The Vegetable Growing Project: 1st Phase Report:

Sri Lanka Charity

When it comes to growing food, Sri Lankans really know their onions … not to mention their manioc and their okra. Whereas the British all like to voice their opinions about the weather, Sri Lankans like to share their strongly-held views on the growing of vegetables and rice … and, of course, tea. And now all their words are being drastically translated into action.

In response to the current financial catastrophe besetting the island, government officials have decreed that everyone should focus on their personal agricultural output – in other words, to do everything they can to “grow their own”.  And following the advice of our Extra Cover colleagues in Sri Lanka; Newton, Roshan, and Thishantha, who have collectively underscored just how desperate the situation was for the children and families we serve, we recently asked you to dig deep and contribute towards the funding of this new “agricultural revolution”.  Many of you have been (yet again!) extraordinarily generous, and we are pleased to offer a preliminary report on how your cash is being spent.

Sri Lankan Cuisine

We pride ourselves on being a charity that listens, and when it comes to the specific needs of small agricultural projects, Matthew, Jill, and Robert are more than happy to be informed and guided by the expertise of our Sinhala colleagues.  And so it was that in October 2022 Thishantha and Roshan took Matthew and Robert on a whirlwind tour of a) current model examples of how small parcels of land (private or state-owned) can be used to produce high-yield crops and b) potential agricultural projects which, with a small cash injection, can rapidly produce simple harvests  that, in these devastatingly difficult times, will keep the wolf from the door for many marginalised communities.
Thanks to your monies, we see our particular contribution to the “agricultural revolution” coming in three specific, but overlapping categories.

Accompanied by the late Mr Chandrasiri (who we sadly lost recently) we visited several schools where land has already been appropriated for the growing of fruit and vegetables. One Buddhist monk/school principal of a non-EC school near Yakalamulla proudly showed us his sizeable school garden, containing 1) irrigated plots of manioc, yam, cucumber, and squash, 2) wooden pergola-like frames from which various gourds (“snake”, “bitter” etc.) were hanging, and 3) waist-high slatted wooden boxes protecting more delicate produce. While this is the monk’s great passion, and certainly cannot be replicated across Extra Cover schools, he did explain that what all schools would need more than anything else was netting to protect the above from pests (such as peacocks and monkeys) and large rice bags, too thick for porcupines or rats to gnaw through, for the growing of smaller items, including spices, such as turmeric and chilies. Similarly, Thishantha showed us around the “farm” at “Hellabeem”, the community for physically-disabled boys that he manages, where every available space was seemingly given over to the culture of food, much enjoyed by the children at mealtimes. We were given a delicious lunch including manioc and large, fried spinach leaves – fresh, local produce of the highest order.

Sri Lanka Food Culture

Thirdly we saw the “garden” at Nawala School where, for many years, Mr Chandrasiri had recognised the central importance of his children acquiring a practical, as well as academic, education. His philosophy was that since most of his charges will remain living locally for their entire lives, and not move into the cities, they will need to know the intricacies of horticulture as much as details of national history. Using whatever materials available, and impressive Heath-Robinson engineering, the teachers and pupils had created a complex of irrigated plots and vegetable patches – all on a steep hillside – to supplement the meagre school rations.

Extra Cover Charity

Our visit to these three “institutional gardens demonstrated that for many, the “revolution’ is nothing new. Where there is the passion and the will, vital food can be grown. Comparisons are odious, and there are Extra Cover schools that simply do not have the resources or indeed the time to copy such examples, but from their visits Matthew and Robert took away the fact that Extra Cover can do a huge amount of good by supplying netting, rice bags, seeds and simple construction materials to schools and communities that were already undertaking, or contemplating, such gardens in these desperate times.

Sri Lanka Gardening

Sri Lankans know their onions, and Thishantha knew that the best place to acquire used fishing net was in Kalutara, on the shore south of Colombo, and we have already purchased several large rolls. Second-hand rice bags, meanwhile, can be found at numerous agricultural warehouses across the south, and again Thishantha has been working his magic, sweet-talking various managers to offer him their best deal. We have now distributed netting, bags and other essentials to a variety of schools. Where space is at a premium, the use of large rice bags is proving a godsend.

Matthew Hansford

To the women’s agricultural cooperative of Paranatanayamgoda (the village where Extra Covers head office, Suhada is based) Newton Perera who ran Extra Cover for many years, is a man to be revered. His support of their cultural endeavours when he was overseeing Suhada, and his encouragement for them to use the property for their meetings won a place for him in all their hearts. Thishantha warmly introduced us to them on our visit to the village, and we listened to their ideas as to how a little money might go a long way in helping them feed the community.

As with the institutions outlined above, some private houses in the village already had significant, impressive gardens, where spices, fruits and vegetables grew in abundance. One house we visited could easily have found a place in the Chelsea Flower Show or an exhibit at Kew for ingenuity, beauty, and variety of produce. Other members of the cooperative, on the other hand, have little, if any, land and so they grow their veg exclusively in rice bags or in the crevices between rocks.

Agriculture In Asia

Collectively they have been inspiring each other to cultivate, where possible, fast-growing, protein-rich vegetables such as yam and manioc, rather than anything slow-growing or decorative. The village, and most of its inhabitants, are very poor, and what the cooperative needs most of all are raw materials – from seeds and saplings to construction materials – and with Thishantha’s keen and caring oversight, this can be carried out without too much of a problem.
There are, of course, many individuals not in a cooperative who are known to Extra Cover who can and will obviously benefit from our assistance in their attempts to grow as much healthy food as possible, and with the advice of Thishantha and Roshan we are helping them on an ad hoc basis.

School Food

Childrens Charity

Matthew and Robert’s trip to Sri Lanka last October was, as usual, eye-opening, and not least in our consideration of the food made available to children at the various Extra Cover schools. The quality and quantity at some schools (see the other articles on Kaluwalagala and Ganegama) was exemplary, with children eating a full, nutritious, meal every school day, usually comprising of rice, vegetables, and dhal (and sometimes an egg). Other schools, on the other hand, were giving each child just half a cupful of rice. The discrepancy was not just alarming but utterly unacceptable, and we have tasked Thishantha to ensure all Extra Cover schools provide their pupils with a decent meal. This will require the schools finding willing, purposed cooks (possibly parents), and this may prove tricky, but we are confident that we can ensure all the children we help get at least one nutritious bowl of food every day. The monies that have been donated to help us in our “agricultural revolution” will be used, in part, to enable all school cooks to grow vegetables at no charge.

The astounding amount of money we have received to help in the “agricultural revolution” will go a long way. Netting and rice bags are not hugely expensive, construction materials can be acquired at a fair price, and most saplings and seeds can be bought in bulk. As such, this is a project not for the immediate crisis, but for the long term. We envision this revolution continuing for several years as the government twists and turns in a chaotic vortex. So thank you – thank you for helping us deal with the pests that are peacocks and porcupines. Thank you for supporting the ongoing, crucial work of women’s cooperatives in rural communities. And thank you for giving us the opportunity to focus on every single child in our charge – and for trusting us to work like Trojans to keep them happy and healthy.

Thank you for making this project a reality, we look forward to visiting again soon, and reap the harvest.

Matthew, Jill and Robert
To donate: Click here  

Asian Cuisine

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