As I stepped out of the taxi on a dark country road somewhere in China, Thomas Somner greeted me with an impressive fact. “This land used to have a large Taoist temple here before it was completely destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The people in the village say that there are old Taoist artifacts buried around here and under the roads. I haven’t found any though.” I had arrived at Hangzhou Permaculture Educational Center, the first permaculture educational site in China. Thomas Somner, co-founder of Hangzhou Permaculture with Lia Zhu, humbly said that they had only been on the farm permanently since February. Their progress was evident, even at night, by the sight of the garden as I walked through the gate. I could immediately spot several fruiting garlic, beans, broccoli and tomato plants.
The farmhouse was nestled in the side of a broad hill, in the classical style commonly found in this area of China. Three houses surrounded the garden in a horse-shoe shape. The vegetable and herb garden was energetically growing within the middle courtyard. They’re growing carrots, cucumber, several varieties of beans, potatoes, radishes, garlic, lettuce, cabbage and other Chinese greens. The real heroes of the garden were present, busily buzzing in their bee house in the southeast corner of the garden.
At the time of my visit, we worked hard preparing the fish ponds. First, the students dug a large hole. They then thoroughly pounded the dirt that would form the bottom of the pond, spreading clay on the impacted soil, and pounding it again. They added two clay layers and pounded the soil effectively to let the future ponds collect, and most importantly, retain, rainwater. Besides having several species of fish, these ponds will irrigate the raised beds that sit in close proximity.
The plans to develop the land as one of China’s first permaculture educational areas are much bigger. Co-founders Lia and Thomas envision the farm having common gardens and a community shared food forest, as well as smaller plots for each student to manage and carry out their individual permaculture designs. They plan to have several earthwork constructions on the face of the mountain, which will hold more community housing, an office, a common area and classroom, and take advantage of sun-exposed hillside for solar use.
The amount of physical challenges Hangzhou Permaculture faces is varied, but, in a true permaculture style, they are approaching them as a learning tool for future generations. Due to historical events, the area the farm is situated in has been deforested and has lost much of its top soil. To make matters worse, the local government deeply terraced the hillside, further burying the remaining amount of arable soil. However, Hangzhou is already making huge leaps and bounds through some brilliant techniques. The biggest thing I learned was how effective the use of urine is on impacted soil. By recycling the community’s nutrients (urine only) and double digging, the small garden has produced an enormous amount of food in just over three months. To prepare a raised garden bed, the standard practice was to double dig 30cms down and then cover the whole 60cm of loose soil and cover with green mulch. After harvesting vegetables, we chopped the leftover plant material and debris and left it in the sun to dry out for a day or two then dropped onto the soil bed. Simply chop and drop!
The conversations at night and in the field with Lia and Thomas were equally interesting and probably my favorite part. It is very clear that they have put a lot of thought and dedication into this educational farm and I wish them luck. As one of the only permaculture farms in China they feel responsible to share permaculture in a very effective manner to as many as they possibly can. The community’s obstacles range from monetary issues to cultural challenges to older women from the village picking their fruit. Consensus-based decision making can be a challenge because most students aren’t used to such direct group decisions. Yet Thomas and Lia press on with a relaxed confidence that one can’t help but admire. “I know it’ll be alright,” Thomas shrugged after discussing a particular point of anxiety, “we’ve gotten this far.”
In a country that has completely bought and brought Industrial Style Agriculture to its farmers, it is wonderful to see Hangzhou Permaculture advance and provide an alternative answer to modern, resource-intensive farming in China. It is groups of individuals like these that I admire most. They provide hope in what sometimes seems like a hopeless situation. If you ever find yourself in China, I would encourage you to contact Hangzhou Permaculture to stay (minimum two weeks) and witness the focus that this group has.
When I left, I expressed how much I looked forward to seeing their progress on a subsequent visit. “We’ll be waiting for you,” Thomas calmly replied.