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« Ecologically sustainable lifestyles in China...and the struggles of people living them | Main | Protecting food from Wall Street speculators »

March 04, 2010

Peasant farms and ecological sustainability in China

Mindi Schneider is blogging from China. She is a native Midwesterner currently living in China and working on her PhD in Development Sociology at Cornell.

In my last post, I proposed a contradiction between ecological farming and low-carbon lifestyles, and the difficulties encountered by the people living them. We can see some of these contradictions in the Ge family's farming system located in the small village in Hebei Province.

The hallmarks of sustainable farming systems from an ecological perspective can be summarized as complexity, locality and resilience—a diverse mix of locally adapted crops and cropping patterns, mixed crop-and-livestock systems, and closed input and waste cycles. From fruit trees, vegetables, legumes and grains; to sheep, goats, chickens, cows and pigs; to manure, night soil and compost—the Ge family’s farming system, and that of virtually every other household in the village, has it all. System components relate to one another in complex ways, such that nutrients and materials are cycled throughout the system. A couple of early-spring farming practices that I observed illustrate these concepts.

During my visit, I spent a lot of time with Mrs. Ge, who like many women in the village, does most of the farm work. Every afternoon, she sets out after lunch with her 16 sheep to graze. First, she leads the sheep through the persimmon orchards at the base of the mountains where they eat anything left on the ground and deposit nutrient rich manure. Everyone in the village has persimmon trees, and goats graze freely in all of the villagers’ plots. After spending some time in the lowlands, Mrs. Ge steadily moves the sheep up the mountain to feed on scrub grasses on the hillsides and to visit terraced fruit tree plots on the way. After two to three hours, or until the sheep’s bellies are sufficiently swollen, she guides them back down to the village, again stopping in the orchards to drop off a bit more manure. In this way, the sheep act as mobile fertilizer factories, moving nutrients down from the grassy mountain slopes to the lowland orchard soils where they can be taken up by the fruit trees. The sheep also move nuDBM_9783trients in another way. While at home in the family’s courtyard, Mrs. Ge supplements grazing by feeding the sheep corn stalks saved from the previous year’s crop and scraps from the kitchen. These “wastes” are turned into resources, as they cycle through the sheep and back to the orchard and crop soils. 

Nutrients are managed in other ways as well. Most of the farmers I spoke to had just slaughtered their pigs prior to Chinese New Year, and were preparing to buy another one or two to raise in the coming year. Most would be consumed in the village during Spring Festival, and a few would be sold at local markets. Instead of factory-farm-ready pig breeds that are becoming increasing popular in China, these are locally adapted pigs that farmers raise for about 11 months. Pigs eat crop residues, kitchen scraps, weeds and all manner of vegetation, in addition to a bit of corn saved from the previous season. Pigs too are housed in the family’s courtyard with the sheep, chickens and any other livestock, and bed down on a mix of corn stalks and crop residues. Courtyards have an “escape hatch” of sorts where livestock bedding, along with the nutrient-rich manure that has been deposited with it, is periodically scooped out. This creates piles (more like mountains) of compost that farmers load onto carts or into three-wheeler truck beds to tote to the orchards and crop fields. This, together with manure deposited by grazing sheep and night soil made from human waste, provides enough nutrients for the farming system—very few farmers in the village use purchased fertilizers. 

Early spring is also the time when farmers prune their fruit trees to ensure maximum fruit load. They collect, stack and store the prunings, and use them throughout the year as fuel for cooking and heating their homes.

The final picture below shows a stockpile of feed, fuel and fertilizer—or corn stalks, fruit tree prunings and composted manure.  

This is, of course, an incomplete "agroecosystem analysis," and I'm not arguing that these are perfect systems. The practices that I've highlighted, however, exemplify practices and models that are often proposed as keys to ecological sustainability, and achieving low-carbon futures. In my next blog, I'll look at some of the challenges of day to day living within this ecologically sustainable system.

Brent Martin provided the photos that appear in this post.

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Mindi Schneider

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