Category Archives: agriculture

Eshya and the farmers

Agricultural
bureaucrats make time for her
and the mute gweilo.

The third member of the Rice Harmony group that I hung out with was Eshya. She’s an environmental scientist by trade, but her job here goes far beyond the usual science and engineering aspects of environmental management. She’s conducting research on the government’s agricultural policies, while spending time with farmers in the village to understand better how their current farming methods mesh with their way of life.

Here we are – me, Eshya and Shu Hao, on our way to the local town in the back of a sort-of-motorised rickshaw:

lucas, eshya, and shu hao

Eshya decided to capitalise on my visit, and dragged me along to a set of meetings with bureaucrats in the local government agriculture offices. She wanted to find out what the government pest control recommendations are for rice farmers. Sometimes it’s difficult for ordinary people to get access to government workers, and Eshya’s hunch was that the spectacle of having a foreigner along for the meetings might be helpful.

And it was! Well, I didn’t actually do anything, but I believe I was a useful prop. All I did was sit there drinking endless cups of tea and smiling serenely, and handing out my university business card to all and sundry, while Eshya had four meetings with Serious and Important Looking Men in charge of agricultural administration.

One of the tips that Eshya got from these meetings was to go visit an agricultural supplies shop in one of the nearby villages. So we went down there. Here she is talking with the proprietor:

eshya talks about agricultural policy in the shop

Her method is a bit like a “mystery shopper” – she presents as a customer, and describes the particular problem she’s having with her rice crop (some sort of bug infestation). She then asks what the government recommends as a response to this problem.

In the above photo, you can see Eshya looking at a piece of paper the shopkeeper has handed her. That paper has the government recommendations in simple terms. Basically, farmers are advised to use this or that pesticide depending on the insect that is bothering them. There aren’t any recommendations about alternative, non-chemical methods of controlling pests.

Eshya told me that this is one of the challenges that she deals with in her job at Rice Harmony. Farmers tend to be very obedient and follow government policy without question. (It’s also significant that the main point of distribution of this policy is in a shop which sells chemical pesticides.)


Eshya sits in the
farmers’ front rooms – sipping tea
and building “guanxi“.

One of the most important things that Eshya does isto spend time with the farmers in the local village. Each night after dinner she checks her list and pays house calls to two or three families. This is a relaxed time of day when the urgency to solve immediate problems is less intense.

I was honoured to be able to accompany Eshya (and Shu Hao) on a few of these visits. (Again this entailed me drinking a lot of tea!). Here she is chatting with some of the farmers who have taken up the challenge of producing rice without harmful pesticides:

eshya with farmers at home

One of her aims in these informal conversations is to try and understand, from the farmers’ perspectives, what constrains them from transitioning to less chemical-intensive methods. In many cases it’s labour. From what I could gather, it’s only been since the 1980s that the government has been recommending pesticide and fertilizer use for rice farming.

These farmers still remember a time before that, when the work that the chemicals now do was performed by human yakka. For example, hauling bulky manure and compost requires more heavy lifting than spraying a concentrated soluble fertiliser. So the advent of chemical farming was something of a relief in what is a very labour-intensive occupation.

On top of this, the current farming generation is ageing. The children of farming families from the village now have the opportunity to travel to the big city to study. There are so many diverse (and better paid) career paths available to them, and so they don’t tend to return to the farm. When their parents retire, they sometimes follow the kids to the city – and so the village starts to empty out.

This is one of the complex problems facing farming in China today. Nobody that I spoke to seemed to have an easy solution. Farming is simply too laborious, and too low-paid, to be attractive to the younger generation. Who will grow the rice in the future? Will China become a net-importer of rice from other, poorer countries?

in the farmers house with shu hao and eshya

In this photo: Aunt Tang, Tang Zeke, Tang Zeping (Tang Zeke and Tang Zeping are brothers). Standing at the back is ShuHao Lin. On the right is your humble author, Lucas Ihlein.

I’m familiar with some of these social problems associated with farming. In Australia, the economics of farming have tended towards fewer farms, much larger farms, and more mechanisation. This can results in social and geographical isolation, and the depopulation of rural centres.

Eshya and I talked about all these problems, and I showed her the work I’d done previously with Ian Milliss on The Yeomans Project, as well as its successor Sugar vs the Reef. We were excited about the crossovers in the work of Rice Harmony and in my creative arts approach. I do hope that we have a chance to share strategies again – perhaps via the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation, which is also grappling with very similar issues around regional culture, environmental management, and agriculture.


“Eshya and the Farmers” is one of three blog posts about my visit to Xiangyang Village in Guangdong.

In the first post, I spend time with Linda in the mud of the rice fields. In the second post, I hang out with ShuHao and go looking for bugs and frogs.

This adventure in the rice paddies was brought to you by Guangzhou Delta Haiku.

Shu Hao and the Insects

While I was in the village, Linda’s colleague Shu Hao took me out on a nightwalk. This is his specialty. He’s the Rice Harmony expert on biodiversity, so his job is to keep an eye on all the other (non-human) lives that proliferate alongside the rice.

Tracking biodiversity is a method for gauging the health of the local environment in which the rice is being grown. To put it bluntly: the more toxic chemicals there are, the fewer species will be present.

Night time is when many of these small creatures come out, and so Shu Hao loves to go on a walk with a torch to see what he can discover. Frogs, toads, tadpoles, crickets, grasshoppers, stick insects, moths, fireflies (fireflies!!), caterpillars, ants, spiders, snails, slugs, beetles, bugs: we saw multiple varieties of all of these, and Shu Hao responded with fascination and respect every time. He paid close attention in order to observe the patterns of behaviour of each of these animals.

Here’s a beautiful green stick insect that Shu Hao photographed on my arm:

stick insect

And here is a short audio recording in which you can hear the cacophony of the night in the village:

 

I recently attended a talk by Hildegard Westerkamp, one of the pioneers of “acoustic ecology”. She spoke of the use of audio recording as a method for documenting the biodiversity of a geographical location. The idea is that you return to the same spot at the same time of year, over several years (or decades) and then by comparing the audio mix, you can get a sense of what is changing in the ecosystem.

At this point, the diversity of life forms in the Rice Harmony village seems very strong. In fact, Linda explained to me that one reason why they selected this place to set up their social enterprise – that it was still part of a relatively healthy environment.

Shu Hao never really stops working. The next day we were out on the road having a breather, and he spotted a micro-movement in the grass. He sprung over to take a close-up photograph of an orange butterfly:

shu hao photographing a butterfly

Shu Hao loves insects.
His whole body reaches down
To get nearer them.


“ShuHao and the Insects” is one of three blog posts about my visit to Xiangyang Village in Guangdong.

In the first post, I spend time with Linda in the mud of the rice fields, and in the third and final post, I accompany Eshya to visit some agricultural bureaucrats, and sip tea with some rice farmers.

This adventure in the rice paddies was brought to you by Guangzhou Delta Haiku.

Linda and the mud

One of the highlights of my time in Guangzhou was an opportunity to leave the big city and visit a farm.

Strangely, for an area like the Pearl River Delta that was built on agriculture, it wasn’t easy for me to find a farm. I don’t speak or read Mandarin, and the Great Firewall doesn’t make internet research very easy. Plus it seems that over the last 30 years, massive industrial and housing development has really pushed agriculture out of Guangzhou.

Because of all the other work I’ve been doing on agriculture, I really wanted to feel for myself how farming in southern China is different from Australia, so I kept prodding Hanting (a local Guangzhou artist and our hardworking “fixer”) to “find me a farm!”.

Eventually Hanting’s extensive network came through: her friend Huáng Hé dug up a link to Rice Harmony, and we called them up and arranged a visit.

Here I am at the Guangzhou office of Rice Harmony, where they do their central planning and product distribution. I’m posing with Linda Tan, who is one of the key members of the group:

Linda and Lucas at the Rice Harmony HQ in Guangzhou

Linda invited me to come and visit the village where Rice Harmony is collaborating with a network of local farmers. The day after our exhibition launch at Observation Society, I jumped on a provincial bus for a four-hour journey to the town of Qingyuan, where I experienced two extremely interesting days with some of the Rice Harmony people: Linda, Eshya, and Shu Hao.

I was so happy when my view from the bus window changed from this sort of thing:

industrial highway scene

…to this sort of thing:

view of rice farms from bus window, guangdong

(I know, the comparison between these two pictures isn’t really fair is it? The former image is blurry and with grey skies, and the latter is sharp, with a bright sunny aspect. But there you have it, ya can’t argue with the “aesthetics of nature”!)

Rice Harmony rents a house in a tiny village:

rice harmony house

Notice all those yellow and red sacks? They are full of organic fertilizer.

The Rice Harmony team is a social enterprise. Their method is really interesting.

While I hung out with Linda in the fields, we talked through the challenge that the group has set itself: They are a business. There are about 15 employees. They sell rice on behalf of some of the farmers in the village. Their goal is to transform local farming practices to be less reliant on chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides).

This is one of the most interesting things that they do: although the Rice Harmony members have no prior experience in growing rice, they are now learning how to do it, with the local farmers as their teachers. They rent a series of un-used rice paddies for this purpose, and Linda has taken on the task with gusto.

linda's rice field

In the above photo, the two lovely looking green carpets are Linda’s early experiments in striking rice seedlings. These will soon be transferred and planted out in the field. (Meet “Mike” the scarecrow on the right hand side of the shot).

In Australia, one of the most common issues farmers have to deal with is water – specifically its scarcity. At the moment, there’s no problems with water supply in northern Guangdong. The river gushes through the village, and concrete culverts divert it alongside each rice paddy:

concrete culvert for watering rice paddies

This water is “free” – there are no debates around rationing or “water rights” here. If a farmer wants to flood her paddy, she’ll just stack some rocks and a clod of grass behind a strategically placed hole in the concrete culvert, and and water will flow in.

Playing with water levels in terraced rice fields is quite fun. Linda and I did the rounds of the paddies she’s in charge of. She’s still getting her head around the topography. Depending on how much water you want, you simply build up, or chip away at, the mud walls of each paddy. The tools are ancient: a long handled hoe, and a shovel.

hoe and shovel, rice farm

When the water reaches the height of the wall, it flows on into the next paddy down, and so on, eventually making its way back into the river.

Here’s Linda trying to get to the bottom of a hydrology problem (note that building in the background – it’s the old village schoolhouse, now empty):

linda in the rice paddy


Each paddy has an
“in” and “out” — Linda maps
water + gravity.

Here’s Linda’s map. The fields with white borders are the ones she is working with. You can see from the annotations that Linda has begun to indicate where the water flows (click the map to view it larger):

linda's map of rice paddy ins and outs

And here are my feet, feeling the lukewarm wet clay mud of the rice paddy:

I found the Rice Harmony social enterprise method inspirational for these reasons:

  • they situate themselves right there within the village (not just fly-in fly-out);
  • they demonstrate their intention to learn, thereby honouring the deep knowledge of the local farmers;
  • they offer an alternative market to the conventional fertilizer-pesticide rice market, for those farmers who are interested to transition to a chemical-free method.

“Linda and the Mud” is one of three blog posts about my visit to Xiangyang Village in Guangdong.

In the next post, I hang out with ShuHao and go looking for bugs and frogs, and in the third and final post, I accompany Eshya to visit some agricultural bureaucrats, and sip tea with some rice farmers.

This adventure in the rice paddies was brought to you by Guangzhou Delta Haiku.

Guangzhou Delta Haiku – exhibition text at Observation Society

pearl river delta region - showing current sea level

Pearl River Delta region. Light blue colour indicates current land below sea level.

Silty river delta,
Fishing, farming, trading –
Everyday life.

Of all the world’s cities, the great Guangzhou “megalopolis” is now considered the single place most likely to suffer catastrophic damage from rising sea-levels. The maps shown here indicate some possible future scenarios for the Pearl River Delta. Much of the land in the Delta is already below sea level, so industry and housing are vulnerable to flooding:

Factories, shipping,
“Special Economic Zone” –
Everyday life.

Sea level rise is influenced by a wide range of factors. The most obvious causes are associated with global warming: the thermal expansion of the oceans, and the melting of glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets. More complex local factors include tidal variations, warm and cool ocean currents, the building of sea-walls to hold back the water, and the damming of rivers further upstream.

pearl river delta region - showing one metre sea level rise

Pearl River Delta region – light blue colour indicates potential flooding caused by a one metre sea level rise.

The screenprinted maps shown here cannot show the full complexity of this situation. Rather, they employ “bathtub modelling” – a simple way of showing what might happen if seawaters were to creep up onto the land in a uniform way.

Although it is nearly impossible to predict the local extent of sea level rise with any precision, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that a global sea level rise of 98cm by the year 2100 is very likely. This corresponds roughly to the “one metre” maps presented in this exhibition. A “five metre” map is also shown – which is entirely possible if polar ice deposit melting continues to accelerate.

pearl river delta region - showing 5 metre sea level rise

Pearl River Delta region – light blue colour indicates potential flooding caused by a five metre sea level rise.

Massive migration.
“Mega-projects”. Modernisation:
Everyday life.

The animated map depicts a massive “60 metre” sea level rise, which is a possible scenario if all the world’s polar ice was to melt.

Pearl River Delta Flood Animation from Luca Zoid on Vimeo.

The prosperity of the Delta has always been based on water. And the future of Guangzhou is going to be increasingly watery:

How will the city evolve?
What kinds of decisions will the city make to survive over the next hundred years? What does “survival” even mean?
And what do the people who live here think about all this?

Habitat, transport,
Sustenance, trash disposal:
Everyday life.

guangzhou haizhu area - current sea level

Haizhu area of Guangzhou – this map shows current river arrangements in this heavily populated zone.

guangzhou haizhu area - showing one metre sea level rise

Haizhu area of Guangzhou – light blue colour on this map indicates possible effect of one metre sea level rise.

This investigation is ongoing, and your correspondence is welcome.
Email: lucas@guangzhou-delta-haiku.net

Catfish in the dam

conventional fish farming energy flows

This week’s Permaculture course theme was Aquaculture. I’m sure, like me, other students were captivated by the possibilities of introducing fishy and watery elements into our design systems, and seeing what you can do with old bathtubs. We were also struck with great fear around the farming methods for Tasmanian salmon.

Often after class I think about how some of the things I’ve learned could be applied to my Dad’s piece of land: a 5 acre block in the Hunter Valley, half “bush” with a small dam, half house site with lawn.

Last night I dreamed I was visiting Dad. He and I were talking about his dam. I was telling him he had to throw a bale of lucerne hay into it as well as some reeds and other pond weed seeds, and put in some yabbies – to try to get it producing some food.

In my waking life, I’m always wary of how much Permaculture propaganda to dump on Dad – I don’t want to overwhelm him with too much “Nick Says This is What You Should Do”; and I’m conscious that Permaculture is still (mis)perceived as quite “herbal” to some old fashioned and highly rational folks.

In my dream, we were walking around his dam, with fishing rods. There were big fish in there, we could see them swimming under the water. We were stunned and delighted. Suddenly we noticed a huge fish embedded in the sand near the dam, slowly breathing, stranded on dry land. We leaned in close to look at it. Dad reached down to pick it up. It made a “meow” sound like a cat. From this we knew it was a catfish, although it looked more like a large barramundi. I warned him to be careful, as catfish have poisonous spines.

Dad laid the catfish on a chopping board and took out a very large sharp knife. He was about to cut into it, but first he decided to feed the catfish some small baitfish that he had there – like whitebait or something. The catfish was still alive and gobbled up the small bait. I felt quite squeamish about this: it felt cruel, like the last meal of a condemned man. I knew that the big fella was soon to be sliced up himself.

And indeed, that’s what Dad did next, sinking the knife into the fat flesh behind the gills. The catfish bled profusely, deep red bloody meat spilling onto the unvarnished wooden porch of his house in the Hunter Valley.

Petersham Tree Audit

olive and mulberry diagram

It seems redundant to say this, but here goes: trees are important. This week’s permaculture class was all about The Glory Of The Tree.

Speaking for myself, as a budding organic vegie enthusiast, up to now I’ve been a bit blase about our woody friends.

I have a couple of lemon trees in the backyard, but I think they’re “rootstock”: very thorny and no fruit. Someone (maybe my fruity friend Rohan) said they need to be grafted with a fruiting stock before they’ll actually make lemons. I considered pulling them out, because I was always getting poked on the butt by the thorns when I leaned over to collect lettuce leaves. But then my flatmate Louise said that I should just be patient and wait, and maybe some grafting guru would come along one day and we’d be able to fruitify them. I obeyed, and I still await the arrival of our citrus knight.
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Getting it straight

water levelling

The two things which have stuck in my mind most since last week’s Permaculture class are: water levelling, and the role of “apertures” in landscape formation.

Sounds heavy, eh! And indeed, gravity does have a role to play in both!

Our practical exercise of the day was A Beginner’s Guide to Surveying. You’ve all seen those TAFE students out in the park with their Hi-Viz vests holding those funny looking devices on tripods? Yep, we got to play with that stuff! (but not the vests).

It was quite fun. There were laser levels, telescopic levels, and – my favourite – water levels.

The water levels (among the most ancient and low-tech of the levelling family) are based on the extraordinary (but perfectly logical) idea that water in a closed system always reaches a level. So if you have a long see-through hose filled with water, you can stretch it out as far as you like, and the top level of the water at both ends will be the same.

The same holds for a hose which is connected to a large water container – as in the demonstration Nick provided in class. He even coloured the water with blue dye to dramatise the effect. Here’s a few more photos of the process.

The main “learning outcome” from all of this watery-levelly business is that no matter how flat a piece of land might look and feel, it’s almost guaranteed that it slopes in one way or another! This comes as quite a surprise: the raw feel and instinct of experience versus the empirical evidence of measurement.

If you’re not careful with your existential stability, it can quite powerfully throw into question the relative up-ness and down-ness of our occupation of the planet. Take for example, this amazing sci-fi picture of a space station Torus thingummy. How would a water level operate, if its length was a significant proportion of this Torus’ curve?

Come to think of it, the Earth is curved! So how can anything be “level” (except relative to the human scale?)

Injecting Resin into an Ant Hill

chaos creativity

Last night at yoga, I bumped into Paul, one of the guys in the Sunday Permaculture class.

Paul: “I’m not really sure what I’m learning in that course.”

Me: “That’s a strange thing to say.”

Paul: “Yes, I suppose it is”.

But he’s right. I’m not really sure what I’m learning either.

That’s not to say I’m not learning. In fact – if by “learning” you mean the acquisition of new concepts, I’m brimming over with the pesky buggers. But what a strange breed of concepts these are! To what use can we put ’em?
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Trading Intangible Commodities

altruism maslow

The last time I flirted with permaculture (in late 2008), I got very excited about shit.

Having attended Milkwood’s intro to permaculture course, I raved to anyone who would listen, about the idea of recycling the energy which constitutes our own shit, to use it again and again – rather than flushing it away to a non-usable state out in the ocean somewhere.

However – besides an ongoing fascination with my compost heap (a way of recycling the energy in scrap foods and plant residues, but not shit) – my “human shit ambition” has been just sitting there, waiting for something to happen. I haven’t managed to crack how to use it within an urban context (not within the constraints of my rental tenancy situation anyway).
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