[EXP] Eco - Health Farm Network in Latvia
Rural topic(s): Herbs and health in rural areas
Type: Success story
Date of writing: June 30, 2010
Author(s) of this page: MG
Organization(s): Upmali Farm
Latvian farmers propose traditional farming practices, healthy living, and preventative health care values to locals and tourists in order to improve human and environment health.
Regional background and project objectives
The Eco-Health Farms (EHF) model was created in the 90’s by Mara Bergmane, her husband Dainis Bergmanis and Latvian colleagues, in order to address three key problems Latvians were facing: the deterioration of the health standards of Eastern Europeans, the environmental degradation, and the decreasing economic opportunities for farmers. Indeed, health levels in Latvia and Eastern Europe were lower than in the rest of Europe (due to the prevalence of chronic diseases, substance abuse, overuse of pharmaceuticals, etc…). Besides, the use of intensive farming techniques in collective farms during Latvia’s half-century of Soviet occupation created a legacy of negative impacts on the health of people and the environment. In addition, small farms were under increasing pressure to cut costs to compete with large European farms, a situation exacerbated by the entry into the EU. An added difficulty for rural Latvian, with lowest incomes than the average incomes of the country.
Initiators of the project
Mara Bergmane, the initiator of the project, was born in Latvian countryside and has always been active in the community. The turning point for Mara’s ideas came in 1986 when she and two of her children developed serious health problems. Although conventional medicine failed to help, herbal healing, wholesome food, and herbal steam saunas resulted in significant improvements in their health. Mara’s idea to promote healthier lifestyles and combine Western and traditional medicine led her to the Health Farm idea. Together with her husband Dainis, she began farming in 1987, following organic and biodynamic farming and proposing health maintenance methods in her Upmali Eco-Health Farm (herbal healing, healthy food, herbal steam sauna treatment, last years- produce of mixed herb tea and other herb products at big amounts ..). With other like-minded colleagues interested in organic farming and environment, they founded the Latvian Organic Agriculture Association in 1995. The existence of this Association network (over 400 farmers dedicated to rural development and healthy living) helped to promote the Eco-Health Farms model: they developed a tourism and health program which became the Eco Health Farm Network NGO in 2006. Still in close cooperation with Association and as a part of it.Through the use of traditional farming practices and the preservation of cultural values regarding health and the environment, the EHF are using Latvia’s rich past to benefit the health and future well-being of people throughout Central Europe. This network of family farms dedicated to organic farming, healthy living, and preventative health care revitalises traditional practices by incorporating these techniques and values into current farming practices.
Project activities with respect to sustainable development
a. Farming with respect of Nature and Health : a way of life but also a living
The Eco-Health Farms model is an integrated approach to nature, agriculture, and health, and its realization in practice: production of healthy food, provision of holistic health services and exchange of knowledge. According to the statutes, members farms organically (Organic Agriculture certificate), learn about natural processes, natural and medicinal healing practices (certificate for medical or alternative education), form a sustainable and organized farm, offer organic food to the guest, and offer various services related to healthy life style (advises but also bathhouse with herbs, different herb products, health trails, health gymnastics etc.). EHF members had to resign from any type of bureaucracy: the movement functions very simply and democratically – even the use of Health Farm trademark is decided within the organization. The keys are mutual responsibility, synergy and shared wish to understand rules and substance of holistic health and to put it practice in own life, farming and business. The network also works as an integrated supply network to provide a range of products (organic and biodynamic goods and seeds). Farms that specialize in one product are then able to access a variety of complementary internal goods to serve at their own farm : EHF tourism farms buy goat cheese, herb teas, organic bred and other products from their EHF neighbour and organic farms. This allows locals and visitors to access a wider range of local organic products, and so raised the demand for locally grown organic foods. It also helps to widen direct marketing process : farms not only share products but also each other information, promoting the network to new consumers, like schools, offices, etc.
b.Training and Education: safeguarding health knowledge and proposing alternative to medicines.
One of the aims of EHF is also to fill an educational gap in public health knowledge. For that propose, a training program has been designed for EHF members by own board and advisors - like medical practitioners, natural therapists, policy-makers, environmentalists, scientists of organic agriculture. Some of them are members of EHF.The EHF training provides with a basic knowledge of anatomy, physiology, wholesome health food principles, ancient herb (phyto) therapy, organic farming techniques, and sustainable lifestyles. Workshops are organised regularly as on- going training. As Mara says “Farmers must realize the interconnectedness of everything- the manner in which respect for natural processes in the cultivation of fields and grazing of animals has a significant impact on the final quality of products. Eating these healthy foods and using natural herbal remedies enhances our health”. The EHF members are then able to share this knowledge in various ways, depending from farm specialization and farmers education and wish: through excursions to their herb farms, healthy food seminars in EHF farms, environment and nature conservation seminars, healing and phyto-therapy workshops, etc and simple discussions and exchange of knowledge with neighbours, local people and visitors. The educational work is providing society with motivation to choose organic products, start their own health gardens, use medicinal herbs, take care of their health, and in general choose healthier, more natural lifestyles. It also embodies local particularities- preserving local traditions, way of life, and products. This all together forms an alternative to large-scale intensive agriculture and mass tourism.
c. Eco-Tourism: from local to international guests
The Eco-Health Farm also welcomes visitors searching for an eco-health tourism experience. Every EHF offers tourists a comprehensive understanding about the local natural and cultural heritage, because these are family farms with histories that stretch back several generations. The farmers can reach out to their guests through their own example of sustainable living. Mara adds: “Most visitors are Latvians but more and more foreign visitors are interested in visiting EHF. Although visitors come to enjoy the rural lifestyle, health maintenance services and good food, most groups attend to EHF offering educational seminars and events. Not all the farms can welcome visitors: they collect knowledge for themselves and produce healthy organic products… organic products for their EHF partners and neighbours.
Main results, lessons learned
The EHF network has grown to 50 farms, many of which work with close to 1000 guests per season. These are farms that are conserving nature, implementing alternative resource-saving technologies and using organic farming practices. At the same time they are demonstration, tourism, and educational farms that are promoting environmental sustainability, and sharing their experience to neighbouring farmers. For Mara, the success of the EHF initiative is not measurable in the number of farms or the amount of produce. Rather, the success of this program lies in each farmer’s spiritual growth in knowledge, understanding, and professional skills, and each individual farm’s transformation into a centre of environmental and healthy way of life.Moreover, the network has enabled the members to create a spirit of solidarity in this post-Soviet era and to develop a strong cooperation. For Mara, “the best guarantee for a successful development is our democratic governance institution, internal accountability system and self-development. Members have financed their own educational seminars and trips abroad and pays the small membership fee, but the organisational budget have been also funded by international grants. In some occasion, members have also help each other financially.Local residents and municipal governments are also directly involved in public outreach activities such as seminars, private consultations, and in following the examples they see on the farms. Local residents use the health services and consultations offered by traditional healers, doctors, masseuses, herbal sauna and medicinal plant specialists. The EHF network members works actively with schools, providing healthy organic products and educating local children. Local municipalities value the work done by EHFs, and often use them as venues for their own events.
Future challenges and perspectives
The main goal is not the expansion of the number of farms, but rather the qualitative growth of the program – by developing the educational program, the quality of products and services, and farms as guest centres. The broader dissemination of the idea will come with greater involvement of doctors, environmental activists and youth. It would be useful to develop an international network of similar movements. The EHF network already cooperates with groups from Poland, Lithuania and Germany, who have similar farms but have not developed similar educational programs. But external barriers such as national and EU policies, which are still lacking of an integrated approach, promote large producers and are sometimes driving to a bigger loss of biodiversity. The network has also faced of the pharmaceutical, biomedical and conventional agricultural lobbies.One of the main challenge is to find young farmers who are dedicated to creating such diverse and specialized farms; and qualified lecturers for the education program.
Mara Bergmane firstname.lastname@example.org
Biological and health farms: www.celotajs.lv/cont/wrth/worth/bounty_en.html
Scale of intervention : National
Keywords: Health and well-being, medicinal and aromatic plants, traditional knowledge, safeguard of knowledge, organic farming, diversification of economic activities, rural heritage, ecotourism, conservation and management of natural resources, gardening