Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mongolian Permaculture: Day 22 – Potato Fields and Pit Latrines



Spent the afternoon working the potato fields with the women of the Co-Op.

Our mission today was to start digging an irrigation trench network to catch and use some of that rainfall which flooded the hasha on the Day 01 of the PDC.

We’ve had two more heavy downpours since then, and the co-operative has dug a trench outside the walls to protect the potato crops from being washed away. Since the roadway outside basically drains all the water off to us, we can and should catch and use this water constructively.

So, we dig a trench under the northern fence with an earth berm in the outside moat big enough to catch and divert smaller flows but small enough to let excess water pass. If we have a really heavy rainfall that is too much for our little catchment and distribution network then we can simply close the ‘tap’ by closing off the inlet trench.


This inlet trench runs perpendicular to rows of potatoes, so we use it as a ‘spine’ to bring water in, and run ‘ribs’ off it at right angles into the rows of potatoes.

The adjacent crop rows run parallel to the inlet trench at the bottom of a small slope, so we dig a ‘bathtub’ here – just a deeper, bigger pool - to slow the water before distributing it again. The ‘ribs’ run of radially down the slope here, very shallow trenches to ensure the water doesn’t pick up enough velocity to be damaging.

Mongolian women are tough!

We dig through a rocky layer into the brickie-sand soil about a foot down to create our ‘bathtub’ catchment and pile the soil onto hessian bags, which are then carried two-by-two over to the potato crops and used to mound the plants. When covered with soil in this way, the plant produces more tubers where it is in contact with the soil.

Whatever I do, I must not drop one of these heavy bags of soil that they tote around with one hand...

It is a great way to connect with a people, getting your hands dirty by sweating it out in the fields side-by-side. They teach me some Mongolian words: rain [boro], potato [tummus], onion [tsongion] …and we have lively conversation about our families through signing and guessing at what the other is saying. Lots of smiling and nodding.

whom I picked to be about 19 or 20, is actually 29 and married with 5 kids. Baska is the wife of Mogi, my friend the Watchman. Tsuuren is quiet and stone-faced, Attakka takes a mobile phone call every half hour like any other teenager, and Mama tells me that I have to think of a better nickname for her because she is far to skinny to be a mama. I can’t pronounce her name, she is my Mum’s age, and she has smiling eyes that remind me of Mum, so that IS the best I’ve come with so far…

At one point, we all stop and watch a herd of horses mosey past the hasha, and suddenly everyone is riding the steppe with the wind in our faces …then the moment passes and its back to the rhythmic digging, heaping, carrying, and mounding of the precious crops.

Meanwhile, we’ve had a major breakthrough with the class this morning… Rick and Kat have found that the students are simply parroting back examples the instructors have given during the reviews, showing a lack of understanding and independent thinking to make connections of their own.

It is not a lack of intelligence or in any way a reflection of the capacity of anyone in the room - many of the students are college educated. It is more so a symptom of a western university system which values a lecture format and formulaic teaching methodology, and perhaps some leftover quota-mindset from the Socialism era.

Case and point: at one point Rick mentions that he has no idea exactly how much vetch seeds you would need to collect in order to plant out enough to fertilize a crop field. One of the agronomists quickly pipes up with the answer, “Ten-to-twelve kilos.”But the connection between this plant’s growing requirements and functions, and actually designing use of this plant into the fields as a green manure system has not yet been made, and the highly specialized knowledge has sat filed and unused while the co-operatives continue to manually collect and haul animal manure as fertilizer for their fields and struggle to efficiently maximize production.

So an adjustment in teaching methodology is introduced, and a shift towards forcing independent thought and connections between the principles that have been laid is made.

This is done effectively by setting problems that small groups have to solve themselves using what they have learnt: parameters are set to design a greenhouse for rural and urban settings, and the 4 unique [and quite clever] designs produced at the end of the session show that the cogs are starting to turn in students’ heads.


Composting toilets turn out to be another favorite subject, not really that surprising when Rick produces a bottle of poo-coloured water, points out that the pit latrines we use each morning are 4 meters deep, the water table is 5 meters deep, and by the way who would like a sip of his bottle of poo water? …because this is what the water supply in the soums will look like if the populations continue to grow and use their current septic system.

He then presents his crazy idea for the day, a wild possibility for a multi-function sewerage system for the cold Mongolian winters – giant yellow icy-poles. Yup. He went there.

Imagine: it is so cold outside that your urine freezes almost as soon as it hits the ground. Your body shuts adjusts so that you only go once a day. You know that cartoon of an eskimo peeing ice cubes? Like that. Worse if you are a woman, and worse still when it comes to number 2s…

The Problem is the Solution, right?

So why not pee in a bucket in the greenhouse/airlock outside the ger door, then place the bucket outside so that it freezes solid? Better yet, why not put your shovel into the bucket to make a large icy-pole? Then, when the bucket fills up you can simply pop out the giant icy-pole, walk it out to your crop field, and kick it off the shovel.

Over the winter your crop field will become dotted with frozen yellow pee-pops, which will melt in the spring to fertilize your fields. It’s a lot more comfortable way to use the toilet , your waste is harnessed and converted to a valuable resource, and you have the additional multi-function of portable salt licks for the livestock!

The class gets a good laugh out of this wild scenario, which is presented in jest as a humurous way to broach a subject that we don’t even like to talk about in the deveoped world.

All kidding aside, there may be some merit in the idea, which was just thrown out there to open the door to conversation, thought, and discussion about better ways to deal with human waste in rural and urban contexts.

Kat walks the class through her ‘Bucket’ composting toilet system in Melbourne, outlining why she has chosen specific design elements and highlighting the safeguards in place to ensure safe treatment of potential toxins and pathogens. Rick then walks everyone through an above-ground rotational system that could suited to the soums, and possibly adapted for use in and around Ulanbaataar.

Nothing like some good old Aussie toilet humour to loosen things up [excuse the pun – I am clearly spending too much time with Rick…]. …and judging from the questions and enthusiastic discussion during and after this session, this light-hearted approach to teaching this subject worked very well.


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