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Nanjing Permaculture – To PDC or Not to PDC, That is the Question (China)

Through a lucky coincidence, we found a couch-surfing host in Nanjing that was interested in permaculture. Not only that, once he learned of our trip, he put us in touch with James Gu, a man from Nanjing who plans to practice permaculture on his newly purchased land.

We met at a restaurant and discussed modern food production and the hope that permaculture will provide an answer to safe, responsible food security. He initially became interested in permaculture when he became more interested in food safety. With this farm, he explained, “I want to grow food that I know is safe to feed my family.”

We talked a great deal about the Chinese and the American food systems. Both systems encourage industrial agriculture with its use of chemicals, mono-cropping and extensive use of fossil fuels. Both systems encourage larger corporate farms and do little oversight and regulation of food safety. In China, there are hopeful signs that the tide can be reversed, mainly because an overwhelming part of China’s agricultural land is still owned by small-scale, independent farmers that still remember farming organically.

I was impressed with how much he knew about the global agricultural industrial complex. He knew about the dangerous effects it produces, the diversity it kills, the waste it creates, and the more vulnerable it becomes through consolidation.

James does not own a PDC. On this issue, I have remained decidedly ambivalent. Some say that one doesn’t need a PDC, while others say its pretty important to get a full understanding of permaculture design. In James’ case, I think it would help him a lot.

I never give advice if I am not asked, but there were three things I noticed right off the bat that might cause headaches in the present and future.

First, no comprehensive design for his farm. This is the first thing that permaculturists recommend, hence the reason for the Permaculture Design Course. This experience made me aware just how valuable a PDC is. Without a design, you don’t focus on the ecological relationships that are happening every day on the land. The fact that he was still planting in large rows indicated to me that he didn’t have zones worked out or even a center of operations, which brings me to my next point.

No center of operations or house. Because he didn’t even have a tool shed on the property, there was a palpable absence of Zone 1 and thus no initial focal point or ‘starting point’. If you don’t have a Zone 1 to center your operations, your other zones combine and blur. A Zone 1 is like an anchor to a ship; it gives the ecosystem a focal point of how frequent maintenance should be administered.

Last, because there was no overarching design and center to implement the design from, the size of the farm seemed large and unmanageable. He had two farm laborers who were doing the best they can, but are half as effective when they have to look after the whole farm. For example, there was a sizable disconnect between the pond, chicken coop and the shade-giving trees.

If he did ask me to consult with him, I would mention these three potential problem areas that could have been eliminated had there been a design in place. I would recommend building a cob structure wherever he saw the ‘center’ or focal point of the farm to be. This could be a place to keep tools and provide a cool place for the workers to rest. Then he could eventually develop a set of zones that move away from the house, distinguished by frequency of use. James mentioned that he would like to see this farm profit sometime, so his Zone 1 could be much bigger to grow and sell vegetables. With a design, you can draw in resources and create closed loops in waste, energy and materials — incorporating your animals to instinctively complete tasks that you would otherwise have to do yourself, such as pest control and fertilising.

Finally, with a cohesive plan the farm size does not seem so daunting. All five zones should be included to provide a natural, inspiring and holistic way to grow food.

To really learn, one must be willing to make mistakes, but I fear that he doesn’t have to make as many mistakes as he will if he continues without an appropriate initial design. Either way, I wish him good luck and a lot of success on his project.

One Comment

  1. Thanks Ted for the interesting story. Sometimes design seems so basic we forget why it’s so important. Chinese farm land is tricky, especially zone 1, seeing as almost all agricultural land has protected status. In general, no buildings of any kind, orchards, or ponds can be put in without ‘relationships’ with higher officials. We’re getting around this here in Hangzhou by putting up tipis instead of buildings, doing alley cropping, windbreaks and living fences with fruit trees rather than orchard planting and digging chinampas and small reservoirs rather than ponds. Hopefully we’ll be able to share our models with more young farmers like James Gu as they develop over the next several years.

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