•September 23, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Monocrop Tea Farms in Taiwan's mountains

Last month I toured Taiwan looking for real-world sustainable farms. I geared my approach towards the concept of “permaculture,” which is the name given to a practiced form of sustainability in agriculture; this idea was developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia in the 1970’s. The practice is based in part on the work of Masanobu Fukoka in developing what Fukoka called “natural farming,” yet permaculture seeks to be more broad-scale; incorporating ideas of sustainable living, including house design (and importantly, house design in relation to the garden itself) and also ecoagricultural implications such as land quality not only on the site but around the community. Both of these sets of principles and practices are of course very similar; they differ somewhat but not considerably from a third type of sustainable agriculture called “biodynamic farming,” which originated out of a series of lectures by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920’s, as part of a larger framework of the spiritual, philosophical though called “anthroposophy.” My real-world research also included a community market, and a unique low-mountain orchard. All of these gardens and farms had commonalities, but they were all unique—a testament to the truth of what is repeated throughout the texts on sustainability and agricultural practices—each farm, each garden, is a unique combination of the gardener and the land, and so no matter what methodologies used, the result is individual and never the same twice.

commercial tea farms

abiu fruit (still green)

In practice, there are so many examples of sustainablity-oriented practices that in agriculture that it’s not really advantageous to categorize them; similar principles guide separate trends in current thinking and many practices are common to some or all types of sustainable living; each of the farms I visited on my tour all had similarities but not one of them practiced the same specific “type” of farming. The sustainable practice of natural mulching was common to each farm i visited and is used in many many gardens, whether or not organic or sustainable; in addition there are many practices common to all the applied farming techniques in the different systems, such as producing one’s own green manures or keeping bees.

So before briefly summarizing my experience of different methodologies for sustainability in farming, it may be easiest to first consider a fairly typical (and yet still unique) type of subsistence-based example of organic farming in

two rows of abiu trees

Taiwan. Here in the mountains east of Taichung, in the neighboring Nantou county is a nice neat orchard row is a small-scale producing organic fruit garden. The small stand of several trees is nestled among several small, locally-operated, flood-irrigated rice paddies and other small-scale vegetable and fruit gardens. Production comes from one single farmer, and for one person is a moderate production of abiu fruit; this is a well-managed orchard and the trees have a reasonable output. Here, already in practice are techniques common to approach-based forms—for example the natural ground cover of pioneers instead of synthetic-herbicides applied; this type of ground cover is

Pests eat the vine, but the tree is healthy and bears delicious fruit

also common to natural farming. In addition are producing vegetable crops throughout the system; while input is varied and not all are strictly food-producers, the combination of functions each organism performs serves the entire interconnected living system and helps generate overall health for the orchard.

On a small-scale this orchard can generate income for the farmer, but this is the work of just one person, and the orchard is not large; the farmer has shown innovative thinking by choosing a select and unusual crop; however much more input is needed to expand farming of this type. In addition enlarging an orchard of this type would likely include intercropping various tree species (for example ones which produce nuts, or at other times of the year) along with the abiu, and for one person whose income is modest, the likelihood of such expansion is low. However as a subsistence-income generator the farm is effectively sustainable.

Abiu tree with natural ground cover in the orchard

Squash growing next to Abiu Tree

I also visited a natural farm which was in many ways similar to this orchard; however it also contained several features particular to natural farming, and much more practice in the application, especially as this was a large, commercially-viable farm. Situated in Taitong, the farmer uses many of the methods discussed by Fukoka; and like the abiu orchard, a natural ground cover of pioneers provided excellent health for the garden. The farmer

Nitrogen-fixing leguminous pioneer

produces various processed pastes and jellies from perennials which have an onion-like flavor and are prevalent throughout the system; his product is not a large volume in commercial terms, but sufficient to afford the farmer a modest living. He integrates on-site water storage in a large tank, and in addition among the pioneers present in the natural ground cover are nitrogen fixing pioneers. Surrounded by similar sized farms practicing mono-cropping and synthetics, the farm sticks out as a tribute to natural living. It’s clear that his farm also enjoys much greater health; in addition he keeps a small herd of

Cows foraging on a natural farm

free-wandering cows fenced in in the neighboring semi-wild lands he also owns. This part of his garden serves the purpose of forage, and by rotating the foraging cows seasonally he can also use part of this land to produce food while leaving it wild—which is best for promoting whole ecosystem health. A small patch of rosemary around the edge gives the farm it a sweet summer hue while also acting as pest insect repellent; ladybugs also stand as proof of effective, natural integrated pest management. This farm is an example of successful small-scale sustainable production.

Also in Taitong is a permaculture garden; or better put, the beginnings of a

Taitong Permaculture Farm (under development)

permaculture garden. Nobody has been around for the last few months because the owner must also keep a city job to pay for expenses and so must spend much of his time in Taipei, far from the site; this is a part of the struggle faced by would-be entrepreneurial organic farmers. This is not a serious issue, but limited labor availability means small farms like this need more time to grow. However a sustainable farm is usually built over years, and of course in the case of orchards and other matured gardens, an expectation of considerable time investment is expected. In this case the garden is actually doing quite well; bunched banana trees dot the plot, and closer examination shows these

Growing Tree next to Overgrown Chicken Tractor Site

have excellent intercropping. Most of them are healthy and growing; planted just last Spring. At this point in the farm’s development, work is still being done to restore the plot, inherited from a monocrop system using synthetics—the next door neighbor has strung up nets which are catching and killing kingfishers, proof of how even now all around the farmers are working against, rather than with, natural living systems. So for now, the soil is being restored through a great

Closeup of Chicken-tractor area

deal of perennial leguminous nitrogen-fixing pioneer plants, and the extensive ground cover of these and other pioneers looks healthy, though in the future it will be more a patchwork of tended ground-cover vegetables like the sweet potato, rather than the opportunists currently dominating the system. In the corner where water enters the field (from other above farms, most of which use commercial pesticides and fertilizers which enters the runoff which feeds

Closeup of nitrogen-fixing nodules

the permaculture plot) water-trapping hyacinth plants are doing a good job of keeping the drainage pond active and healthy. Much work still needs to be done—a few young saplings have been planted, but more perennials need to be laid down and they will take time to grow. Nevertheless, even at this early stage the vibrant and alive nature of the farm is clear, and with management and time this could easily become a highly productive garden for food self-sufficiency.

Okra intercropped with Banana

Hyacinth in the water-storage pond

The biodynamic farm in Hualien county was actually a commercially successful organic rice business; this was done on several small rice paddies,

Dry-Rice Cultivation with leguminous companion plant

using a combination of dry- and wet-rice cultivation techniques; typically one season would be monocropped wet rice, followed by a priod of dry-rice cultivation using a leguminous nitrogen-fixer companion crop for green manure purposes. The organic production here is an excellent example of both the success and the pitfalls for the modern organic farmer. While the rice is high quality and production levels are good, making his farm commercially successful, a backyard fruit

Organic Rice ready to be sold

orchard is faring far worse; whitefly infestation is completely unchecked and the whole orchard is suffering. Some rice husks are strewn about the orchard as a mulch, and there are fruits on the trees, but some are not high-quality, and many trees appear weakened by the absolutely massive infestation. The ground cover is patchy, and the whole system appears neglected; the orchard is in dire need of care, possibly the result of insufficient labor—the farm is family run, and alongside the rice processing center is a family kitchen, complete

Drying Stalks out the window

with the presence of several community friends, children, as well as a wandering chicken or two. Most farms of this type will incorporate a house-structure, and this one is no exception. Uniquely biodynamic features are also noticeable, including vats for biodynamic preparations, and the locals remind me strictly how important the “holistic” nature of this approach to farming is. But everywhere is activity, and vegetables grow and thrive about the house as well; so regardless of an infested orchard, the farm is still producing quality organic rice (both husked and unhusked for brown-rice fans) and generating commercial income.

Whitefly infestation on leaves

Biodynamic Preparation

Finally, to round off what was learned, I traveled to an organic market in Hualien to meet some farmers and get a feel for the marketplace in which the

a few stalls at the organic market

sustainable farmer must compete. The picture I saw was both heartening and sad; the organic market was on the decline, perhaps because it was far out-of-the-way and not in the city of Hualien, and partly because, according to a local organic bread baker, “the novelty had worn off.” Local producers strove towards innovation and specialized production, and the market included not only produce but processed goods, baked goods, organic cotton t-shirts, and a

Books, rice cakes, bags, and assorted products for sale

range of products aimed towards the very small and select consumer market. The forty or fifty people there were selling and buying at the same time, and considering books with titles like “namaste” and homemade handicrafts were common, the market seemed more of an alternative community, united not only behind organic practices but also a particular counterculture. This may have been a small group, but the dedication was stark and clear. The tragedy was simply that such production is so far removed from the mainstream.

Permaculture Design-Certified farmer selling eggplant, bananas, bamboo, and other products