Tue, Jun 20, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Taiwan’s (slow-growing) permaculture scene

A movement has emerged thanks to the effort of educators like Tammy Turner, but land scarcity and insecurity remain major obstacles

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Tammy Turner visits the educational farm where she teaches students at Yonghe Community College in New Taipei City.

Photo: Han Cheung, Taipei Times

James Murray and his girlfriend waited four days for help without power or water at their permaculture farm in New Taipei City’s Wulai District (烏來).

It was 2015 and Typhoon Soudelor had just devastated the area, causing massive landslides that trapped them on their farm until they were rescued by the military. Unable to return due to the destruction and a dispute with the landlord regarding repairs, they had to start over with a much smaller garden.

Murray is making the most of his new site by making products and hosting workshops and garden-to-table lunches, but he wants a larger live-in farm that can allow him to quit his teaching job. Since permaculture farming requires the creation of sustainable ecosystems and habitats, Murray faces more environmental restrictions than typical farmers.

Due to the time and effort it takes to set things up, land security is also a big factor, making his search especially difficult in a country where available and accessible farmland is scarce.

Murray is a student of long-term expat Tammy Turner who, along with a handful of other like-minded people, are on a mission to show that permaculture is not only eco-friendly and sustainable, but can also provide a deeper understanding of the relationship between humans, food and nature. Turner has been slowly making headway with several ventures across the country, but obstacles still remain.

“The [permaculture] scene, if anything, is hampered by access to land,” Turner says.

LAND WOES

Murray’s garden doesn’t look like a garden. Instead of neat rows of the same crop, it features diverse groupings of plants that work well with each other for a variety of reasons — soil health, shade, pest control and biodiversity. Murray’s plants sit in raised beds on a layer of sheet mulch, which stores nutrients, provides insulation and prevents runoff, reducing the need to water and eliminating fertilizer.

His plots appear unorganized, but when the system is properly executed it largely runs itself.

But land quality is an obstacle, he says. Typically farmers in Taiwan grow only one or two crops, which leads to low biodiversity and problematic soil. Additionally, the soil is also harmed due to the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. At Murray’s original site, he had to deal with two truckloads of garbage, piles of burnt plastic and dumped pesticides.

Murray says the first step is to “regenerate” the clay soil to make it more fertile and microbe-rich. It also takes a while to get his ecosystems into a predator-prey balance.

“After one-and-a-half years, it’s getting there,” he says.

Turner says that a potential permaculture farmer can often only rent the land for a number of years, making a long-term investment risky. Since it could take years to set up a permaculture farm’s ecosystems, practitioners are hit harder when they are forced to give up their land.

Neighbors matter too. Murray says his old landlord cut down an entire swath of jungle to plant a single crop of trees, which not only affected his ecosystem but made the area more prone to landslides, which he believes exacerbated the typhoon damage. At his new spot, he’s dealing with the heavy use of pesticides by neighboring farmers.

But he has also influenced some of their practices. Instead of raking leaves and burning them, his landlord now leaves them for him for composting.

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