Living The Good Life at Nan’ao Natural Farm

I knew that Mingyu was going to meet up with a Korean friend here in Taiwan.  What I didn’t know was that she had already made plans for a farmstay at Nan’ao Natural Farm, one of Taiwan’s best known.  How it had so far eluded me eludes me.
The long-term volunteers lived at the farmhouse up the hill, while we short-termers stayed down at the guest lodge, just a few minutes’ walk from the train station.  The agreement: we work from 9-12 and 3-6 in exchange for accommodation and three meals.  Laughter, songs, hijinks, and memories gratis.
Meet Sam, twenty year-old son of the owner and blooming permaculture* prodigy.  He took an interest in farming when his father started the farm three years ago and recently got his permaculture design certificate.  In the morning he works on his own projects, while in the afternoon he works on his father’s rice paddies.   Here he’s got some sack gardens.  A bamboo pipe runs down the middle and is filled with compost and stones; water that runs into the pipe is thus smoothly diverted all throughout the bag, delivering important decomposing nutrients and worm casings to the plants within.  These bags have lettuce, garlic, and herbs planted at various levels, and passion fruit up top, which will eventually climb up the ropes, cover the roof, and provide both shade and snacks.
*Digression: What’s permaculture?  As the name implies, it’s an agricultural philosophy and set of techniques intended to let the farmer farm the same land sustainably, and thus indefinitely.  PC incorporates principles of organic agriculture – i.e. no chemical fertizlier, pesticide, or herbicide – but is a little more holistic, insofar as it gives more consideration to the various interactions between animals, humans, plants, wilderness, and the landscape.
** Second digression: what’s the difference between permaculture and natural farming?  While permaculture makes use of human ingenuity to design healthy, stable, sustainable ecosystems, natural farming strives ultimately for a state of near “do-nothing.”  No fertilizers of any kind, no pesticides or herbicides of any kind, and no tilling of the soil.  The idea, oversimplified, is that nature knows best and our attempts to control or improve it will most likely go astray.
Here we are working on Sam’s “Mandala Garden,” also called a “Keyhole Garden.”  It’s a set of two concentric donuts.  The innermost donut-hole is a “sink,” where you can dump all your compost, leaves, twigs, whatever.  Everything is in such close proximity that chemical reactions take place quickly, breaking down everything and sending it outwards towards all the plants on the outside. The “keyholes” (one is visible in the upper right) give you easy access to all the plants.
On top of the donut, which was made from sopping-wet rice paddy clay, we used a technique called “sheet mulching.”  This is essentially a way of creating soil in layers – compost, leaves, manure, cardboard, then fresh grass – so that you can garden anywhere.
This guy waited patiently to nab whatever grubs we turned up while turning the soil.
In the afternoons, we “worked” in the paddies.  December and January seem to be sort of “off” months; we spent most of our time cleaning rocks, sand, weeds, and broken beer bottles out of out irrigation ditches, with many a break in between for photos.
You Hsin, an awesome long-term volunteer who left a job in sales to live closer to the land.  Though less adept at English than some of the others, he made up for it with incredible candor.
More proof that boys and men of all cultures enjoy attacking one another with farm instruments (or whatever else is at hand).
Here’s “Yellow Fish” (a direct translation of his Chinese name), a chemical engineer who quit his lucrative, demanding, and relatively joyous job in order to “devote more attention to improving important relationships and finding out what he really wants in life.”  He told me that he was often depressed, but at the farm, he was all smiles, constantly joking, shouting, singing, and having a good time.
“Little Monkey,” a long-term volunteer who decided that he prefers farming to high school.  He was the official weed-whacker-wielder.
“Tom,” a butterfly photographer who came to the farm hoping to snap some nice pictures and then decided to stay for a year because he loved the work and the people so much.
Winky, from Guangdong (aka Canton), China, here in Taiwan for a semester “abroad”*
*let’s not get into that debate again…
 “Echo,” Winky’s roommate.  The farm visit was actually her idea – she wanted to visit some of the nearby aboriginal neighborhoods.
“Star,” a Taiwanese friend of the above two girls, who came along for the trip.  I will be forever grateful for him for recovering my glasses after I cleverly dropped them into a waterfall.
Mingyu’s friend Hwa-in.  Into food, buddhism, communities, farming, aboriginals, and learning Chinese.  Remind you of anyone?
Luke, a good friend from South Korea, lives quite near and came down to spend a day working with us. I have a feeling he’ll be spending lots of time at Nan’ao in the future.
This teacher came to give some volunteers a lesson on Chinese acupuncture theory.   At dinner, we bonded over shared vegetarianhood and wound up talking about Vipassana (I’m still working on my post about my 4th!), chakras, Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy, and who knows what else for about two hours.
The kitchen was a constant source of chaotic joy.  Out in the fields, we were often too absorbed in our work or too physically spread out to talk much, but in the kitchen we all swirled around one another, cooking  together, taking turns chopping, stirring, scrubbing, searching, cleaning…
A typical meal: several stir-fried veggie dishes, one egg dish, and one meat.
 Interesting kitchen find: “Meekang.”  Rice hulls, dry-roasted then fermented.  They give off a stink kind of like Dwoenjang, Korean-style fermented soybeans, but have a different use.  Rather than cooking with it directly, you submerge vegetables into all of its probiotic glory.  After three days you’ve got pickles.  Floppy yet a little crisp, with a sort of cheesy taste.  A bit strong for my taste, but fantastic in a salad with rice.  Awesome low-cost, low-energy, low-impact, no-nonsense cooking method.
A favorite way of giving back: cooking for our hosts.  Mingyu and Hwa-in and I headed to the market to see what was available, and it turned out they had bags of Kimchi!  US $30 bucks later and the three of us had enough veggies to whip up a meal for 15 people.  Kimchi-fried rice, eggplant pancakes, mushroom pancakes, blanched spinach, spicy bean sprout soup.
Clearly, everybody loved it.
The meal on our last night.
Every evening we had some sort of enrichment session.  Mingyu presented about Heuksalim*, I whipped up a PPT about Sadhana, other volunteers gave status updates on their projects or reports about recent travels, and Michelle, being both completely bilingual and highly knowledgable about permaculture, gave an excellent agricultural English lesson.
*the organic agriculture R&D / distribution company he worked for in South Korea
After cooking and eating lunch together, we had some free-/down-time between about 1 and 3PM.  On this particular day, we took off to a nearby “waterfall.”  That’s it in the background.
Quite brisk!
On the  last morning, I wanted to cook for everyone.  In about 15 minutes I was able to cycle to the market, fill up one reusable container with fresh, steaming-hot soy milk and another with fried peanuts, buy a bunch of bananas, pick up some baking powder, and come back home. Then I taught the boss man to make VEGAN BANANA PANCAKES.  Needless to say, they were a hit.
On the morning of our departure, instead of working, we had a nice long breakfast, then sat around and sang songs together.  Mingyu had taught Yellow Fish to sing one of his favorite Korean tunes, “ 꼭껴안고”  (Ggok ggyeo anggo) a song about the joys of surprising family and friends with out-of-the-blue bear hugs.  It was an appropriate parting song.  Much like Sadhana, I came hoping to learn about living close to nature and left with a whole bunch of new friends.  Nothing builds bonds quite like working, eating, and playing together day-in and day-out.  There wasn’t a single person I didn’t have an interesting conversation with, or didn’t grow fond of.  May you all stay happy and healthy until we meet again!
NOW: we’ve left the farm and returned to Taipei.  In the morning, we’ll set out on our last bicycle escapade together for who knows how long.  On the 17th, Hwa-in will fly back to Korea, Mingyu will be off to Malaysia, and I’ll be left here in Taiwan to make some gear changes, revamp my website (!), and fiddle around with the DSLR and that Mingyu sold me on the cheap.  Until then, the plan is to ride from Taipei to Sun Moon Lake (one of Taiwan’s most scenic spots), then up and over Wuling (at over 4000m, the highest mountain in SE Asia), then down through Taroko Gorge national park, and back home.  Six days, six hundred kilometers, and over ten thousand meters of altitude gain.  Due to the intensity of the upcoming couple days, we’ve dropped all expendable gear.  For me that means about sixty percent of it!  No computer, no extra clothes, no superfluous toiletries, no repair gear beyond the absolute basics.  Just my tent, sleeping bag, camera and bunch of longan muffins from the family.*
*Did you know that I can make inter-lingual puns between Engilsh and Chinese now?!  Check this out – “muffin” sounds a lot like “ma1 fen3,” the Chinese word for “horse manure.”  Better yet, the family understood my joke!
ETD: 8 hours!  Wish me luck!
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4 Responses to Living The Good Life at Nan’ao Natural Farm

  1. Andy says:

    That farm looks really cool.
    Have you ever visited a place like that in America, or at least considered it?

  2. Seth Conger says:

    Great update! I want to visit that fan when I make it to Taiwan

  3. Mike says:

    Andy: I haven’t done any farming in the USA…yet. I do have some friends and acquaintances involved i nthe scene and, actually, I envision myself working/living somewhere like that when I get back. Keep your eyes peeled for a good place for me!

    Seth: For sure, visit anytime. You can get in touch with them on facebook.