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Here in Hainan (China)

This was just one more reminder to look beyond the details and not to become a pompous permaculturist.

I remember looking at Hainan on a world map at my parents house in Roseburg, Oregon in the U.S.A. and wondering what it’d be like to go there. I did the same with Taiwan, and I suppose I do get some sort of boyish satisfaction out of saying "I’ve been there!" As much as I enjoyed being in Hainan, I wish I could say the same about the farming experience.

The most surprising thing about this particular farm was how little work we actually did. It’s hard to recall what we did. We moved stones to a "soon-to-be" fish pond that will probably be finished in the far distant future rather than in the not-so-distant. This hits on another annoyance: having land but no vision. Being somewhat of a modern day landless serf with a bachelor’s degree, I’ve noticed I become frustrated with people who have land but don’t know what to do with it. Owning your own property allows you an opportunity to exhibit what living sustainably looks like. I quickly realized we weren’t going to be there to help with much. Our hosts seem to treat it like a bed and breakfast, which would be fine if I weren’t writing a blog about sustainability. It seems they were happy hosting us and only having us work no more than an hour a day. I was looking forward to working hard in hopes of learning some skills.

Granted, the farm is partly powered by solar and biogas with plenty of fruit trees surrounding the house so I will give them credit where it is due. However, it didn’t seem like there was clear overall strategy for the farm. It could have been a reflection of our host’s personality, slightly disorganized and clumsy. He has the best of intentions but my frustration lies in the fact that he treats sustainability like a hobby rather than an idea to promote to save us from extinction. He had solar panels but the system was so small that it could only power lighting. The biogas digester is functioning and connected to their septic system but only provides half of their cooking gas needs due to such little input. They save money by these techniques but not much. Any progress should be congratulated but I feel that with a little more work and modification they could power their entire home on solar power.

Although, I definitely had minor problems and complaints about the farm, it was great to really get an idea of what it’d be like to live on a farm (sustainable or not). A lot of their diet is based on vegetables and fruit they grow. For instance, because it was jackfruit season we ate jackfruit for almost every meal. I am a huge proponent of growing one’s own food but diversity is key. Living on a farm can be somewhat dull as well. I am a pretty social person and when I don’t have interaction with different people each day, I start to notice. By the time we reached Haikou I was ready for a sandwich, a beer and a friendly chat with fellow travelers.

At the time of writing the piece above, I was clearly upset because I had expectations that were not met. If it weren’t for my best friend and editor informing me that I sounded like a pretentious prick, then I fear I would have carried on, posted this article and not learned from this experience. Thank goodness for friends.

I gave it another read and then another because to my surprise, she was right. I do sound like a jerk above and a judgmental one at that. Permaculture projects are as unique as the designers that implement them. It is absurd to evaluate on a universal scale.

I’ve talked to many older farmers I’ve met traveling who lament about young permaculture ‘fanatics’ that criticize these farmers for not having a chicken tractor, swales or arbitrary measurement of whether it is truly permaculture or not.

The truth of the matter is that we cannot get lost in the details. Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of the Transition Network, has a great story of people visiting Totnes, the first Transition Town. As its fame started to raise about its transition, more folks showed up to see it for themselves. That’s when he noticed the questions. People asked Hopkins all sorts of things as to why all buildings were not covered in solar PV or why were the cars still using petrol. A German visitor complained, "The houses don’t have green roofs and there are no goats eating grass on the roofs!"

The problem here is that our own expectations get the better of us. In a quest to satiate our passion for a more sustainable future we can become quite critical of each other. I am certainly no different.

Instead of criticizing my host’s property for treating sustainability like a hobby, I should have been praising him for doing something that no one else is doing 100km around him. He’s setting up a sustainable example of living to the surrounding community and that should be commended. I feel ashamed for saying that he had no vision. He does! How else could he have accomplished so much (solar, biogas, fruit orchard and vegetable garden) with no vision? Just because there are many projects that are unfinished and by their sheer size take longer to complete, does it mean that he doesn’t have a vision?

The farm did not meet my expectations and that is my fault because I had too many of them. I suppose a way of looking at it is seeing a permaculture farm for the first time is like a meeting a stranger. You cannot judge a book by its cover just like you can’t judge a farm on whether it has a chicken tractor or not. We must look at the principles the farmer is guided by, his vision and most importantly, do so with no grand expectations.


  1. Hi Ted. Interesting. We should encourage a diversity of approaches as every little bit helps and you just never know what might inspire the locals or may be learned in the process.

    Here at the farm, it takes a long time between starting a project, observing how it performs in the real world and then modifying it (or getting rid of it / re-purposing it completely) to be as simple and resilient as possible. On acres, this is no small thing. If you are ever in Victoria, Australia, I’ll show you what a hard day’s work is – if you are up for it? hehe!

    Your post reminded me that sometimes people can’t see a sustainable system as it is a completely new way of looking at a system. It takes time to see a system in complete detail to fully understand it, but it takes years of living with it to understand all of its subtle nuances. But it also takes energy to convert it into a sustainable reality.



  2. I finally got my own land last year. I work alone and by hand so when I see these pictures I’m amazed at how much work has been done at this farm. But this confirms what I have suspected, that as much as I may need help I’m not going to bring any in.

  3. Hi, I’ve been lucky enough to get out of debt for the first time in years and have moved from the city to the middle of nowhere in Northland, NZ. I’m staying at a friend’s house. A couple with two kids, they have about 5 acres, a couple of steers and some chooks and a small organic garden. They work part-time and live on a tiny budget. This is their version of self-sufficiency.
    I can see all sorts of improvements which could be made to the home and the land but he is content to plod along and do things his own way, often refusing help from others.
    At first this annoyed me and I started making all sorts of suggestions. He would laugh that his ‘arsehole detector’ was working fine (we both love Billy Connelly). After 3 weeks I’m finally starting to get the picture. Self-sufficiency is an art and a science. Lifestyle is a choice. Having met some of the stressed out conventional farmers around here I’ve realised my friends are doing just fine. I’m privileged to be able to help them out.

  4. A sustainable system also needs to consider that when the people working in it are overworked they can lose their ability to contribute more, particularly when people get tired and strained they are much more likely to experience an major accident or serious injury.

    My strategy against this is to have lots of different projects on the go at once. That way if my back starts to feel a little sore from digging a hole I can switch to hoeing until my shoulders tire, then switch to pruning until my hands get tired. Usually by then my back is rested and I can go back to digging again.

  5. For me, gardening is a hobby. When I work too hard at it, it loses its enjoyment. That enjoyment is what energizes me. So my food forest has developed slowly but happily. What is harvested is about half of my diet, and some is sold through a co-op.

  6. Chicken tractors & swales are not permaculture. They are some of the tools of permaculture but by themselves they are not permaculture. Permaculture is design according to a set of principles. The more design you have, the more permaculture you have. Does the design have to be complete before you start? I don’t think so. As a horticulturalist who designs using permie principles, my experience has been that the design emerges and evolves as you go because the closer you get to the land, the more it talks to you and tells you what to do.

    It would have been interesting to know if there is any design involved in the orchards and veg gardens. How are they increasing fertility? How are they dealing with weeds? How do they manage water?

  7. Someone who occupies themselves with daily chores relentlessly, does it for the occupation, not for the necessity. That’s what I’ve seen in many places.

    Some people like doing things fast and strong, while others, like me, enjoy a slow paced and calculated approach.

    If the farmer has their priorities right, so that for example, tree planting happens in the first year en-mass, then there’s no reason to hurry. Most of the work is design and preparation.

  8. Hey Ted:

    Thanks for this article. When I started reading it, I did, indeed, think – wow, this guy’s really harsh on his host! But then, when you so thoughtfully reconsidered – well I have to tell you I saw myself in your writing. Thanks for being honest and for taking another look around. I agree – permaculture doesn’t always look like what *I* think it should. And so much the better. One of the things I like about permaculture is that a diversity of approaches, works!

  9. Hi Ted,
    I enjoyed your insight – often those of us without a lot of practical experience but a lot of theoretical notions can be too critical of those who are actually doing something right, just not particularly the ideal. I’m from Oregon as well, and I think we as a culture have a lot of idealisms. I’m interested in a form of tourism called “agro-tourism” and it sounds like we might have a lot ot chat about. In particular, right now I’m trying to find out when the durian season is in Hainan. Do you have any idea or any way to find out?

  10. hi, my wife and I are planning a trip to Hainan. I was wondering if you know when’s the Durian season. Much obliged.
    simon leonard koh

  11. Hi, interested to hear about the quality of the land/soil and it’s fertility, is it possible to grow good grass for animals, are there dry land – not low lying & wet

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