of their Moslem betters, and they had done so for centuries, so the bias against them was not a matter of modern distaste. Government agencies ignored their plight, which was considerable. The only land in Bangladesh they could occupy was on islands in the mouths of rivers and was annually swept clean by the monsoon. This impoverished population within an impoverished population turned to McMillin for help. At first he showed them how to grow biointensive gardens on floating beds.
The monsoon would arrive, the tide would rise, .and the gardens would rise with the water level up trunks of palm trees to which the floating beds were attached with hawsers. Tfie village inhabitants lived in huts built of woven mats that would blow away in the monsoon. Before fleeing to higher ground, they would take the lintel beam from their huts, a piece of railroad iron, and use it to anchor fishnets above the fishponds dug next to the floating gardens. They grew a tilapia accustomed to brackish water. The tide would rise among the islands in the mouth of the river, but the fish could not escape. When all subsided, the villagers would return to their islands, repair the garden beds, take the net off the fishponds, and use the lintel beams in their rebuilt homes.
This solution proved impractical over the long haul. The sustainable microeconomy suffered. So McMillin found a piece of land above flood tide that was the Bangladeshi equivalent of a Superfund site, and he was able to buy it. For centuries the land had hosted a brick foundry. It was considered so completely infertile that it sold cheap. It is now highly fertile land that supports the community. Their cash crop is a combination of tomatoes grown out of season and prime fish fillets. The crops are sold to hotels and to the considerable shipping traffic that passes through Chittagong. The product label reads “Chittagong Gold.”
This issue of land destroyed by those who have come before is not a new theme to McMillin. In El Salvador he worked out a deal for impoverished peasants for squatter’s rights on land ruined by 60 years of sugar crops — sterile, abused land that is now fertile and productive. The same in the Philippines, land used and abused and discarded. When McMillin says that he’s home-free when he sees hardpan he means that the creation of hardpan comes from many causes and occurs in many ways but is earth’s great secret of fertility held in abeyance.
Students at Rancho Sordo Mudo
The U.S. State Department asked him to look at African hardpan this year in Niger and surrounding countries, lands pressed up against the underbelly of the Sahara, lands where the economy has so tightened that peoples who once lived peacefully together now kill each other on sight. These will be the lands of the next great famines unless a good deal of it can be returned from hardpan to some semblance of fertility. And McMillin has the answer. Unfortunately for the Western minds and inclinations that will hold sway, his answer takes too long— the time it takes plants to grow — and it doesn’t cost enough. Though it will work, it isn’t sexy. So it will never be employed in a big way. But it will happen in a small way. And that has always been McMillin’s way.
“I can stop any desert at any point on any surface of the earth,” McMillin says without a hint of braggadocio. “It takes seven years, so if you are in a hurry for a big payoff, looking for the limelight, you just won’t make it.”
Start with a desert valley of at least 30,000 hectares. At the end of the hot season, on the first day of the cool season, add seven tons of hairy vetch seed, soaked and softened in water overnight. You do this by flying over the valley at 2000 feet in a pattern that, when the seed is thrown out the window or an open door, evenly distributes the vetch across the sand dunes. You should plan on being done before sunrise. Hope for a little wind so the seeds will be covered with sand as deeply as they are thick.
Return in 17 days, put your nose right down on the sand, and look out along the surface of the dune. If you see a little green haze growing there, consider yourself home free from that point on. “I see that green fuzz,” McMillin says, “I get so weak I can hardly stand. I know I’ve got it made.”
Having gotten the hairy vetch to germinate, it will grow up and spread out, all the while inserting nitrogen into the soil. Your next effort is to plant the valley with a type of cedar that grows a couple of inches high but spreads out about three meters wide. It is an arctic alpine, a native of Newfoundland, and adapted to a frigid environment. Fortunately, adaptions to cold are about the same as adaptions to the heat of a desert. The way the camel evolved from an Arctic animal in prehistory to a desert denizen is a classic example. The cedar is exhydrophylic, which is to say it uses slightly less water during the day than it collects at night. It can survive because the vetch has provided nitrogen in the soil. The vetch continues to reproduce and thrive because the cedar ground cover protects the vetch from direct sun and provides it with water. When you return in 18 to 20 months, you discover the payoff for so much patience. There’s a little water in the soil as well as a horizon of nitrogen that didn’t exist before. The desert has started to turn green.
It is time now to add another nitrogen-fixing vetch, crown or pod vetch. Now you have all kinds of carbohydrates growing, polysaccharides, the long-chain sweet stuff. The next step calls for one of the sedge grasses or a legume. It depends on how steep the slopes are and how high the level of solar radiation. In either case, you now have a harvestable crop.
And you also have water collecting in the little ridges of the sand dune. If you build U-shaped rock catchment basins to hold the water for a few hours, you can grow oats and barley that in turn fix even more nitrogen and carbohydrates in the soil.
You have stopped the desert. It has taken seven years, but you now have a little soil going, and you have slowed down the water loss. The soil stays moist. By cover cropping and composting, you’ve built soil with humus and humic acid.
This is an interesting word, humus. In the garden or the forest it is that dark brownish to black, moist substance of partially decomposed and decayed vegetable matter. Leaf mold in the case of the forest; well-rotted kitchen garbage in the case of the back yard garden heap. It is full of earthworms. It is wet and suggestive of life. It holds water. Lifting a handful to the nostrils, one smells the earth caught in procreation. It is fecundity. It is the basis of fertility. Without humus, plants just don’t make it, for it is humus and humic acid that provide the finest of root hairs access to nutrients and water in the soil.
But there is more to this word, a more intimate connection than the garden alone. The linguistic root of humus is dhghem-, or “earth.” In one suffixed form in Germanic it means “earthling”; in another form in Old English it means “man,” as in “bridegroom.” Within its Greek root, chthon, one finds inhabitants of the underworld. “Autochthonous” populations can best be visualized as the aborigines of Australia or the Indians of North America, for they are “native to a particular place; aboriginal; indigenous,” as though “sprung from the land itself.” Or consider the subtleties of the Roman mind where in Latin humus means “earth,” but quickly leads us into the tangle of “humble,” of “humility,” of “transhumance,” that seasonal movement of herders and their flocks from one grazing ground to another, or of “exhumance,” which is to disinter, and ultimately the tangle of “homicide.” Homage, hominid, hombre, homunculus, bonhomie, all these can be sniffed out of a handful of humus. So too can human and humane.
To begin with hardpan while aiming at humus, McMillin has learned to fall back upon many different techniques, two of which he calls demi-lunes and zai holes. The demi-lune would be used in a broad expanse of hardpan, much like that in Niger. It is little more than a quarter-moon-shaped trench cut into the hardpan, the lifeless dirt piled up on the outer edge of the bow, which is aimed in the direction of the prevailing wind. There is more to it than that, of course. The depth of the trench and the height of the piled dirt have to be determined by a specialist. But once that determination has been made, then demi-lunes can be dug across the entire hardpan-covered landscape.
The prevailing wind carries with it seeds and grasses and other biotal scrap material. The wind hits the piled dirt of the demi-lune, which creates turbulence on the lee side of the pile, enough turbulence that the wind drops some of its load into the trench. The wind will provide enough nutrition in this way for one seed for one year. Plant the right tree or shrub or legume, and it will take hold and eventually transform the landscape. McMillin first saw demi-lunes on Easter Island, then again in North China, then in the American Southwest, where they are employed in traditional Indian agriculture.
Zai holes are meant for a desolate garden setting. Holes 40 centimeters across and 20 centimeters deep are carefully dug 80 to 100 centimeters apart, the dirt heaped on the windward side of the individual holes to take the same advantage of the prevailing wind as the demi-lune. However, in this case, sweepings from the village huts are continually dropped in the holes — there would be as many as 300 in a small garden — and children are encouraged to urinate in the holes, adding nitrogen in the process. Zai, in rough translation from an Arabic word, means “piss.” If the entire village is organized around this concept, both digging and tending to the zai holes, within a year both water and seeds can be added to what has become highly nutritive soil. It is a simple way of restoring gardens in areas where agriculture has collapsed.
At Rancho Sordo Mudo, McMillin had been faced with the two basic problems of the desert: giving plants moisture-holding, friable soil in which to grow, and giving the soil the boost it needed to support the plants. Friability in this case meant soil loosened up enough for roots to spread out. Boosting the soil meant adding nutrients where none really existed. McMillin’s solutions were twofold: doubledigging the garden beds to promote friability and applying liberal amounts of compost.
At Rancho Sordo Mudo it was impossible to do much with a garden spade other than chip away at the sidewalk nature of the hardpan, and rather fruitlessly at that. Digging down two full spades’ depths — double-digging — was out of the question, certainly not without first hammering away at the hard-pan with heavy picks and pry bars, which in fact McMillin and his student volunteers tried. It was dreadfully hot that spring. They considered pneumatic jackhammers. They considered explosives, drilling in a line of charges that would blow out trenches, a neat trick if it worked. In the end, one of the rancho’s hired hands suggested he bring around the tractor and chisel plow. This is why the raised biointensive organic garden beds at Rancho Sordo Mudo are as wide as a standard chisel plow, a" little over 4 feet. They are all about 40 feet long, 160 square feet per bed in all. At Rancho Sordo Mudo there are five beds and one fishpond as long and as wide as a bed and about 3 feet deep. It is lined with heavy black plastic.
In an ideal world, fully matured compost is spread on top of the soil where a garden bed is to be dug, then a trench the width of the bed and as deep as a spade, or about a foot and a half, is shoveled out, the dirt dumped into a wheelbarrow and carried to the back of the bed, where it will be deposited when all is well and done. A thin layer of nutrients is dumped in the trench and a spading fork is then worked as deep as its tines are long into the bottom of the trench to loosen the subsoil another foot and a half. The gardener then steps back a foot or so, digs down a spade’s depth and tosses the dirt and compost forward into the trench. The effect of all this is to continuously move the double-dug trench back through the length of the garden bed, excavating and loosening subsoil with a fork, tossing forward and mixing the topsoil and compost. The end result should be loose, pillowy soil in a garden bed that will never again be walked upon. Biointensive planting schemes are designed to maximize production, normally several times greater than conventional farming or gardening techniques, and minimize the use of water.
At Rancho Sordo Mudo there was nothing ideal about the entire process, from the plowing of the hardpan on. And this separates McMillin from biointensive organic gardening purists. If he has to work fast and dirty to get a garden up and running and get food on the table, then so be it. Since there was no compost at Rancho Sordo Mudo, McMillin showed his students how to layer the basic ingredients of compost on top of the garden beds in a technique called sheet composting, first applying a thin layer of manure, then dirt, then kitchen garbage, then dirt, then grape waste, and so on, until all the requisite ingredients of what would heat up and eventually break down into humus had been assembled like a layer cake. It all sounds simple enough, but the labor was so incredibly arduous, like beating life into a sidewalk, that legends of the sunbaked labors in the Mexican desert now abound among the students at Northwest College.
After the garden spade and the spading fork, there is no more important tool in biointensive agriculture than the heavy-tined, long-handled rake. It is this tool that one reaches for to shape the beds. Simply loosening up the soil isn’t enough, particularly in the desert. Every subtlety of soil dynamics must be engineered to achieve maximum crop yields and minimum water demands. In this case the beds were raked with flat tops. The sides were raked with a 30-degree slope. Then, all around the outer edge of the top of the bed, a lip was raked into place. When carefully watered, no water would run over the lip and down the slopes of the beds. All the water would remain on top, soaking into the soil in harmony with the laws of the physics of water. McMillin had seen similar water planning in the Altiplano of Peru, where peasants had successfully grown crops in high-altitude deserts longer than the existence of memory.
There are no rows of crops in biointensive agriculture, just narrow paths between raised beds. Every square inch of garden bed is involved with growth. To this end, every effort is made to avoid stepping on the garden bed. After double-digging, one would sink up to one’s ankles in the loosened soil and, at the same time, compact the soil, squeezing out vital air while diminishing any opportunities for microflora to thrive. Microflora and humus work together to the benefit of plants. Holding hands, they blow micronutrients right up the root hairs and into the plant bodies.
Planting schemes take into account this all but sacred nature of untrammeled soil. Seeds are not sown by poking a hole in the ground with a finger, for that compacts the soil around the seed, and the whole point of biointensive agriculture, especially in as compromised a landscape as that at Rancho Sordo Mudo, is to give every possible benefit to the growing plant, from the time of germination on. Plants that grow fast and strong are not attacked by insects and blights. It’s as simple as that. So seeds are planted by worrying away surface dirt with a twig, dropping the seed in a hollow as deep as the seed is thick, then worrying the dirt back on top. Seeds and plants already started from seed are planted in specific patterns, in specific relationships with one another (beans planted with corn is a classic), and at specific distances from each other. As they grow up and together, the garden plants so cover the garden bed that weeds have little opportunity to grow and the surface of the bed is protected from the drying effects of wind and direct sun, a living mulch.
All the labor of a biointensive garden, then, comes with the implementation and upkeep of the beds as well as the planting and the watering and the building of compost piles. At Rancho Sordo Mudo, for example, the beds will all be double-dug once a year for four years. It gets easier each time but is always a tiresome task. Then the beds will never have to be double-dug again. But they will need continual additions of compost. “The hardest thing to get across,” McMillin explained, “is that you just don’t plant and harvest crops, that every time you take something out of the soil you have to replace it. When I get that across, the rest is easy.”
When McMillin and Bill Randolph first walked the land at Rancho Sordo Mudo, they envisioned at least five fishponds the rancho would need for any kind of realistic fish production cycle. The ponds would alternate with garden beds right down the length of the green teardrop on the alluvial fan. And there would be room to expand.
McMillin’s systems tend to tier up. That is, first the rancho gardeners would start with intensive vegetable and fruit production, selling the surplus at a roadside stand, all the while getting the hang of an intensive garden management system. At the same time, they would be learning the grow-out procedure with the tilapia. All the waste produced in the system, either plant or animal, would return to the system, the nitrogen cycle feeding the nitrogen engine. Once that was up and running and everyone knew what was expected of them, well, they could start processing the surplus fish, establish long-term contracts with hotels on the coast to supply prime-quality, labeled fish fillets, then put in the smokehouse and start supplying fish fillets smoked with the grape wood from vineyard prunings in the valley. Then look to making and marketing compotes and chut-neys with excess fruits and vegetables. Then establish the quail production, making use of the high-intensity bird manure in the garden, selling both processed fresh quail as well as a smoked version. And on and on and on.
It would take time, of course, putting one brick on the foundation at a time. But in time, the rancho could have been making more money than the Everetts could ever imagine. And far more important than that, they would have provided meaningful jobs for all of their deaf students.
When McMillin and Bill Randolph and ten Northwest College students returned to Rancho Sordo Mudo this past spring to tune up the biointensive garden, they found the fenced garden all but surrounded by chili peppers planted in long furrowed rows up and down the hillside. They were watered by an elaborate and expensive drip irrigation system and tended to by several field hands. In a way, it was the garden’s fault. Even though it had been dug into worthless hardpan and even though there had been no matured compost on hand, just raw ingredients, the biointensive garden produced so much food that first season that Luke Everett, overseer of the garden project, was able to sell surplus produce at a roadside stand. Surplus chili peppers alone brought in $400.
The Northwest College students wondered about the paradox. If the garden was working so well, why turn to standard chemical farming practices that demand hefty capital investments? McMillin more or less shrugged his shoulders at this. It wasn’t any of his business what the Everetts wanted to do with their land and their money. He had shown them one way to put food on the table as well as a plan that would carry them right up through Japanese quail farming and the stability of their own income-generating microeconomy. They had opted to plow the hillside and plant chilis in a big way. The erosion was already obvious, and the chili plants looked sickly compared to the produce growing in the garden.
“My biggest fear,” McMillin said, “is that this first year they will get a terrific crop and it will encourage them to continue planting like that. Next year they will have to start adding chemical fertilizers and insecticides. The bills pile up once you’re a chemical farmer. Within a few years they won’t be making back the capital they have already put in. But it is none of my business. Half the people I show what to do in these projects go back to what they were doing before as soon as I am gone. Within three years, half of them are asking me to come back to try again. You just can’t go into this thinking someone is going to thank you, that you are some kind of a messiah. To the degree that the people think you have done wonderful things for them, they don’t own the project. And if they don’t feel like they own the project, it falls apart sooner or later.”
A while back, McMillin revisited an Ethiopian valley in the eastern highlands that had been a center of death when he had first arrived there in the early 1980s. Where land had been desolate, elephant grass now grows 20 feet high, attracting both big cats and migratory birds. Fishponds up to one kilometer long provide fish for export as well as local consumption. The valley boasts light industry and a college.
Tending Everett's garden, December 1994
One young man showed McMillin around, explained what had happened in the valley as best as he knew. He spoke of a white-haired man who had helped the valley recover from a famine but didn’t recognize McMillin as that man. He told McMillin that the young felt impatient. Their fathers and grandfathers were farming in a way taught to them by the white-haired man. And that had been good in the time of famine. But now, with so much prosperity, what he and his generation wanted to do was buy tractors and farm like real farmers. But they had to wait for these old men to die off.
“That valley was home to 600,000 people when I got there in 1980,” McMillin recalled. “When we finally stopped the loss of life, after two years, 75,000 were left.” He had been sent in by World Vision International. He had arrived at the capital, grabbed a four-wheel-drive vehicle, two drivers, a mechanic, ten jerry cans of water and gas, and 100 pounds of food, and trekked north for three days. As soon as he reached the valley, he kicked clear a rough landing strip and established a resupply system.
Then he started driving around the valley to the different communities to get a reading on the level of malnutrition, the death rate. He’d take the pulse of children, then measure the circumference of their wrists with a string. Wrist width is a constant related to age in the presence of good nutrition, a reverse constant in the presence of malnutrition. By conducting a series of measurements he developed a model for the level of malnutrition in the communities. He checked eyelids and fingernails and palpated livers, all of which indicates whether the deficiencies are of a protein or carbohydrate nature. Did children under the age of five have reddish hair? Were their bellies concave or swollen? All of this information went into McMillin’s journal, a code showing where everyone was in the valley, what the problems were, what the diseases were, all in preparation for air drops of emergency relief supplies.
Fishpond, December 1994
“There is a sequence to death,” McMillin told his students one night as they gathered together on couches in the meeting room off the mess hall at Rancho Sordo Mudo. “Chronic malnutrition breeds vulnerability to colds and influenza. That generally develops into some kind of bronchial infection, which further weakens resistance. Then some kind of fever or illness comes in. And then cholera hits, and cholera just cleans them out by the tens of thousands. It’s a vicious disease, a dehydration. Clean up the water and feed the victims, and they get well. But in the meantime, dehydration takes the kids. And lactating mothers, oh man, they just go. They’re dead in minutes.
“Once you start feeding people, and the people start coming in, a whole dynamic starts. You get mothers dropping babies left and right. And the old people die of heart attacks right at the doorstep. It’s like a psychological relief; they finally have shepherded their families to some kind of safety, have done their duty, and they just give up and die right there. Pregnant women, well, the female body is very interesting. A pregnant woman can put off delivering her baby until she feels safe. But as soon as she feels safe, that baby comes within four or five hours. You will see this happen, and you have to be ready. If I had my way,” McMillin told his students, “by the time every one of you has graduated, you should be trained as midwives as well as learning about the gardens and the fish. You’ll need it out there.”
It had taken about three years for the famine in Ethiopia to get rolling, and as ever, it had nothing to do with lack of food. Farming had broken down in a centralized government and economy. The government had usurped for weapons the loan capital normally provided to farmers to buy seed and replace plows. With everything nationalized, there was no crop incentive in and of itself, so farmers began growing only enough food to feed themselves. When people first started going hungry, there was never any fear of riots in the capital. The problem was much too distant. So nothing was done.
For years John McMillin had worked all but alone on one project or another somewhere in the world. He would take as high-paying a job as he could finagle in high-tech industries, slug it out for two or three years, bank everything he could, raise what money he could, then he would take off with wife and son to live in the field. He eventually established the not-for-profit Land and Water Foundation in partnership with several like-minded people. But the time came when he just couldn’t pay to put himself in the field, and he no longer had his family. “So I sold my soul,” he said. “I went to work for World Vision International. The deal was, I would go anywhere they wanted me to and I would do whatever they wanted me to, but I could do my little projects on the side.”
In Ethiopia during the famine, what World Vision International wanted McMillin to do, much as any international aid organization wanted its employees to do, was give away American grain. The agencies are paid handsomely to do it, so much a ton. “That’s when the big political problems would begin for me,” McMillin explained. “Because I wanted to get these people back to farming and back to reclaiming the land. Anyplace that had been worked with plow and artificial fertilizer technology, once the land had laid fallow, it concreted over. From that point on, you can’t break the soil with a primitive plow.”
McMillin would line up 10,000 farmers and their families, all of them on the edge of starvation, and tell them he had enough supplies to feed them for five days. After that they would have to clear out and make room for the next group. “Immediately you start hearing, ‘But we’re gonna die,’ from the crowd. And I would say, ‘Yeah, that’s right. You’ve had your shot. Make room for the next group.’ ” Ten thousand farmers would wonder out loud what they were going to do, and it was then that McMillin would tell them that if they would go out and plant, he would put them on half rations and carry them over. “And immediately, you see, they think they’ve got this great scam going, that this stupid white-haired man is going to feed them for doing what it is they do anyway. The only problem is, you see, the white-haired SOB is out there telling them they have to do things a little differently.”
McMillin would set up the challenge as a kind of friendly jousting. He would get the farmers to do things his way, but to pick out one farmer among them to do things their way. Then they would compare their food production records, and McMillin would win them over. He had them out on the land poking holes through the concreted soil and dropping in vetch seed to start up nitrogen fixing. He had villages piling up all manner of organic material into compost heaps, then on schedule, getting men, women, and children to urinate on the piles. The nitrogen in the urine and the heat of the sun working together would break the piles right down into humus. Of course, people thought he was crazy.
But probably not as crazy as people thought he was another time in another valley in northwest Ethiopia. McMillin had 25,000 malnourished and about-to-starve refugees on his hands, and the U.S. government decided not to honor a grain shipment agreement with Ethiopia. “I figured I had 13 days before the bottom fell out,” McMillin said. So he got all the people to urinate and defecate in ditches and ponds wherever they could find them, and they filled the ditches and ponds with water. And then he spread lemna on the water. Also known as duckweed, lemna is often seen floating on the surface of ornamental ponds, in aquariums, and certainly in roadside ditches, where it has taken hold. Each tiny green set of leaves is its own plant, complete with root hairs and root system, flower, and seed pod. Looked at beneath a microscope, the leaves appear thick, leathery, and oily.
“In fact,” McMillin says, “lemna does have a high oil content. And a high protein content as well, upwards of 75 percent. But best of all, it divides and multiples every seven days.” So within a week McMillin had the refugees harvesting lemna from the surface of the ditches and ponds, drying it in the sun, pounding it into flour, and making bread. With only urine, feces, water, and sunlight as inputs to this nitrogen engine the refugees were harvesting seven tons of lemna each day within three months. “Everyone thought I was insane,” McMillin says, “and I probably was. But those people are alive today. You see, when there’s nothing you can do, you can’t just stand there. Inaction kills more people in those situations than anything else. You have to make a decision and do something.”
In the eastern highlands of Ethiopia, once McMillin had the farmers planting crops and organized to reclaim land and water resources in the valley, he told them he wanted them to grow fish. This in a landlocked culture with seemingly no knowledge of fish. McMillin’s employers told him he was nuts. The Ethiopian government, even though it had a fisheries agency replete with specialists and facilities, found it all very improbable. “These people don’t eat fish; I was told that over and over again,” McMillin said. “But in fact they did. Only they called it priest food. It was horrible, dried fish brought in from the coast, and by the time it reached the highlands, it was infested with maggots. Good orthodox Christians that these people are, they knew they were supposed to eat priest food every Tuesday and Friday, and they simply assumed that the maggots were part of the deal.”
To prove his point, McMillin brought in fresh fish from the coast, filleted them out, and appeared in the marketplace to sell fish to people who don’t eat fish. He caused a riot. When he did the same thing the next day, the police asked him to leave.
“So I got them growing fish, and today they have ponds up to one kilometer long, an endless system with different size fish separated by screens. Or they grow the fish in flooded rice paddies and harvest the rice and the fish at the same time. That’s pretty standard stuff today, but back then it was unheard of.”
By sowing hairy vetch all over the valley, the farmers were eventually able to restore shrub growth that in turn drew in moisture. They got the streams back up and drilled a few wells to supply the fishponds with water. The sorghum they planted in gardens built over mass graves grew 20 feet high. But today, to the children who have only heard the stories of the famine, farming isn’t farming done with pride unless it is done with a tractor. First the tractor, then the chemistry, then the soil breaks down, then the system of capitalization breaks down, and famine isn’t far behind. McMillin listened to the young man describing what had happened in this Ethiopian valley, about the white-haired man, about how this freshly minted farmer and his kind were impatient to make what McMillin knew would be destructive changes. McMillin shrugged and moved on.
“You can’t get caught up in what people want to do even when it’s wrong,” he told his students. “If they want to go off and screw things up, that’s their business and none of yours. The bottom line is that time is simply too precious and there are too many people who are clamoring for your help. So if someone doesn’t want it, then move on. Use your talents and energies where they count, where they can make a difference.”
The first morning this past spring at Rancho Sordo Mudo, John McMillin led a tour of the garden. Enormous cabbages were still growing. Cilantro had been intentionally left to go to seed. Outside the fenced perimeter incredibly healthy-looking sunflowers were headed skyward. McMillin pulled up a cabbage, rolled it over, and broke off a thick outer leaf with a noticeable snap. He began talking about micronutrients, how if you break the leaf in half and suck at the stem, you should be able to taste the developing sugars. “If they aren’t there,” he said, “then something’s missing from your soil.” At which point he picked up some topsoil and tasted it. “You do this often enough,” he said, spitting out the dirt, “and you can eventually taste what’s missing from your soil. It’s something my dad taught jme to do when I was a kid.” He pointed out the deep, lustrous color of the sunflower stalks and shoots, how that indicated the plants were sucking up nutrients provided by the fishpond and compost.
In comparison, chili plants out in the rows showed signs of dehydration, even though their root systems were sitting right on top of drip irrigation outlets. “These plants aren’t getting the water they need, let alone nutrients,” McMillin told the students, “because there’s nothing in the soil, no humus and humic acid, no microflora — no connective tissue between root hairs and nutrients. You can see some insect damage as well. Weak plants attract insect infestation. And notice the soil.” Where it had been plowed into furrowed rows and gotten wet, the surface of the soil had hardened, like concrete, right around the stems of the chili plants.
Back in the biointensive garden, McMillin’s most telling display was pushing a spading fork right down into the path. A year before, the path had been as hard as a parking lot. But the fork slid into the soil with hardly any effort at all. While the beds had been broken out of hardpan with a chisel plow, then double-dug, nothing had been done to improve the hard-pan on the paths. “But once you put in a biointensive garden and double-dig in humus and compost, the benefits to the soil spread outward at the rate of six feet a year. That’s what makes the demi-lunes and zai holes work so well — you concentrate your efforts in a difficult landscape, but the benefits to the surrounding soil spread as long as you keep feeding the soil.”
Lemna covered the fishpond. There’s hardly a McMillin fishpond in the world where it doesn’t. McMillin measured the temperature of the water and took a reading on the oxygen content. Both were much too low to support tilapia. If Rancho Sordo Mudo were ever to successfully grow fish, they would have to figure out some way of keeping the water temperature up during winter. As a demonstration, however, and as a source of highly fertile sludge, the pond worked quite well. First the lemna was harvested and included in the compost-spreading process, then a couple of volunteers climbed down into the pond, the bottom of which had been covered with horse manure before the pond had been filled with water, and began hauling out buckets of sludge. This too was spread with the compost on the beds. By the end of the first day, the beds had been reshaped and double-dug and readied for planting the second day.
It is a stunning display, what a dozen highly motivated people can do to a garden in a desolate setting in three days. By the time McMillin and crew pulled up stakes, the Rancho Sordo Mudo biointensive garden was a thing of perfection — not a weed visible, not a stone out of place. The pathetic, root-bound transplants Reverend Everett had brought in from San Diego by the flat, once lovingly transplanted in just the right way prescribed by McMillin, stood upright on strong, proud stalks. Students who had studied the nature of biointensive agriculture and fish farming had gotten dirt under their fingernails, had gotten their feet wet in the ponds, had sweated mightily enough to appreciate the backbreaking labor that goes into putting food on the table in the most marginal lands of the Third World. And they had been drawn even that closer to McMillin’s flame. The students. That’s what McMillin really wanted access to at Northwest College.
In a media world filled with the stories of disaffected, troubled, dangerous youth, these students were bright, funny, comfortable with themselves and each other, centered, calm, directed. None of them wore their faith on their sleeves. All of them had jokes to tell about TV evangelists. Most of them were studying to be Assembly of God missionaries and would, in fact, end up in the outer reaches of the world. McMillin knew and appreciated all of that. He simply wanted to be sure that when one of his students found himself repairing a mission church roof and looked over into a peasant garden and noticed that something wasn’t quite right, that he or she could amble over and gradually become useful. First the garden, you see, and then, eventually, the fish.
But McMillin’s plan is even greater than that. He and his students, along with Bill Randolph and the science department, have reclaimed a piece of land at Northwest College that had absolutely no value whatsoever. On all the soil tests it came out zero. Now it is a garden divided into individual student plots so they can get a feel for the biointensive process. There is also a demonstration fish tank in place filled with growing tilapia. “What I need you guys to do,” McMillin told his students the last night in Mexico, “is get back to college in the fall and spread the word. Make this program the hottest thing on campus. The program is now in place, but it’s up to you to make the rest of the students know how worthwhile the experience is.”
John McMillin is in the beginning phase of the biggest of his little projects — duplicating himself a hundred times over. He and Bill Randolph, the business department and the science department, have established a foundation all its own, outside and separate from the college with its own board of directors. Corporations shy away from giving money to an organization such as the Assembly of God, which a donation to the college would appear to be. But the Applied Science Center at Northwest College, built on the model of the independent research entity, is another story altogether. Its one purpose is to spread as far and as wide as possible not only the means for poor people to feed themselves and improve their nutrition but provide the management and marketing expertise to see effective microeconomics develop among those poor.
McMillin hopes to raise capital to underwrite as many little projects as he can around the world. “I hate to tell you how big a pile of requests I have,” he says, “how absolutely pathetic most of the situations are. People who don’t even own their own clothes. People abused in one way or another. Hungry people. People looking for a chance.”
As he walked across the darkened grounds of Rancho Sordo Mudo that last night, headed for bed, McMillin scared up a covey of quail that scattered out before him. He paused for a moment to enjoy the sight, to suck in a lungful of fresh air. “You know what I’d really like to do?” he said as much as asked. “I’ve got this little plan. I’d love to take Bill and a group of these students over to Lake Baykal, Siberia, and start cleaning it up. We could do it. I don’t doubt that for a moment. Start small. Work cheap. Take your time. A third of the world’s fresh water is in there, and it’s so polluted it’s carcinogenic. But we could do it.”
There’s something about the way McMillin speaks and laughs and smiles all at once: You don’t doubt for a single moment that the man is right. Lake Baykal and a bunch of students. Sounds crazy. But so does duckweed in a ditch and, as McMillin says, “Those people are alive today.”