Regeneration Agriculture, Gently: Wu-wei in China’s Yunnan Province

Joanne Walby
Friday, 1st March 2019

Joanne Walby visits Yunnan Province in China and learns how one woman has transformed an entire region; encouraging regenerative agriculture and repopulating the community.

The garden hose rose like a king cobra. A jet of water surged through it and splashed my ankles before I wrestled it toward a parched pear tree. As a new volunteer at Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest, my job was to water the trees, shrubs and plants after a heat wave. Although I lived only a few blocks away, it took a trip to China for me to realize Beacon Food Forest was a leader in a global movement to change how we grow food. These new farming methods, known as regenerative agriculture, start with enriching the soil and have the potential to reverse climate change and heal the planet.

For me, this journey started last year when I lost my job. Facing an uncertain future, I resolved to be open to new opportunities. A week later I received an invitation to join a 10-day permaculture study tour in China. I bought a Mandarin phrasebook and booked my flight to Yunnan Province in southwest China.

Yunnan means “land of the south clouds” and is home to dozens of China’s ethnic minorities. Its mountains are laced with low-lying clouds and slope toward terraced rice paddies and croplands nurtured by a temperate climate. I joined a group of 15 other natural farming enthusiasts from across China, the US and the UK. Each day we boarded a bus, Partridge family-style, and traipsed across the countryside to visit organic farmers and food forest gardeners who eschewed chemical pesticides and fertilizer in favor of closed-system, agro-ecological methods, like permaculture. 

The tour was led by Cheng Qiu (pronounced “Cho”), a PhD student in food studies at New York University who grew up in Hangzhou, China. She said, “Permaculture is more than a way to grow food. What makes it unique is the focus on relationships.”

She said, “Permaculture works on three levels: within the self, the community, and on a global scale, as a self-sustaining economic business model.”

She explained that the level of self is key, because this is where we cultivate joy. “When one uses natural farming methods, such as wu-wei (meaning, non-action), nothing is forced. We can act with joy, whether we make simple small changes to our diet, or decide to grow our own food.”

We started the tour outside Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, home to six million people. We stayed at the GooDay (sic) Sustainability Center, a guesthouse complex that hosts permaculture workshops in a mountain village an hour east of the city. I arrived a day early and thanks to jetlag, awoke at 4am. From the rooftop deck of a 100-year-old house, I listened to birds and insects awaken and observed elements of a recent renovation: a moss-covered green roof to collect rainwater; a sleek open-air modern kitchen; a mud-brick oven in the courtyard; and composting toilets. In the morning I met the woman responsible for the renovation. She said at first, she simply wanted to grow her own food, but she ended up transforming an entire village. 

Damoyu from a distance

Healing the Self

In 2012 Ting Ting was dissatisfied with her life as a research assistant and project manager at Social Work Institute in Kunming. She said the increasing traffic and smog sent her in search of more grounding work. “At first, it was just that I noticed food didn’t taste as good as it did when I was a kid. Then, I started to feel a disconnect between my ideals and my reality. I wanted to do something real.” She read a book, Half-Farmer and Half-X by a man who wanted to incorporate small-scale farming into his modern lifestyle. “When I read it, I felt a power building in me,” she said.

First, she had to find a plot to grow her own food. She used Google Earth to research “all the green spots” in China, and finally after 18 months, found Damoyu village an hour from her home in Kunming. A Yi ethnic minority village, Damoyu is situated in a snug valley, next to a reservoir and a national forest. Her main priorities were a clean water source and relative quiet. “In my nationwide search,” she added with a wry smile, “somehow this little village had almost eluded me.”

Like much of the Chinese countryside that had seen rural populations plummet with industrialization, Damoyu village had been “hollowed out”, as young people went to urban areas for work. When Ting Ting first visited Damoyu, some 200 old mud-brick homes sat empty. With only 10 percent of Damoyu’s population still working in agriculture there was a lot of abandoned land.

Ting Ting’s dream was to build an experiential learning center where people could live and learn about sustainable living techniques. As she started to cultivate her own food she learned two things: “With any new project, the initial seed is so tiny. Also, having deep roots is key. So now, before I do anything, I ground myself.”

Damoyu plots

Finding Community

Putting down roots in a newly adopted village can be tricky. Ting Ting is part of China’s Han ethnic majority, but was pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome she received from the Yi villagers. “When I first came, they helped me – with no agenda. At first, they were curious.” She said the relationship has evolved as her project took shape. “Then they were judging, and then skeptical. And now accepting.”

Initially, with help of friends and her parents, Ting Ting renovated the 100-year-old mud brick house I stayed in with four guest rooms and made the outer courtyard a gathering place around a large, rustic wooden table. In China, one cannot purchase land, so she signed a 20-year lease for a gardening plot in the village. She and some neighbors also leased a hillside orchard and are cultivating a food forest that will produce pears, mushrooms, herbs and berries.

Renovated 100 year old house

Ting Ting said her motivation for building GooDay was to heal the “toxic loop” between urban and rural communities. She said, “It starts when cities export their chemical pollutants to the countryside through the air and waterways, and in turn, farmers grow produce full of chemical toxins for sale in the cities. I want to help break this toxic urban-rural loop.”

Ting Ting decided to expand, so with the help of 60 volunteers, including Bellevue-based permaculture farm designers, Tom and Lia Sommers, she built a three-story dormitory, complete with a courtyard classroom, kitchen and garden. Through the design and building process she learned about ecologically sustainable materials and construction methods, as well as her own tolerance for compromise, when balanced with the comfort of visitors. “I realized that my values will be reflected in the details,” she said.

Ting Ting said her relationship with the villagers has been crucial to GooDay’s success. “When I first came, people called me, ‘Boss Lady’. Now they call me by my name. I feel we have a real connection. For instance, I recently told a neighbor that I wanted to buy a few plum trees to improve the food forest’s biodiversity. By that afternoon, word had spread throughout the village and they came back with a suggestion: that the entire village buy a thousand plum trees and get a better price. And we did!”

Sustainable Business Model

Since opening in October 2015, the GooDay Sustainability Center has hosted some 20,000 weekend visitors and over a 1,000 people have attended one- and two-week trainings in permaculture and sustainable living techniques. Some of the visitors end up moving there. Since the end of 2017, 40 people have moved into the village which has 800 families. They leased and renovated old houses and planted gardens and food forests. 

“Not everyone who thinks of moving here, does. So far it has been a self-selective process,” she said. This influx drew the attention to local government officials, whom Ting Ting described as young and progressive. She said with the officials’ support the village’s lanes, so often muddy with the region’s heavy rainfall, were paved. “We also asked them to stop painting murals along the village walkways [with nationalistic slogans frequently found across China]. We told them Damoyu’s natural beauty is enough.”

Ting Ting said she has learned a lot about sustainable living and care for the natural environment from her Yi neighbors. Her 80-year-old Yi landlord told her, “If you chop wood, you must plant trees.” Despite being a “hollowed out” village, Damoyu is going through major economic transition. The quarries in the surrounding hills were shut down last year, while a nearby driving school continues to draw thousands of visitors to the area each year. 

“There used to be 600 quarry trucks in the village, so this had a major impact. Many families are looking to switch to small businesses, like restaurants.” In response to this shift, Ting Ting has asked the villagers for land to create a community hall where villagers can gather and share knowledge with each other. She also employs a few local Yi women who help with cooking and cleaning at GooDay. As experts in the local flora, these local women also lead groups of visitors on foraging expeditions in the surrounding hills. On our last day in Demoyu, a neighbor urged me to taste a peppercorn off a nearby tree. I didn’t even know peppercorns grew on trees.

“Try one,” she said gesturing to a cluster of tiny, hard berries. I scraped the skin with my teeth and my lips buzzed with a fierce, fresh heat. My lips tingled for the next ten minutes and I couldn’t stop smiling. What is that feeling, I wondered? 

Fresh produce at Maoxin market in Kunming

Continuing the Journey

The 2013 United Nations report, “Wake up Before it’s too Late” argues that if we are to solve systemic problems such as climate change, hunger, and inequality, agro-ecological production practices like permaculture, which utilize natural processes over chemical inputs, “must become the new paradigm.”

From the outside, prospects for boosting organic farming in China look bleak: it has the highest rates of chemical fertilizer and pesticide use in the world, and its organic food market is only 1.5% of its domestic market. But there is reason to be hopeful: the government has a policy to curb chemical inputs and achieve “zero growth” in use by 2020. Also, although China’s organic food industry is only 1.5% of the domestic market, it’s the fourth largest in the world.1

Meanwhile, as the sun went down over the Beacon Food Forest, I aimed the hose at plum and walnut trees and dodged the bees buzzing among pollinating flowers. Then I noticed one of the small bushes had a sign that read, “Szechuan Peppercorn” – the same tingling peppercorns I sampled in Demoyu.

A few minutes later, as if sent from the Goddess who synchronizes all the tiny details of our life, a teenage boy appeared in the grove and waved to get my attention. “Which of these is the Szechuan pepper?” “You mean, the peppercorn tree? Right over there.” I pointed, smiling as I remembered the tree in Demoyu. “And make sure you try one. They taste like pure joy.”