The Search for a Ripe Watermelon
If you eat more than one chemically grown watermelon you will get diarrhea, we learned from the organic watermelon farmer. Fourteen such melons had killed an elephant, he added. Poor thing. With such stories I was surprised that more Thai people were not making the connection. True, not all fruit were so heavy on the chemicals; none at all in bananas and coconuts, some in pineapples and oranges, but watermelons were clearly the most afflicted.
Organic produce did not yet have the market clout and high prices that were being enjoyed in the States. In fact, sales were poor because the organic watermelon had to compete with the larger, more regularly shaped conventionally grown melon and it took 10 days more to ripen.
Watermelons were a secondary crop sown after the rice crop was harvested. It was so simple to grow, a child could do it, said the teacher at the Santi Asoke training center. The problem was pests for which they recommended three strategies. 1) Avoid mono cropping and use small plots with a variety of crops. 2) Chase away the pests. 3) If pests still persist then let them eat because, after all, humans can grow food and pests cannot. This last recommendation undid any notion I might have had that fighting pests was a battle to be fought to the death and won. How enlightened. They also recommended picking the worm-infested fruit, to ferment in molasses, to make a fertilizer called EM—effective microorganisms—a method learned from the Japanese.
As we picked our way along the dikes of the rice paddies, the watermelon farmer followed our progress with a digital movie camera to show his organic farmer’s co-op. Thai organic farmers were not getting a lot of attention from anyone and the gaze of Westerners would elevate their cause. There were no ripe watermelons; he had just sent a truckload to market. Finally at the third field, he found some that would do and cut two open for us on the spot.
We happily ate this clean fruit without fearing for our stomachs. It was sweet and refreshing. In fact all the food we would eat on this trip felt pure and fresh. That it was grown on the spot gave me a deep sense of connection to the land. We were traveling locavores eating within a few yards of where our food was grown. There was no need to think beyond this tidy closed loop; I felt complete and secure. I ate more fruit than I did at home—oranges, papaya, bananas and star fruit, all with no ill effects.
Walking from farm to farm in Jo’s village, I gazed at the strange dry land with its grey white soil and tried to decide if it could be described as beautiful. Not at first, because I didn’t know what I was looking at. Unlike an Italian countryside with its vineyards or an English one with its rolling green hills, both instantly recognizable as the stuff of travel brochures, this surreal flat, brownness had to grow on me. Height helped. There. In the next paddy. Very tall thin trees in a grid pattern with topknots of foliage like a Dr. Seuss illustration. That pleased my eye.
Back on the road our daily expeditions were punctuated by pit stops at roadside 7 Elevens, along the highway. All 16 of us would peruse the shelves of the multinational franchise and come out loaded with packaged snacks, buying enough to share with each other, the exotic tastes of peppered beef flavored potato chips made by Lay’s, sweet sesame cookies made locally or the horrible fish flavored cracker that tasted like, well, fish food. I satisfied my craving for processed sugar with chocolate covered Japanese Poco sticks.
Healing The Farmer
For most of the farmers we met, it was their health that had turned them towards organic farming. At first they didn’t know why they had the symptoms they did. Then it was discovered that the rat pee was toxic; rats living in the field were expelling concentrated chemicals into the waters of the field, which in turn gave the farmers intense rashes on their legs. They were also plagued by headaches and fatigue. Those who had ditched chemicals were convinced that soon every farmer would realize the connection and return to organic farming methods.
“People cannot learn without suffering,” Jo said. The economic collapse had helped to create more such suffering, increasing the number of people deciding to take the healing path of self-sufficiency and organic farming.
Standing in a lush plot of edible forest, we heard the story of one such man who had owned a successful trucking company. As the economy collapsed, he found himself in extreme debt, with the bank repossessing all but one of his trucks. He came back to the country and with his remaining cash bought a two-acre piece of barren land that nobody wanted. He too had taken the training with the Santi Asoke Buddhist sect, reduced his expenses to almost nothing, and in three months was able to produce enough food on his plot to feed his family.
We ate tart fruit from his trees and listened to how he had started his garden by covering the plot with straw waist high. He then dug a hole in the straw and made compost. Into this hole he planted a banana tree surrounded by vegetables. What they didn’t eat, he sold at the market. He began to grow wild vegetables that nobody had bothered to cultivate before because they had been so easy to find in the forest. Soon he was making 100 baht a week.
“But that’s only about three dollars,” I commented. Yes, but it was enough to pay off his debts, Jo emphasized, because he had no expenses. I was beginning to feel as though I was in an alternative universe of tiny efforts that magically managed to turn people’s lives around. Now he and his tiny wife were digging wells on the plot by hand. We looked down the fifteen feet or so and marveled. The water from the well would be used to produce limes in the dry season when the price was higher. Later we met the couple helping out at another site.
As we sat before them in a covered meeting space, the two beamed at us and the farmer told us about his current project digging a rice paddy there at the demonstration plot we were visiting, also created by the Santi Asoke group. Within view was the nearby University where ag students were being taught that chemical farming was the only way to grow anything in this arid land. The ag department was, incidentally, funded by chemical companies. At the Santi Asoke plot students learned first hand what organic farming could do. Some were even living in the earthen houses they had helped to build. They were beginning to ask questions.
It was not so long ago that chemical agriculture had been introduced to Thailand. Because of the government-induced deforestation during the ’70s, farmers who had previously grown their vegetables in the forest had little idea of how to feed the barren soil once the trees were cleared. Enter the chemical company reps who dazzled farmers with the benefits of manmade fertilizers. The farmer’s ego swelled with pride at the greenness of his rice crop. No one informed him of the downside. Nor did the farmers calculate their costs versus profit. They simply looked at the extra cash they were making with each harvest, not realizing that every year they had to buy and apply more chemicals than they had used the year before. By the time of the economic collapse they were 95% in debt. (Insert sex trade story here for this is the region where most of the women in the Bangkok sex trade come from.) Now with the cost of fertilizer following the price of oil, more were considering going organic.
Concern for the farmer’s health had also opened the door to a revival of herbal medicines and the use of antioxidants to clean the blood of pesticide residue. Off we went to visit the herbal medicine co-op. Located within the grounds of a temple, the founders had persuaded local medicine men to reveal the ingredients of their secret remedies for the common cold, ulcers, hemorrhoids, back pain, and diabetes.
Each May the network would go into the forest to collect the medicinal herbs. Realizing that the forests were fast disappearing, the temple asked their worshippers to bring tree saplings instead of the usual cellophane wrapped offering plates (full of canned foods and hand towels folded into animal shapes). They also had help from non-government organizations and were able to open a health center. Now, they had a seed saving operation. 80% of their ingredients were grown locally.
We were shown the hand press used to harvest various oils and watched as two women wearing hair coverings and latex gloves, filled capsules with turmeric powder. Medicines used to be made by rolling the ingredients into a honey ball, but because the network was working with Western trained doctors at the local hospitals, they had complied to Western standards.
This impressive whole systems approach led the network to take on the source of all the trouble and set up a fair trade rice co-op with its own mill to provide support for farmers to grow and sell organic rice as well as those transitioning to organic.
Fair Trade Closes The Loop
It was a Sunday when we visited the mill and sat under the blazing sun in plastic chairs while we awaited the arrival of the leader of the cooperative.
“Why have you come?” asked the silver haired farmer once settled on the shaded bench. “Are you farmers?” Peggy, sitting next to him, translated his challenging tone.
Having been so eagerly welcomed, elsewhere, as the auspicious farangs come to witness their humble farms, our group did not have a ready answer. We had only one farmer among us. Yes, who indeed were we, this oddly clothed, band of Westerners, traveling in the back of a truck. What impact did we hope to have on our lives by coming here? No one was going to hazard an answer. We must answer I felt. It would be impolite not to answer this village elder.
“We are eaters,” I offered, taking the perspective of the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Peggy translated my answer and the farmer chuckled. He told us, then, how it all worked. That there were 1,000 family farms in the 17 year-old network. They sold overseas through GreenNet, a Thai organic wholesaler. After costs of running the mill, the profit was redistributed to the farmers.
“We got back what we invested, plus we made friends”, the farmer told us. Now they concentrated on getting the word out through seminars at monthly meetings. The farmers in the network were also required to grow back the forest on some part of their land. With the price for organic rice rising by 5% a year, overall chemical use was decreasing in Thailand. Yay!
“Westerners brought chemicals to Thailand,” he commented watching for our reaction. “Not that I’m blaming you,” he added, smiling. Did we have any questions?
“Was he paid a salary to run the coop?” “Yes, but really only enough to buy laundry detergent,” he replied.
“In all of his years of farming had he noticed change in the climate?” Oh, yes, yes what about that? I silently thanked Alicia for asking the question. Our nights had been cold, way too cold for Thailand. I had only packed lightweight clothes. Even wearing three shirts, two pairs of pants and a blanket wrapped around my head, that second night, sitting in the open dining area, I had not been able to feel warm. I had felt angry and betrayed by my own country. Peggy and Jo sent out for more blankets. Luckily, I had a nylon sleeping sack with me that kept me warm through the night.
“Yes,” said the farmer, “sometimes we have three seasons in one day. The hot season is hotter with less rain and when the rain does come, it comes all at once. There was lightning where there hadn’t been before; trees had fallen and people had been killed by lightning because they didn’t expect it.” We were subdued by this report of such radical change. Nobody asked about the future prospects given this report. What could anyone do about that which was unexpected? I hadn’t anymore thought for the future than what was for lunch.
We were soon invited to proceed to the lunch pavilion where we were served more variations of vegetarian fare and were delighted to see omelet’s. I had two helpings, not knowing that we would be offered another lunch of noodles in the village. I could hardly walk after that. My status as an “eater” had been stretched to the limit.