Agricultural practices in Jiangnan water towns have historically been identified as maintaining a balance between human activity and the local environment, but are now a significant local source of water pollution. Using a multi-methods approach, this study deduces the environmental impact of traditional practices, and the socially desired conditions for successfully reintroducing critical ones. Oral histories from 31 farmers in Tianshanzhuang village, South Yangtze River were in order to chart changes in farming practices over four historic periods, and used to estimate the nitrogen and phosphorus burdens per acre. Findings show that the use of Lan River Mud—dredged mud for fertilizer—was key in producing a positive impact, but abandoned after the 1980s. Four criteria hindering reintroduction of traditional practices were identified, and potentially useful but fragmented emerging local candidate practices are considered against these, as are recent practices in Japan. We propose that the cooperation of several stakeholders with various related government departments in China could lead to a portfolio of effective policy changes and should be studied further: to include new methods and uses of Lan River Mud; the integration of aquaculture, leisure and tourism industries with agriculture; and the production of organic produce with well-planned internet-linked sales, delivery and coordination mechanisms.
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