Jonathon (Joni) is writing from his volunteer Permaculture position with the Social Policy Ecology Research Institute (SPERI), based at their Farmer Field School, Human Ecology Practice Area (HEPA), located in the Huong Son District, Ha Tinh Province, Vietnam.
Mr Chau and Mr Phuoc
Leaving the lush rain forest setting of HEPA and heading south for two hours, we arrive at Quang Binh Province, the site of another SPERI Farmer Field School (FFS), the Centre of Community Capacity Development (CCCD). Dave and I were on our first field trip as new members of the SPERI community, guided by the fantastic Mr Chau, and fellow Australian permaculturalist Robert Gray. CCCD was to be our base for the next few days as we visited a couple of ‘key farmers’ in the area – farmers who demonstrate what is referred to as ‘eco-farming’ in Vietnam. The first was Mr Phuoc, located in Quan Binh Province. We were told that all permaculturalists who visit Mr Phuoc’s farm get very excited when they see the work he is doing. But I can say that even with this in mind, the experience far outweighed my expectations.
Tea plantation surrounded by jackfruit and peppers
Mr Phuoc came to find his plot in the late 1980s while he was in the area, clearing land for rice and cassava. It was a dry and scrubby mess, already deforested and scattered with land mines, the legacy of the American War. It took Mr Phuoc 10 years to prepare the land for cultivation. The conditions were especially hard due to the arid nature of this area. But one of the most challenging tasks was the number of land mines on the property. Mr Phuoc told us modestly that over the years he has removed 500 – 600 kg of mines, with each individual mine weighing approximately 300g. And when I say remove, I’m not talking about using land mine detection devices or special removal tools. Risking serious injury, and even death, Mr Phuoc would simply (but carefully) pick the land mine up, with his bare hands, and place them in a rice straw padded basket, later to drop them down a deep water hole in the creek, leaving it up to nature to corrode and disarm the devices.
Clearing land covered in land mines is a tediously slow task. Mr Phuoc proclaims to be a very lucky man, describing the time he was hoeing a patch of land and accidentally hitting a mine — breaking it, but without detonation. Coming from Australia, we are used to certain risks while in the garden — with snakes, ticks, and other poisonous creatures — but this is a whole other level of danger that I can barely comprehend.
In order to reveal the mines, Mr Phuoc was forced to burn back the scrub and ground cover. He pointed out areas of the farm still not cultivated, certainly containing more land mines. Taking us down to an area below the Cassava, he gave us an up close look at a live land mine yet to be removed.
There’s more to Mr Phuoc then just bravery and determination. He has over the years — despite having little to work with environmentally, climatically and financially — created a beautiful, functional, and economically productive permaculture system through smart design.
Mr Phuoc shows the result of applying regular mulch
Most of Mr Phuoc’s time is taken up by mulching. He has seen and experienced great successes through the regular application of organic matter and compost, especially around his pepper vine/jackfruit combination. Pulling a small area of mulch back from around the pepper and holding some soil in his hand, Mr Phuoc demonstrated the quality of the soil – some of the best I’ve seen in Vietnam so far.
This year has been the driest year he can remember, but up until recently when Mr Phuoc had a small dam excavated, he had relied entirely on the natural rainfall, with no dams or mass water storage. His various water harvesting and preservation techniques, combined with good water management, including the use of swales, terracing and regular mulching, has seen him through.
The unstable hot dry weather, Mr Phuoc says, is directly linked to the clearing of the forests. He has observed over the years the rainfall in the area steadily decreasing along with the forests. He has therefore dedicated a large amount of his land to natural forest. In contrast to the surrounding area, Mr Phuoc’s property has a lush green backdrop of rejuvenating forest up to the ridge line.
Looking at the productive side of Mr Phuoc’s farm you can’t help but notice the diversity and stacking of short, mid, and long-term species. Pineapples coat the ground below pepper vines climbing the towering jackfruit. Creeping sweet potato ground cover surrounds Pomello trees, and lychees and pineapples make a good combination — not to mention chickens roaming the property fertilising and keeping pests under control.
Pineapples and lychee
Ginger, jackfruit and pepper
While many of the conventional farmers’ pepper crops are dying due to the drought, Mr Phuoc’s look to be thriving, scrambling up the jackfruit, lush and green. The success of his main cash crop comes down to the regular application of mulch and compost. He explains that when most conventional pepper growers apply their chemical fertiliser they cut a shallow ditch encircling the vine and tree, into which they apply the chemical. Aside from the negative impact of chemical fertilisers, they are also cutting and disturbing the pepper’s root system. Alternatively, Mr Phuoc simply adds his compost on the ground surface, covering with a thick layer of mulch. There is no need for him to disturb the soil as his previous mulch and compost applications have left his soil soft and absorbent. His pepper is so popular, the buyers come to the farm to pick up the produce, instead of Mr Phuoc needing to travel to the market.
There is really no financial incentive from the buyer for chemical free produce. Mr Phuoc is chemical free because he knows he is growing a better product, while insuring the long-term sustainability and health of his property, and not contributing to the negative implications of chemical agriculture. He takes his role as a key farmer with SPERI in his stride, passionately guiding visitors around his property. He sees a regular intake of students from the various regions that SPERI is involved in. They stay at his farm, keen to learn from Mr Phuoc’s invaluable experience.
As for myself, I hope to have the opportunity to visit this inspirational man and his property again before my one-year stay is complete. I know I’ll see a whole other dimension next time around.
Pineapple erosion control