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.)

Welcome to winter!

Happy winter everybody!

Hope you’ve got the warm surrounding you, in the body, heart n soul. We have had a few heavyish frosts out in Harcourt this week and it took us a bit by surprise! We had such a grey autumn and winter last year, it didn’t get AS cold, just grey (I know what I’d prefer—give me the cold sunny blue sky daze any day) and so we were caught unawares. We went to pick on Wednesday and our little babies had been frozen and so there was only a few kilos of lettuce we could salvage rather than our normal 10 or so…damn!

It’s incredible the relationship we and our customers foster. It comes from both sides. I (Mel) usually deal with the orders for the people, shops, restaurants, and cafes, and it’s a hard message to send saying we can’t fulfill your order because it’s frozen. It might affect us for a few weeks, but we can’t be sure because this is new for us, again, or still, or something. So I sent it off nervously. The replies that came back swift as geese flying on a southern wind were more or less “oh no, so sorry to hear”.  Phew, sigh of relief and a breath of gratitude!

The face-to-face connection we have with the people who both buy and eat our food makes it all so worthwhile and helps us and them alike.  Along with tucking our green babies in with frost cloth each night, we are weeding again and seeing everything slow down with the cool soil and air and shift of season.

There’s 2 months of the year when it feels A-OK to take a holiday, and this is in June and July. One of us can run the patch without it being completely overwhelming with picking and seeding and planting and watering, etc. etc. So we’re booking it out! We are going to visit Rad Growers (oh yeah, this is what farmers do on their holidays—visit other farms), who is Erin in Albury; Brightside Produce (Emily and Michael) nestled in the Tallaganda State Forest 1.5 hours out of Canberra; and Liz Clay in Noojee. We are so excited to visit other systems and pick their brains for successes and failures, and lend our willing hands for a few days. It’s so sad, a local pioneer from these parts Rod May from Captain’s Creek Farm passed this week after an accident. He was a pioneer of community-supported agriculture in this area and held a lot of years of knowledge. RIP, Rod.

 

I think I can forget just how important and enlarging learning can be. I know this sounds silly as I write it, but so often I can get pretty set in my somewhat routine of my generally not so routine life and just keep walking along the same track. I was reminded when we went to an incredible workshop this week on fungus. It was in north Harcourt in a wee hall that doesn’t show up on maps. Alison Pouliot gave me a whole new framework of how to look at our ecosystems and the unseen magic that fungi do for our soil.

Alison’s mass of knowledge and enthusiasm reminded me that if we just take a side step off our everyday path and put even half a foot into new territory, it takes us out of our same same world, we can learn an awful bunch, and it gives us appreciation for all these other areas in life. And all those other people doing awesome stuff that we just have no idea about! I say this, yet I’ve realised as we’ve been booking farm visits and planning summers rotations and thinking about incorporating animals into our system and better tools and just how we can be smarter about what we do, it’s a bit nerve wracking for me to get out of our little bubble to visit others cos I’m so scared that we’re doing it all wrong. And badly wrong. I know we treat our soil right and all the basics, but we want to be smarter with our physical selves and planting techniques—all these things that make it easier and better for us and for our bank account and for the community, because we will have more quantity of delicious. However, as Sas says, that’s the whole point. And at least we’re learning…
Its also the 3rd year of ‘Deep Winter’ in July, a weekend gathering of small-scale farmers from all over Australia. We generally eat good food, listen and discuss issues that affect us, and my favourite: have real conversations about how do you do that. How are you going with this whole thing? The conversations and connections you have around the fire with people who are having a go at the same thing you are – ha! and no, I don’t just mean life.

The first one was held 2 years ago in Bullarto just down the road near Creswick, and from that we made connections with so many other young and older farmers from near and far. It’s invaluable that connection when you can feel quite isolated in your work. This year the gathering is up at Bangalow, in the Northern Rivers. I’m headed up with Tess who is currently looking at starting up a micro dairy around these parts—fingers crossed near us. Apart from meeting up with our fellow earth friends, we are on a bit of a mission you see…

It’s exciting times out here in Harcourt and I’ll let Katie and Hugh fill you in on the full state of things, but it seems as if the whole thing is stepping up again, to another level of this being our livelihood (which is what we want) and thank goodness that life is kind and gives it to us when we can handle it (whether you think you can or not is beside the point).

So, in conclusion, keep your own and others hearts warm and nourish the spirits, it’s important at this time of year. Take a side step out of your normal path to appreciate different learnings and knowledge of others, and realise that this expands and lightens your own world, even if it’s scary and you think it will show you everything you’re doing wrong.  That’s actually ok. Life is learning, if we allow it to be.

Cheers, Mel x