It’s officially the middle of winter! As we crank out our hot wheat bags, boil up mass supplies of soup, and clock-up on Netflix viewing time from our warm beds, I have recently come to know that it is utterly tropical here compared to winter in Mongolia, where we’re teaching nomadic herder communities to garden amidst the brutal conditions.

Mongolian Winter Fast Facts:

  • In Mongolia, winters are long and harsh (lasting almost a third of the year!), with temperatures typically ranging between -15°C to – 35°C.
  • Of the three million people who live in Mongolia, an estimated 25% to 40% live as nomadic herders in yurts for homes (snug, portable, round tents insulated by animal skins).
  • In the extreme winter or ‘zud’ of 2009-2010, up to 90% of the country was covered with thick snow. Temperatures of −48 °C remained for almost 50 days killing eight million animals (about 17% of the country's entire livestock).

So how do you garden in sub-zero temperatures?

After the 2010 winter disaster, our local partner, FARM, was created to train nomadic herders to grow vegetables so they could generate income all-year-round and improve their resilience against zuds. Ten years later, we’ve come leaps and bounds in seeing former animal-raising farmers become top-class veggie-growers. We’ve moved from life-saving disaster relief work to empowering community development! As our Programmes Specialist Kevin says, “Mongolia is a country of unlimited, untapped potential. There is so much unspoiled farm land, that the capacity for developing the agriculture is amazing!”

Here are three of our favourite stories that highlight this inspirational growth:

How the humble rhubarb went from being a pest to providing income for families:

A Mongolian market gardener stands with the Chief Executive of FARM, Turkhuu, and a New Zealand agriculturalist, holding a tray of wild rhubarb

Since 2012, we’ve trained 175 gardeners (who provide for nearly 500 more family members!) in gardening techniques, crop processing, and even how to market their processed food.

One gardening group was recently introduced to wild rhubarb that was growing prolifically in the surrounding countryside. (They hadn’t known it was edible till then.) With training and some new processing equipment, they enthusiastically picked 20 tonnes of rhubarb in one season and made it into bucketfuls of chutney to sell!

Disabled schools are benefitting from the fruits of community gardens:

Two blind children are taught how to pot a plan by a FARM Mongolia worker

FARM reaches vulnerable youth in Mongolia by teaching disabled students at a blind school how to garden. FARM built the school a greenhouse where students learn the techniques to grow and sell produce in community gardens so they can collectively earn a living.

As one student had a cabbage seed placed in his hand he said, “This isn’t a cabbage, cabbages are THIS big!” They’d only known cabbages to come from the market, fully-grown. “It’s the first time these children have ever been exposed to gardening,” says our Programmes Specialist, Kevin. “It’s been totally transformative for them!” 35 students have been trained so far and the school is now introducing agriculture into its curriculum for vocational training. What’s more, the neighbouring deaf school are now keen to start a FARM community garden too!

Market gardens have been a life-saver for widows:

Chogdon, one of FARM's best gardeners, picks tomatoes from her tree inside a greenhouse

Gardens have been a game-changer for vulnerable rural widows too. One of FARM’s gardening groups is for women who are solo-leaders of their households. Through agricultural training they’re now able to provide a steady income for their families.

Get this! The two best FARM gardeners are women! One of them is 59-year-old Chogdon, or “queen bee”, as she’s commonly called by her community (in the photo above). After the 2010 zud, Chogdon and her six children were left with only 20 sheep and goats out of the 700 they’d had. “Sometimes we had nothing to eat. So I started to think about ways of increasing my family income,” Chogdon said. In 2012 Chogdon joined a FARM community garden and soon became a garden leader. “Year by year our gardening skill and knowledge grew and our harvest yield increased,” she said.

Last year, Chogdon was a top-three candidate for Mongolian Gardener of the Year Award, and was voted the best gardener in her region! She said of her New Zealand supporters, “It amazes me why people from a country so far away would want to help somebody like me… Please say ‘thank you’ to the people of New Zealand.”

Against the odds and the harsh climate of rural Mongolia, we’re seeing vulnerable communities transformed to flourish by the power of green thumbs.


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