Lessons from a Farm in Nepal:
Love, Community, and the Pursuit of Permaculture
By Tayler Jenkins
In the enchantingly beautiful foothills of the Himalayas, there is a little rural village where Surya Adhikari’s permaculture farm is thriving. It hasn’t always been this way—years ago, his neighbors laughed at him for thinking that he could farm on such a steep slope in such poor soil. Times were desperate financially, but he and his wife risked everything to start their permaculture farm. Today, with over 180 species of plants, Surya’s farm has become so successful that aspiring students from around the world flock to his farm to soak in his wisdom.
I was one of those eager students, traveling from the USA to the opposite side of the world to learn about permaculture. In the three months I spent in Nepal, I gained not only insights and inspiration about farming, but discovered a culture rich in love with a deep sense of community that is reflected in their land ethic.
When Surya first began farming on this land, the area was in poor environmental condition because of soil erosion and a loss of biodiversity from too many trees being cut down. A local NGO (non-governmental organization) intervened and began a project to reforest the area. They also offered to help Surya start his permaculture farm. Surya and his wife worked hard and learned about the importance of things like polycultures (planting multiple kind of crops in an area), biodiversity (having a variety of different species), and plant breeding. Despite these humble beginnings, Surya and his wife Saraswati now have a successful farm and have been hosting international students for more than ten years now.
A Farm in Disarray
Their farm is truly a sight to see. The first striking feature of it is that it feels more like walking through a forest than a farm. There are an abundance of trees scattered about and nothing seems to be in any apparent order. Little did I know, there was a method to the madness. Here’s the logic: permaculture is intended to mimic nature.
Have you ever seen neat, orderly rows in nature? Neither have I. And yet, natural ecosystems thrive in disarray. It turns out there is a reason plants grow where they do, and Surya seems to have it largely figured out. In the forest that is his farm, a somewhat dense array of scattered trees provide shading for the smaller plants beneath. Species of differing root depths are interspersed in the same area in order to reduce competition for nutrients in the ground, and some plants act as natural pesticides, keeping away bugs that would otherwise feed on the crops. The plants cooperate and sometimes co-depend on each other, increasing not only yield and survival of the individual species but also biodiversity in general.
In fact, each and every one of the 180+ plant species on Surya’s farm has an important use—fruits, vegetables and legumes are planted for human consumption, fodder trees provide feed for the animals, and other trees are used for timber or firewood. Many of the plants are used in religious ceremonies, and over 40 of the plant species are medicinal. People in the village call the farm “the coffeehouse” because Surya also grows an abundance of coffee which he sells for profit. Some of my personal favorite things growing on the farm were pineapple, papaya, tree tomato, banana, tulsi or holy basil, and taro, although there were many other interesting plants which I do not know the English names for. This kind of biodiversity is important in permaculture because it helps keep the ecosystem healthy and able to adapt gracefully in the event of a disturbance (NWF.org).
Beautiful corn harvested from the farm
Of course, plants aren’t the only essential element of a holistic system—humans and animals play integral roles as well. Surya’s animals include water buffalo and goats, which eat the fodder grown on the farm (the buffalo also graze on grass). Then, the buffalo feces are used for two different purposes: compost and to create biogas. For the compost, the feces are mixed with dead leaves and food scraps which, after breaking down for some time, are used to nourish the crops. As for the biogas, buffalo excrement goes into a contraption that converts it into biogas, which powers their stove. How’s that for renewable energy?
Buffalo excrement is also placed in this contraption, which is cranked to create biogas
Beyond permaculture, Surya and Saraswati live an impressively sustainable lifestyle. They collect rainwater (and let me tell you—Nepal gets a LOT of rain during their monsoon) in huge barrels that is used for bathing, washing dishes, and drinking. Their home, like the homes of many of their neighbors, is made largely from the manure of their buffalo and clay gathered from the hillside. There are few non-local inputs and repairs on the house are made by simply gathering more clay and manure. Much of the food they eat is harvested from their garden, and leftovers are either thrown back into the garden or fed to the goats. There is a huge disincentive to generate waste because there is no trash collection in their area (unfortunately, most of Nepal is lacking proper waste collection and disposal, let alone recycling).
Lessons from a Permaculture Farm
Despite their simple living conditions, Surya and Saraswati are some of the happiest, kindest, most loving people I know. They are in tune with the natural environment and close with their neighbors. I ventured to Surya’s farm for knowledge, but left with so much more. In one of the poorest countries in the world, I found a culture so rich in love and community values that I became certain that real wealth has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with genuine relationships with other people and the land.
That’s where permaculture comes in. To me, it’s more than just another method of farming—it involves developing a land ethic that, as ecologist Aldo Leopold describes, “tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” (from A Sand County Almanac). It requires the understanding that we are an integral part of nature, even if we live in a city. Equipped with this wisdom, we can interact with the land with a deep underlying appreciation for the natural processes that sustain not only humans, but all of life on Earth.
P.S. If you are interested in staying on Surya’s farm or another permaculture farm, check out WWOOF.net. WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is a database of organic farms around the world that are looking for volunteers to help out on the farm. In exchange for your work, you get free or VERY cheap food and lodging, plus priceless knowledge and hands-on experience in farming. For more on my personal experience, check out my blog.
Tayler is an Arizona native living in Portland, OR. A self-proclaimed “real foodie,” has done extensive research on food systems and took a leading role in activism on her college campus to spread education and awareness about healthy, ethical food. In 2013, she spent a few months living on a permaculture farm in Nepal conducting research on conservation farming and local food system governance. Tayler received a BS in Sustainability from Arizona State University in 2015 and is the operations manager for Urban Farm U and editor of two newsletters: Urban Farm Lifestyle and The Permaculture Life. She intends to use these as a medium for sharing knowledge and generating interest in urban farming and sustainability. Tayler can be reached at Tayler@urbanfarm.org.