ISKCON of Alachua, Florida -- the largest Vaishnava community in North America with nearly 500 congregational families and three generations of devotees -- has began work on a new Master Plan for its future development.
For many years, the community simply grew organically. But when its eighteen-member board recently discovered that they could no longer expand due to county agricultural zoning rules, they met with a civil engineer to discuss the process of changing their zoning and developing a Master Plan.
One exciting part of the plan, which devotees have already begun work on, is an Eco Teaching Farm.
The farm will take up between 12 and 20 of ISKCON Alachua’s 122 acres, and will be located behind the Bhaktivedanta Academy school for children aged 3 to 15.
It may include an ox-plowed vegetable garden and a cash crop of ginger and turmeric, and will feature permaculture gardens with fruits and leafy crops. A permaculturist from nearby Jacksonville has already visited, given devotees an introduction to permaculture, and plotted out the gardens on the property.
The entrance to Bhaktivedanta Academy. The new Eco Teaching Farm will be started behind the school.
“The next step is to have either him or another person come out and guide us through starting to dig the swales, which are water-harvesting ditches that irrigate the plants on either side of them,” says temple president Mukhya Dasi.
As county zoning rules allow a new residence to be built on the Eco Teaching Farm, one will be constructed using natural building techniques such as compressed earth block. There will also be beehives, an outdoor gazebo for classes, and three craft studios for learning woodworking, pottery, and how to dry and can food.
Local people and devotees will be invited to come for a weekend, stay overnight, enjoy delicious vegetarian food, and take part in workshops taught by experts.
“Here in Alachua, most people have five-acre plots,” says Mukhya. “So many devotees might want a farm, but not know where to start. What to speak of the student base at the University of Florida in nearby Gainesville, or the extended community throughout Alachua. So we decided, let’s create a teaching farm where we can incorporate ecological techniques of farming, building and cow protection, and demonstrate to others how to use those techniques on their own properties.”
As well as educating adult devotees and locals, the Eco Teaching Farm is of course located next to Bhaktivedanta Academy so that it can give the school’s young students practical experience of a life close to the land.
“That was very important to us, because we want to try to tie future generations into the simple living, high thinking Krishna conscious lifestyle,” says Mukhya.
Classes will also be offered to Bhaktivedanta Academy pupils as well as students from the greater community on how to care for and milk cows, which of course will be protected throughout their lives on the farm.
Plans are underway to break ground for a new cow barn in January, which will be home to ISKCON Alachua’s first milking cows in over twenty years. Devotees have already purchased a six-month old calf named Surabhi of an Indian breed named gir, and plan to buy a second milking cow in 2014.
Utilizing years of personal experience from ISKCON cowherds who know what to do and what not to do -- large herds have never been successful in ISKCON -- the milking herd will be grown and maintained using a very manageable, controlled system.
The natural system will also involve retired cows taken care of by the Save the Cow project.
“We’ll have a maximum of ten milking cows and ten retired cows,” Mukhya says. “That way, as our retired cows die out, our milking cows will go into the retired fields, and their babies will become milkers. It’s a cyclical process.”
ISKCON Alachua's new calf Surabhi
Mukhya explains that the project’s goal will not be to provide milk for the whole community, but to protect cows and produce milk for the presiding Deities, Sri Sri Radha-Shyamasundara, Sri-Sri Krishna Balarama, and Sri Sri Gaura Nitai.
“We don’t see us ever having big milk production,” she says. “However, if we teach devotees who have five acres how to take care of their cows, they can also keep a cow and make milk.”
Once the groundbreaking ceremony for the cow barn is held in January, Mukhya hopes to raise the funds needed for it within two months, and to construct it by spring 2014. Meanwhile, accomplished builder Akuti Dasi is constructing a rock entrance wall to the Eco Teaching Farm using natural building techniques.
Mukhya is excited about the possibilities for the farm.
“It’s nearly 2014, and people are interested in ecology and how to be good stewards of the land,” she says. “It’s a very current topic, and we should be in the forefront, not way behind on the issue. So we are putting ourselves in the forefront, and learning as we go.”
Besides its Eco Teaching Farm, ISKCON Alachua’s Master Plan includes plenty of other exciting projects.
A brand new larger temple will be constructed to better house the growing congregation, while the current temple may be transformed into a restaurant or performing arts hall.
Meanwhile fourteen retreat cabins are planned next to the Eco Farm, so that guests can stay, learn, and help on the farm. Another twelve guest cabins will be built surrounding an existing pond on the other side of the property. And two guest lodges, with twenty-five rooms each, as well as a conference center, will be constructed next to the new temple. This will be a major change for ISKCON Alachua, which has had very few facilities for people to stay despite being the largest community in North America.
“Prabhupada’s temples are for teaching Krishna consciousness to people, so we want to establish an infrastructure that allows us to do that nicely,” says Mukhya. “Previously, we had just a temple, and not even one other roof on the property for anyone to stand under. Then we got a pavillion, but it’s still an outdoor space. We need an indoor space, where people can sit and have classes and learn different things. We need a place for people to actually stay here for a weekend, so they can experience spiritual life.”
Mukhya hopes that people will be able to come to Alachua to learn about Krishna consciousness and its broad culture, including arts, sciences, and yoga through educational and spiritual retreats. This will open up Alachua, which has historically been a rather internal community, to outreach and make it more inviting to visitors. It will also give the temple a sustainable income for its other projects and services.
“We’d also like ISKCON conferences which are now hosted in Houston, Dallas and other places to come here too,” Mukhya says. “We’re quite confident that we would have no problem booking our rooms all year long!”[ alachua ] [ florida ] [ gainesville ]