At SPERI’s Human Ecology Project Area we have a number of Farmer Field Schools (HEPA FFS) which are host to students from a variety of indigenous minority groups from Vietnam and Laos. The students are here to learn about eco-farming and permaculture whilst respecting traditional laws and customs.
The main focus of the farms isn’t to be productive, but rather to provide an environment where the students can experiment with various farming methods of growing crops and raising animals. So, although we do obtain a yield from the farms, the greater yield is the knowledge the students gain from trial and error.
HEPA FFS is in lush rainforest near the Laos border south-west of Ha Noi. The weather here varies from very cold winters (no snow but feels like it could!), to hot dry summers toasted with hot winds from Laos, and moving into cold monsoons and flooding at other times of the year. As such it is a challenge for the students to obtain a yield from the crops year round, and even more of a challenge to keep healthy animals.
As mentioned, FFS is about research and experimentation. As such, there are a number of different animal systems used here with varying degrees of success. Failures are considered ‘lessons learnt’ and new methods are tried. For example one farm lost their entire flock of chickens to disease during the cold winter months. Traditional methods are put to the test and not all work in this environment as they may have been developed in places where the environmental conditions were very different. However it is hard for people to change so sometimes students have to learn the hard way that prior knowledge and traditions may not work in conditions that they are not used to. For example, those coming from more arid areas find that planting trees and keeping animals as they did in their home villages may not necessarily succeed here at HEPA were we have lots of rainfall and large variances in temperature throughout the year.
There are a number of species of chickens here at HEPA. The different minority groups have preference for different species, for example the Hmong consider ‘black boned’ chickens to be healthier with qualities that can extend life expectancy.
Steel chicken wire is expensive here so the chickens are penned in using large nylon net enclosures. The nylon mesh is very light which makes it easy to build fences with, however there are problems with chickens learning that they can easily rip holes in the netting, and the flimsy material it is not much of a deterrent for hungry dogs, or hungry thieves.
Small chicken tractors are made using the more expensive steel mesh for those chickens who have figured out they can tear though the nylon mesh. For the rest the nylon mesh makes it easy to build long chicken runs that can be placed over garden beds so the chickens can prepare the ground for planting. These runs are then moved in rotation.
To build these runs the mesh is just propped up on coppiced Tephrosia, a legume that is grown as a support species here, and the bottom pegged down with bamboo. The run is connected to the main chicken enclosure which is located at the centre of the farm’s garden beds, with the long garden beds running out each side.
Of course keeping chickens anywhere is pretty much the same but here at HEPA there is an unusual difference. Some of the students keep a rabbit in a hutch inside the chicken enclosure. They tell me that there is something in the rabbits urine that prevents disease in the chickens. The following is a transcription of an email I received from the person who introduced this to HEPA. Please excuse the grammar and word usage, his English is limited:
When you raising rabbits and chickens, result very good and chicken never sick influenza. The chickens not sick because in water piss of rabbits have matter resist influenza. Information comes from the experience of local farmers. I experiment every location in FFS – Speri. The result very good
Dung Tien Bui
I have tried to find some scientific validation for this claim but with Google I could only find one vague reference to it from Africa. It seems they also believe rabbit urine prevents respiratory disease in chickens. Whether become known in Vietnam via separate research, or if it was communicated somehow across continents, I do not know. And although ‘Google Research’, it is the only option I have out here in the forest to verify the validity of this claim. So, I’d love to hear from anyone who has any more information regarding this.
Lacking any real scientific research it could be a great opportunity for someone out there to do a research paper.
Of the four farms here only one of them lets the chickens truly free range. Some use pens as described above, others use smaller, moveable chicken tractors so they can make use of the chickens further away from the main pen to help prepare garden beds for planting.
Ducks at HEPA are bred primarily for meat and pest control (the ducks free-range through garden beds eating bugs and snails). However, the students are starting to experiment with aquaculture, in particular for breeding fish to eat. The students are in the process of selecting fish species and thinking of different reeds and aquatic plants to use to support this. They are setting up duck enclosures on ponds so that the duck droppings will provide nutrients.
Some of these ponds were created by bombs dropped on this area during the war. Running through HEPA is a road connecting the old Ho Chi Min trail that was a supply route from Laos for the Viet Cong, so there are quite a few craters here from bombings, and old bomb shells have been found throughout the forest. The locals even talk of ‘ghosts’ in the forest as many were killed here during that horrible time.
Buffalo are used as beasts of burden to pull carts and ploughs. In addition to this they produce copious amounts of fertiliser!
The buffalo can often be seen wandering free. They never seem to wander far and they are locked up at night for protection. Its not unusual to find a couple of buffalo wallowing in the local swimming hole!
The buffalo pens have a concrete floor and are surrounded by concrete pits that the manure is shovelled into. These pits, when full, are covered and become worm farms. After the worms have done their work, the resulting castings are used on the vegetable gardens. The liquid waste is also collected and used on the gardens.
There are a number of pig systems here. One of the farms has a larger run set up to allow the pigs to forage in the forest. This cuts down on the amount of food they need to be fed and allows them to enjoy life for a while before they reach the dinner plate. There are also a few pig tractors being experimented with to see how well pigs can be used to prepare fields for planting.
The primary purpose of raising pigs though is for food. Being a vegetarian, I struggle with the dilemma of helping to keep the pigs healthy and well fed, knowing that they will be slaughtered. At least they are well cared for until then.
Like the buffalo, the pigs are also kept in concrete floored pens. The pig pens are connected to a bio-gas digester. All the pig manure is washed down into the digester which provides enough bio-gas to cook for about an hour per day. I plan on writing in more detail about this system in a future article.
Bee keeping is also done on a small scale here. The bees are a local species that seem very calm compared to what I am used to. I’ve kept Italian bees and I wouldn’t go near them without being completely covered, with veil and gloves (I know there are some ‘bee whisperers’ out there that don’t take such precautions, but I have been badly stung, so full cover for me!). The bees here don’t seem to be aggressive at all. I lifted the lid off the hive to photograph them and they didn’t get upset at all (luckily for me).
The hives are all home made and the inserts that the bees make their honeycomb on are sheets of flat woven bamboo. (What can’t you do with bamboo?)
Honey is extracted using a home made extractor mounted in a plastic bucket. The honey yield has been quite low as the student working with this system only has one hive at present, but more are planned. Hopefully in a few months we will enjoy lashings of honey on our rice! (We eat everything with rice here!)
There are worm farms everywhere at HEPA! Every house has a vegetable garden, and next to these there is at least one worm farm for easy disposal of any food scraps or other organic matter like paper scraps.
Besides these smaller worm farms, there are the aforementioned large scale worm farms associated with the buffalo and other animal pens. I even discovered an old plastic water container set up as a worm farm at the back of the kitchen!
In addition to the minority group students who come to live and learn at HEPA FFS, we also have a couple of university students who are doing research here as part of their studies.
One of these students has written a research paper on experiments she did with worm farms and the effect of worm tea and castings on plant growth. To do this experiment she set up a few controlled worm farms. She then weighed the input (scraps from dinner), and measured the output of both worm tea (the liquid output from the worm farm) and castings produced.
She then established a number of experimental vegetable garden beds to grow lettuce. One of these garden beds she left alone as a control. With one she only applied worm juice. Another she applied only worm castings. And one another she used a combination of worm tea and worm castings.
I won’t go into details about the results as she will be publishing these as part of her degree, but as expected the garden bed with both worm castings and worm juice produced the greatest yield. It seems obvious that this would be the result but these kind of experiments provide hard data that show permaculture methods work.
This is an illustration of the kind of experiments that the students are doing here. Some are looking at water systems, others at different animal husbandry methods, some experiment with different herbal teas for fertiliser and pest control, and so forth. And of course this is all done using permaculture, eco-farming and traditional methods. The students document their work and present it for peer evaluation. The research is collated and reports sent to SPERI’s office in Hanoi where the results are used to support lobbying for policy around sustainable land use and published through various mechanisms for academic and government review.
Dogs and cats are not usually considered as ‘animal systems’ from a permaculture perspective, but I think we should consider the many functions they provide. Here at HEPA we have a number of cats and dogs, but they are not pets in the traditional sense. No one seems to own them, they are just here.
The cats live in the kitchen to keep rats and mice out of the sacks of rice. We occasionally grab a cat or two to take back to our huts as we often get rats and mice living in the thatched roofs that come down and raid our private food stashes. Rats will eat through boxes and drink containers, and decimate any fruit left unprotected. They also leave droppings on our bedding which is not pleasant. So, it is handy to be able to just grab a random cat from the kitchen area every now and again.
The dogs here are kept mainly as guard dogs. One of the dogs here is named “Ro’i” (pronounced Roy) which is Vietnamese for “Fall”. The story is that he turned up at HEPA after he fell off one of the dog trucks that come from Laos. These trucks bring dogs in for the dog meat restaurants and are a sorry sight to see.
Cooked dog delivery vehicle – Hanoi, Vietnam
Photo © Craig Mackintosh
The dogs tend to bark at anyone who isn’t part of our community. They also chase off snakes and keep wandering buffalo from coming in and stomping all over our kitchen gardens.
We do not bring any food in from outside the property for the cats or dogs, they make do with leftovers (fish, eggs and pork mixed with rice), or fend for themselves eating spiders and cicadas. They all seem fit and healthy so they are obviously getting enough to eat.
In fact all food for animals is sourced locally on the farms and in the surrounding forest. Chickens are fed food scraps and sliced banana stem. Pigs are also fed this same mix but the scraps are cooked up with rice bran and herbs foraged from the gardens. The banana stems are harvested from the many wild banana trees which can be found growing along the numerous small creeks and streams that run through the rainforest. The trees themselves seem to regenerate quite fast in this environment with new shoots growing from the cut trunk in a matter or weeks.