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A different kind of winter getaway

Thinking about a winter getaway that could make a positive difference somewhere in the world?
FERTILE GROUND VOLUNTEER Kel Kelly provided hands-on training for tea growers and students in a village near the India-Bhutan border.

Thinking about a winter getaway that could make a positive difference somewhere in the world?

Fertile Ground, a non-profit organization in the Comox Valley, might be able to help.

The group works with farmers and tea growers in northeast India.  They’re looking for volunteers who have hands-on experience in making compost, who understand how important it is to save and protect seeds of plants suited to local growing conditions — and who are interested in making meaningful connections with kindred spirits in Assam.

Peggy Carswell, Fertile Ground’s co-ordinator, says requests for help have been coming in different parts of the state — a mostly rural area where farmers want to follow their traditional farming practices and are reluctant to turn to the chemical fertilizers and pesticides promoted by state agricultural extension workers.

In 1998, Carswell and her husband, Kel Kelly came across a brief reference in the Lonely Planet Guide to a remote region in the foothills of the Himalayas that was “seldom visited by travellers from the west.”

Since that time, they’ve returned to Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley on an annual basis.

In the past decade, about 30 people of all ages from Canada, the U.S. and India have joined them in Assam to take part in projects and learn about life in northeast India. They’ve discussed what it means to grow food organically, studied some of India’s traditional farming practices, participated in cultural and educational events and lived with local families in towns and in villages.

Some have stayed for a week or two, others for close to a year  but most are there for a couple of months.

“Working in Assam has helped us learn about the culture and day-to-day life of an amazing corner of the world,” says Carswell. “It’s also offered us an opportunity to share our passion for growing healthy food and living close to the land with people from many different walks of life.”

Their travels have taken them in some very interesting directions.

Initially, Carswell helped fair trade advocates from World Community Development Education Society locate a source of organic tea. She began providing training and encouragement to farming families and tea growers in Assam, and five years later, went on to found Fertile Ground.

The organization has created two demonstration gardens, which offer training and employment for several people from nearby towns and villages. A number of Assamese people who’ve participated in Fertile Ground’s programs are now involved with groups and projects of their own.

Kelly’s close ties to members of the Singpho tribe, one of northeast India’s indigenous peoples, let to an invitation to build a traditional bamboo home in a remote village close to the India/Burma border. With one of the young growers, he set up the Small Tea Co-operative to help find markets for organically grown tea.

He’s designed and constructed swings, teeter-totters and latrines, and worked with Fertile Ground’s volunteers to demonstrate how locally-available material can be used to make compost to add important nutrients and organic matter to the soil.

If this sounds like the kind of travel experience you or someone you know might be interested in, you can learn more about Fertile Ground and the groups they’re working with on their website. An information session for prospective volunteers will take place soon.

For details, call 250-337-8348, or visit

— Fertile Ground

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