Wild Boars in Vietnam

 

Everywhere we go as we travel through Vietnam (where we’re currently taking a short break) we’re constantly looking at the landscape through farmers’ eyes as we try to make sense of the farming systems we’re observing.

It’s completely fascinating seeing the rich tapestry of rice paddies, ducks, cows, water buffalo, aquaculture, corn fields, orchards, vegetable plots, jungle, chickens and various mystery crops – and of course houses, villages, and tombs dotted throughout the landscape, that fills pretty much every inch of the countryside between cities.

Our heads are full of dozens of questions, making us acutely aware of how little we know about farming outside our own specialty and climate: are all those people in the rice paddies weeding, planting or harvesting? Do they own the land, or do they work for someone else? How on earth do they get the water to move exactly where they want it in such a flat landscape (there’s a huge amount of water, at different depths in different paddies, and we can’t see any pumps or infrastructure)? What are those trees (we ask ourselves that question a lot)? Why are some cows tethered and others seem to roam free? Why are there fences in some areas but not in others – is it all one big farm or lots of little ones cheek by jowl? Are those things that look like haystacks actually haystacks, and if so what’s the crop and what are they used for (and how on earth do they get them so high?)

Whenever we’re lucky enough to find a local that speaks enough English we pepper them with questions, learning a bit more each time. (We speak only about ten words of Vietnamese, enough to order a beer but not enough to ask anything at all about farming.)

We came a small but meaningful step closer to understanding what’s going on this week by spending half a day with a farmer on his farm. Cuong runs the Wild Boar Eco Farm in Bong Lai valley, a 10 ha mixed farm on the edge of the jungle, that is also a fledgling ecotourism enterprise. We visited his farm while we were staying at the Phong Nha Farmstay, near the Phone Nha – Ke Bang National Park,  which contains a massive and incredible cave system, including what has been recognised as the largest cave in the world — Son Doong.

We’ve become very aware of the double-edged sword that tourism represents, as are many of the locals we spoke to. This region used to be very poor, and some of the locals working at Phong Nha Farmstay have memories of hungry childhoods and extreme poverty, even Hung, a supervisor at the farmstay,  whose father is the head man of his village.

The district around Phong Nha is now experiencing a huge tourist boom, largely due to the caves which receive an average of 3,000 visitors a day! It’s providing heaps of local employment and helping to lift the region out of poverty. Much of the wealth going into local communities seems to be put immediately into improved housing, and we saw prosperous-looking houses being built everywhere, much of it replacing simple wooden shacks that people lived in previously.

The development of rural tourism is also providing an alternative to the trend of young people leaving rural districts to find work in the big cities so they can send money home to support their families. After experiencing life in a large, modern, cosmopolitan city, many don’t then want to return to take over the family farm when the time comes. However, most of the young people employed at Phong Nha Farmstay are from the local area, and it’s providing them with the means to stay. While we there, Huong, one of the bar staff, was looking a bit bleary-eyed for a day or two because it was corn harvest season, and she was rushing home from work to help with the family corn harvest, which extended well into the nights until it was all finished. Though university educated (nearly every young person we’ve spoken to is), Huong plans to continue both her career in tourism and the family farming tradition.

The downside of this economic boom is the same as it always is – loss of cultural identity, changes to traditional family life, big business moving in, and destruction of natural resources. We were pleasantly surprised at how sensitively the Vietnamese government seems to be developing the cave region, but 3,000 visitors a day takes its toll nonetheless, and while the locals welcome the new opportunities that are opening up, several also mentioned aspects they find distressing.

Change is always difficult, and it’s easy to form quick judgements about whether something is “good” or “bad” through our priveleged western eyes. Meeting Cuong gave us more food for thought.

Cuong is a young farmer with a very entrepreneurial glint in his eye! He can see the opportunity created by the flood of tourists to his district, and is keen to grab the chance with both hands so he can raise his family out of subsistence farming, give his kids a good education, and employ people to do his farm work!  He’s working on creating a farm tourism experience for foreign visitors (despite the huge rise in domestic tourism Cuong isn’t aiming for this market, as he thinks they are too demanding and leave too much rubbish around!).

We were the first visitors to take up his offer of a farm tour, and he couldn’t quite believe we really wanted to see it, thinking it a very poor example compared to the huge and pristine farm he seemed to imagine we had (if only he knew!). It was fascinating, and we really valued the chance to see it close up and ask loads of questions. We had to resort to smartphone translation a few times, but were able to get a good level of detail. (I know this is a long blog post, but his farm was too interesting not to share!)

Cuong’s staple crops are:

  • Rubber- Cuong has recently expanded his plantation and has many trees not old enough to tap yet.

  • Bananas – we had our first ever experience of eating a banana direct from the tree – delicious! (The cutie is Cuong’s daughter, who traipsed around the whole farm tour with us).

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Wild boar – he catches adult boars in the jungle, then domesticates and breeds them, selling piglets at about 10 months old. He also has plans to use his own pig meat for his restaurant. The pigs forage for most of their feed, with supplementary sweet potato greens harvested from the banana plantation and a few pellets for the piglets.

  • Peanuts, which were used for the absolutely delicious peanut sauce we had with the wild boar Coung’s wife cooked for lunch;

  • Cassava, harvested mainly for noodles
  • Sweet potato, used both for human and animal food
  • Acacias, or “paper trees”, harvested for paper making. They grow quickly (the speed of growth of trees was enough to make us weep with envy), and are then coppiced and allowed to regrow.

In his move to eco-tourism Cuong’s adding all sorts of new features:

  • two simple homestay accomodation rooms;
  • a beautiful little restaurant (complete with hammocks) overlooking the jungle and meandering river that forms one boundary, which can be accessed for a pre-lunch swim via the stairs he’s built into the riverbank;
  • an amazing tropical mixed orchard of about 100 trees including mango, “breast milk fruit tree” (a kind of sapote), papaya, lychee, jackfruit, coconut, orange and guava. He’s aiming for a big diversity of fruit to add to the farm tour and homestay experience.

There were a lot of diferences between his farming experience and ours, for example he has no mechanisation at all, relying on water buffalo for ploughing (which he assured us are very, very, very slow), and very little infrastructure, meaning he has to water his trees by hand with a hose, which takes several hours every couple of days.

There were also lots of similarities, including the constant need to be building and maintaining fences, and frustration with various pests such as wild boar eating the trunks of young trees (he was intrigued by our tales of kangaroos doing the same thing to our young apple trees!).

Cuoung and his young family work incredibly hard, for a fraction of the return on his crops that we receive, and has no control over the price he receives for many of his crops – like so many farmers the world around. Eco-tourism gives him the chance to develop his own market, set his own prices, value-add, and have a real chance to escape the cycle of poverty that so many small scale farmers experience. If you’re going to Vietnam any time soon, drop in and say g’day to him.

Farming Together in Harcourt

Hi Everyone,

We’re starting a new collaborative way of farming! At the moment it’s called the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (which is accurate, but too long – we need our younger and maybe more creative Alliance partners to come up something a bit shorter and punchier!).  Name notwithstanding, what’s it all about?

Well, it’s funny the places life takes you at times. All the business planning in the world can’t account for the magic that sometimes happens when an idea you’ve had brewing for a while collides with an offer someone makes to you, a random email that falls into your inbox, a conversation you have with a friend…and after a while, a whole new “thing” emerges that bears little or no resemblance to where you thought you were going.

We could claim credit for visionary strategic thinking in coming up with this idea, but actually it’s the culmination of lots of crazy dreams, little decisions, false starts, funny little conversations, half turns, and dead ends, and the contribution of lots and lots of people over the last couple of years. We reckon we’re on the right track though, because this new alliance idea solves lots of problems, answers lots of questions…and feels right!

We’re planning to set up an alliance of small organic farmers on our farm, all running different (but complementary) enterprises. We’re aiming to start with a market garden (already in place courtesy of the Gorgeous Gung Hoes), a micro-dairy (we’re in negotiations with someone at the moment), and the orchard. We’re also open to ideas for new enterprises.

So how did this all come about? There hasn’t been a single straight line, but it’s to do with a few problems we’ve been mulling over:

  1. We’re not getting any younger, and while we want to keep our orchard in production, we can see ourselves taking a less active role in the future (a common story among farmers our age).
  2. We know there’s room for the whole farm to be more productive than it is, but we don’t have the capacity to start new enterprises ourselves (see #1!).
  3. There’s lots of enthusiastic, dedicated, passionate people out there who want to run their own farming business, but the barriers (especially buying land) are prohibitive.
  4. Small-scale organic farming is risky, with the risk and expenses usually carried by a single family. We’ve often wondered whether there’s a better way we could farm that would share the risks and the expenses but also make better use of the resources.
  5. We’re keen to have more time to develop our online Grow Great Fruit teaching business, which we love doing and has been crammed into the cracks between fruit seasons for too long.

We know that lots of people and groups have been thinking about these problems, which boils down to a couple of questions: how do we keep productive organic farmland in production as farmers age and retire, and how do we create pathways into farming? The solution we’ve come up with is unique as far as we know (but we’d love to hear of anyone else doing the same thing—they may be able to save us making all sorts of teething mistakes!).

So, how do we put this into action? We could just keep running the orchard ourselves, but considering that one of the things on our mind has been our succession to retirement, it seems much more logical to create an opportunity for someone else to start their own fruit-growing business. We’ll be busy as lead Alliance partner, building and guiding the Alliance, in cooperation with the other Alliance members. And of course we’ll still be getting our hands dirty running our on-farm heritage tree nursery.

Starting today we’re seeking Expressions of Interest to find the right person (or people) to lease the orchard part of the farm. We’ve put 20 years of hard work into converting to organic production, rejuvenating old orchard blocks, working on soil health, and building infrastructure. Although any farm is always a work in progress, this offers a great opportunity for someone to take over an established organic orchard without having to start from scratch.

It’s going to suit someone (or a couple) with previous orchard experience, or at the very least substantial farming experience, as well as experience with organics. We’re offering mentoring, but not teaching someone with no farming experience.

Serendipitously, both state and federal governments have an appetite for funding collaborative farming projects at the moment, so we’ve applied for some funding to help us get started—more on that in the next blog.

There’s lots to thrash out to get this model to work, such as how many farmers is enough? What proportion of costs will each one contribute? What legal structure will we need? How do we create and maintain supportive, trusting relationships? How exactly do we share resources? What other products can we generate? What are the marketing opportunities?

No doubt all these things will be revealed as we embark on this ambitious, exciting and slightly terrifying journey.

Here we are back in September 2003!

Happy growing!

Hugh & Katie

(Please share this blog if you know anyone you think may be interested in the orchard lease opportunity.)

Choosing the right fruit tree

2003-oct-12-netting-81It’s that time of year again, when our minds turn to planting some new fruit trees. Winter is the right time for planting, when the trees are dormant and their roots are inactive, so they’re at less risk of being damaged by being lifted from the soil in the nursery where they grew, transported (bare-rooted), and then planted in their new home.

Choosing the right variety is exciting, but always seems to be a challenge, both for first timers and experienced gardeners. And it is tricky, because you’re (usually) choosing varieties you’re not really familiar with, so you’re not sure of when they’ll ripen, whether they’ll suit your climate, if they’re going to ripen at the same time as a similar fruit you already have in the garden, or even whether you’ll like them.

pa-lucy-planting-trees-480x359

Which is one of the reasons that fruit tree gardens are such a pleasure, because each autumn you get to review how they performed during summer, whether you’re getting enough – and the right types – of fruit, and make new decisions to keep improving the garden every year. It’s a constant work in progress, and an endless source of delight. It’s easy to see why it becomes a life-long passion for lots of people.

We reckon the keys to creating food security in your own backyard come from creating a regular supply of fruit over the whole growing season (as opposed to periods of glut and scarcity), extending the harvest period as long as possible, and having as big a variety of fruit as possible.

autumn fruit bowl
autumn fruit bowl containing 7 different varieties

So an easy way to think about your garden review and start choosing your new varieties is to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. How many months did I have fresh fruit available?
  2. Did I have glut periods where I had more fruit than I needed?
  3. Did I go through periods where I had to buy fruit because there was none ready in the garden?
  4.  Am I growing all my favourites?

Your answers will give you a great starting point for making some choices for this year’s trees – look for varieties that will extend the season either at the beginning or end, ripen at the times when you are having to buy fruit, or provide you with some of your favourites. You might have to do some clever thinking around creating microclimates if your climate doesn’t quite suit the ‘favourites’ that you’d like to plant.

Of course, planting more trees is not the only solution – a lot of problems can also be resolved by grafting to make an overproductive tree into a multigraft, for example. But that’s a story for another blog!