UPDATES FROM THAILAND'S SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE MOVEMENT
We work together with small-scale farmers’ to create a sustainable, fair and local food system that promotes sustainable livelihoods, community food security and environmental conservation.
The AAN supports SFS farmers through sustainable agriculture education and training. SFS farmers exchange knowledge and techniques with broyeur de végétaux pas cher and other network members around Thailand.
Februrary 24th was Slow Food Thailand's release of their "Eat to Change the World" campaign. After attending Terra Madre last October, sustainable agriculture organizations in our network were inspired to start a convivia and campaign for more sustainable consumption in Thailand. Slow Food provides a distinct way to approach the flavors of Thai cuisine and the importance of biodiversity, seed saving and small-scale production.
The release day featured samples from the quisines of Songkhla, Yasothon and Surin. Songkhla made several sweet deserts and preserved fruit dishes, Yasothon mixed up an herbal salad, with starfruit, eggplant, black peper, garlic and a number of other fresh ingredients, and Surin stir-fried some Black Jasmine, Red Jasmine and Whole-grained Jasmine in our organic rice bran oil, along with some local potatoes, sesame and egg. All the dishes were fresh and delicious, prepared by the same women who produced their ingredients (photo below, courtesy of Slowfoodthai.org)
The day featured a discussion on the meaning of Slow Food in Thailand and the possibilities for our movement. Witoon Lianchamroon of Biothai (photo, at top of page, courtesy of Slowfoodthai.org) started things off by asking, "why create something like this [Slow Food]? For what reasons? Well, it's about the culture around the food system and it's process. Slow Food evokes a feeling of 'non-fast food.'" Local food, produced by small-scale farmers or indigenous plants sold at local markets - ostensibly "slow foods" - have been in Thailand for a long time, but Slow Food aims to revive knowledge about production and taste and make it accessible to consumers. Further, Thailand's food culture has changed a lot over a short period of time. Traditionally, meat was rarely eaten, mostly for holidays - but the rapid increase in consumption (of a number of unhealthy foods) has led to high cholesterol and diabetes among many Thais. Witoon pointed to an informal survey of 100 youth at a recent ActionAid event that found that of those who eat fermented fish paste, it was only eaten 4-5 times a month. Fermented fish paste is eaten daily by most rural people in northeastern Thailand.
Given Thailand's growing affection for fast food, I'd say that Slow Food could be an important response to our changing food landscape. People in Bangkok are eaters. Though someone might be genuinely interested in conscious consumption, it all begins at the market. If consumers can change their way of thinking about consumption, and about speed or convenience, and feel satisfied with food diversity (given the lack of diversity and quality in Thailand's supermarkets), Slow Food could make a difference here. And the next step would be to establish a new connection with producers. Eating is empowering and systems of consumption have influence on our markets. When we know how our food is produced, we are able to support alternative systems. Slow Food in the U.S. is a good example - Alice Waters was featured recently on 60 minutes and The New York Times just ran an article on the coming "Food Revolution." Despite slow growth in the organic food market in the U.S. right now, the growth of small farmers and Obama's move to plant a White House garden proves the point that farming and consuming sustainably is economically and socially viable.
So what does this Bangkok Slow Food event have to do with us here in Isaan? March 9th brought our regional meeting to talk about our "local foodway" approach to Slow Food, where representatives from Yasothon, Mahasarakam and Surin discussed ways to show the connections between producers and consumers. In each of these three provinces, we have organized Green Markets that bring organic-certified food to consumers several times a week. By highlighting these markets we can show consumers the benefits of informed consumption, or supporting local alternatives. These markets are also a kind of "new foodway" because agro-industry has begun to designate certain provinces for certain mono-cropped grains, vegetables and livestock. A vendor at a conventional public market can most likely tell you where their produce was delivered from, but not where it was grown or how it was produced. Below, cabbages, tomatoes, cucumbers, limes and papayas delivered to the Yasothon city market from Ubon Ratchatani.
Above, fermented fish sauce, tomatoes, pumpkins, mangoes, various gourds, bale fruit, chili, galangal, rice, yard-long beans, jujube, tamarind and kaffir lime leaves, all produced locally by an organic farmer/vendor at the Mahasarakam Green Market. We can prove that the foods we eat - and the culture around them - can be supported by small farmers producing a diversity of organic crops. The Bangkok event pointed out that foods often follow us - the range of ethnic communities throughout the city has generated different types of public markets carrying a range of products. For Isaan's provinces - be they Lao or Khmer - the fruits and vegetables, pork and fish that we eat, are all central to our culture. A diversified, regional food network supports consumer health, the environment and in the words of P' Ubon Yuwa, creates "new communities." Slow Food enables producers and consumers to reconnect with clear information about the food they share.
I made it up to Kudchum, Yasothon province for part of the Nonyang Village Organic Learning Center's "Youth Session" on the weekend of March 7-8. Below are some photos and notes from the events. There were youth in attendance from Yasothon, Mahasarakam, Roi Et and Kalasin provinces - mostly high school students (many of which are about to finish school and begin looking for employment). The goal of the weekend was to teach the youth groups about organic farming as a career, introduce a few different techniques, and motivate the youth to continue with group activities or campaigns related to organic farming - like those of the Kids Love Nature group in Surin or Wai Sai Hua Jai in Yasothon. Thanks to P' Breeo and Udee for inviting me to join in on the fun!
Mae Tanai kicked off Sunday's activities with a brief talk about her experience of becoming an organic farmer. She had worked in Bangkok for a number of years before coming home to pursue a new career at home in Mahasarakam. She pointed out a number of valuable things, "farming is the basis for a secure livelihood and freedom. We all have 24 hours in a day - but it's up to us how we use them. We have a choice to pursue the labor market, but given the economic crisis, I believe that farming is a better alternative." I think her words got everyone thinking before we went out to spend our remaining 12 hours learning more about organic farming.
The group was split in two before heading out to Paw Taa and Paw Noi's fields. With Paw Taa, each group learned about rice seed selection and SRI planting methods. With Paw Noi, they learned about various grafting and tree pruning techniques, including Dragonfruit, Mango and Longan.
Nu, from the Wai Sai Hua Jai group, picks out the best rice grains for seeding. The kids used magnifying glasses to see the characteristics of each grain more clearly - especially the "nose," where the roots will eventually emerge.
Having selected the best seeds, they are planted in a burnt rice husk mixture and watered for about 2 weeks, until they are ready to be planted in the paddy, one seedling at a time. Below, 20 day old seedlings in one of Paw Taa's dry-season, seed-saving paddies.
Over at Paw Noi's fields, Paw Lurn and Paw Noi gave the group a lesson on Dragonfruit grafting, Paw Jong gave a lesson on Mango grafting and Paw Anon taught about rootstock grafting for Longan.
There are three main varieties of Dragonfruit, based on their white, yellow and purple colors. March and April are their fertilizing months - male plants tend to be wider, female plants more narrow - and they pollinate during the evening time.
Udee ties on the coconut husk mixture that will create a micro-environment for new Longan roots. The Alternative School project at Jalurn Suk School also practiced this back in October, with Guava trees.
The afternoon's sessions were definitely educational, but I think the kids were pretty hot and tired by the evening. Thankfully, a big dinner-tasting/party was in the works for that night and everyone had a lot of fun. Each meal was presented based on the homes that the kids stayed in, and they got up in front of everyone and explained where the ingredients came from (unfortunately, the cookies were purchased), how they were produced and then gave a short advertisement for their dish. Afterward, we all shared the food together and had a little jam session with music and drama performances.
Paw Taa: "answer proudly that you are farmers' children!"
While it's hard to expect rural youth to jump right into organic farming for their career - especially given family situation, inherited debt or other obligations - activities like the Youth Session are important ways for kids to learn more about self-reliance and the alternative of organic farming. A lot of the youth in these groups may go right to Bangkok and work for a few years, or spend most of the cold and dry seasons working in different hired labor jobs. But when they come home to support their parents or begin a family, farmers' groups within the AAN feel it's important to teach them about the community-based opportunities provided by organic farming. I applaud the youth-focused work of P' Breeo, Udee and their student team from Mahasarakam - it is essential in the effort to bring young people into Isaan's movement for sustainable agriculture. Plus, they are just really good at what they do and understand clearly where rural youth are coming from.
Isn't that a beautiful design?
It's been a while since our last post - as usual, SFS and the AAN have been up to a lot in recent weeks. And on the eve of the Organic Learning Center's Session 2, it's fitting to finally post an update from Session 1. We hope to write a post on Session 2 when it wraps-up on the 26th.
Thanks to funding from the Office of Agriculture and Cooperatives – an organization of the Ministry of Agriculture – we were able to organize our first “Village Wiseman’s Center and Development Network” in over two years. There were 33 farmers attending from Ban Khlot, Khok Yang sub-district and from Ban Pru, Grasang district, in Buriram province. P’ Chaiyo, leader of the Ban Pru group and TAO for the sub-district, who has already begun his transition to organic farming, was there to help other members feel ready to start farming organically. Ban Khlot still grows mostly rice, but a lot of sugarcane, rubber and cassava are entering the district. In addition, a lot of the farmers in the group were here because they were concerned about their health and wanted to lower input costs. One farmer from Khok Tohm village has been using chemicals for 46 years – that’s exactly when they were first introduced to northeastern Thailand.
One of the first things we asked the group to think about throughout the session was, “why have villagers changed, and started this movement for sustainable agriculture?”
Day one started off with Paw Samrit’s (former president of Rice Fund Surin) inspiring, passionate talk about the opportunity to farm organically. Land ownership isn’t the limitation; it’s about the opportunity to begin, and by learning together, farmers can find a solution. He also explained a simple input/output cycle: chemicals come in, create ruined soil, health and environment and out comes debt. Farmers will need to take what they’ve learned at the learning center and apply it in their own lives and practices. Forming a group and working together is essential – a farmer can’t do it all alone. P’ Nok added, “maybe we don’t give you money to use, to lower your debts – but organic farming is what you can use to lower them.”
P’ Bresong, who was also presenting to the group, added, “when I was working in Bangkok for a few years, I realized that if I worked these hours at home, I’d be able to make it as a farmer.” P’ Bresong, the president of the Tatoom farmers’ group, a Rice Fund Surin committee member, and a leader in the AAN, has only 8 rai of land and raises 5 cows.
The group watched an episode of “Pandin Thai” - a program sponsored by Thai Health Foundation - about the global “4 Crises” and their impacts in Thailand: society, economy, political and environmental. The section on the economic crisis certainly stood out the most: instead of talking about the credit crisis or bank collapses, they interviewed Isaan farmers who were homeless, waiting on the street to find work in Bangkok. Going to find employment in Bangkok is not a new phenomenon for Isaan farmers, but reality is stting in that this rural-urban cycle is economically unsustainable. The belief that remittances can be the basis for rural livelihoods is being challenged by this current crisis. In the interviews, the farmers were asked about their situation, how they wound up looking for work in Bangkok, and so on. Some answered solemnly about how difficult it was to live at home and the need to find work to pay off debt; that this was how life was for Isaan people.
But a few farmers, sitting outside a temple waiting for some donated food and trucks to come pick them up, were both animated and angry. In one scene, a man runs away from the camera to try and jump in the bed of a pickup truck, but can’t get on – only two men are picked-up per truck. In another scene, when a man from Khorat province is asked why he’s in Bangkok, he answers, “I used to plant and eat rice like my brothers and sisters, but look at this [pointing at the bags of donated food from the temple]. I would plant rice, corn and chili, but I couldn’t survive planting them!! I’d harvest the rice, pay off some debt, and then take out a new loan to buy corn seeds and fertilizers. I’d harvest the corn, pay off some of that debt, and then buy chili seeds and pesticides!!!” He explained an un-ending cycle of debt accumulation that resulted in the loss of land and livelihood – he had no choice but to come and find work in Bangkok. The video was pretty unsettling. But I think it spoke loudly to a lot of the farmers who had come to learn about organic farming – almost everyone had gone to find work in Bangkok for some period of their life.
On day 1, Paw Samrit had emphasized the importance of learning via farmer-to-farmer exchange, and the ways that it makes sustainable practices real. For day 2, we moved into Donlengthai village, which we spent introducing practices and then actively learning them. The morning session focused on soil improvement – green manure crops (atmospheric nitrogen-fixing) like green beans, “pra” beans, peanuts and “snow Africa” (still can’t translate that one) as well as several types of fermented compost, and herbal pesticides. By the end of the morning, farmers answered confidently and in chorus: “Yes!” when asked if they thought they could make organic fertilizers themselves.
The afternoon was spent teaching about seed selection and SRI techniques. There was also discussion about larger issues like corporate control over seeds, which made small things like seed selection more important, as CP is already taking on all aspects of production and markets. The goal of these kinds of conversations is to empower farmers to think for themselves and “plant the seed” for critical thought. Later in the afternoon, we also got a visit from the Office of Agriculture and Cooperatives – everyone got the “sufficiency economy” talk and they stressed, “if this doesn’t produce results, then we’ll stop supporting this project.” Not sure if this was a encouraging message or not…nevertheless, we're thankful for their generous support.
The evening discussion focused on forming a group to support organic farming and village self-reliance. P’ Pakphum pointed out that creating a group is about creating power for yourselves, about creating an alternative - “a demand for fairness and justice” from the government and agri-corporations...he was skipping a bit too far ahead. Thankfully, P’ Jansee got back to basics, “you need clear goals and clear leaders to succeed," and talked about the process of forming their group. To wrap things up, P’ Samrat put out a clear invitation to the group, to continue working with the Donlengthai farmers’ group and that they are here to support new farmers – “we’ve taken this time teaching because we want you to learn and do – please keep in touch with us in the future" (we're also planning to do follow up visits with their group).
After reflection on the first evening, farmers were still unsure about going forward with the transition – despite having new tools to work with. Without a doubt, Farming organically here in Isaan is about changing one’s way of thinking – how do we convince farmers that this is the right move? Or, how do we enable them to realize a solution, a genuine alternative? The organic learning center provided farmers the opportunity to try out new techniques, to pursue the aspects of organic farming that they are interested or feel they may be skilled in. In this way, it’s about taking small steps to build an alternative – making organic compost for the coming planting season or investing in a few piglets to generate lots of free, high quality manure for your fields and pork for local markets.
P Boh jumps into the pen for some demonstration
And so, on day 3, the student-farmers learned about raising organic pigs and making various forms of herbal composts for pig feed and rice paddy fertilization. P’ Kanya – Tabthai village’s livestock wise-woman – gave a clear explanation of the goals of raising pigs, “it isn’t necessarily about the market, but it’s about our organic farming system and creating community food security.” Producing 2-3 pigs for the Green Market every Saturday is largely a by-product of he efforts to lower organic fertilizer costs by raising pigs, yet today she can hardly keep up with the orders for piglets and butchered pork. She also put it right to the young men in the group - who had been horsing around in the front row while she was speaking – “you need to pay attention, learn new skills and so something for your families. Some day, you are going to be grown-ups and some day, you’re going to need to be responsible.” That got them quiet and attentive! Yet all too often youth in rural communities have no interest in agriculture as a career and fall into the debt cycle of chemical farming without ever finding sustainable work off-farm. For the rest of the day, folks got down and dirty, making several types of compost – including a mixture of “Smiley Garbage” with pig manure and rice bran. The afternoon also featured a biodiesel lesson, which everyone really enjoyed. The young guys in the group got to fuel up a tractor with a pre-prepared liter and drive it around the village.
Day 4 brought a representative from the Cooperative Account Inspection office to teach farmers about how to use the accounting books they were given on the first day. Being able to keep track of expenses and income earned is essential for small-scale farmers, who are often in debt of up to 100 thousand baht (almost 3,000 USD). Not a single farmer in the group earned money in the last year. By managing money in paper, farmers can provide proof of how they decide to spend money or how they earn money, which is essential when applying for bank loans or paying off debt.
Once the group got through the accounting lesson, P Nok got out the biodiesel kit to wrap up the process started on the afternoon of Day 4 - the villagers' got to take home a few free liters of biodiesel. Paw Samrit and P’ Bresong came back to bring it all together. Paw Samrit pointed out that pursuing alternative agriculture is about “finding a place to stand” – it’s a process and way to develop and though the ecology isn’t the same in every farmers’ fields (thus providing different environmental challenges), “in the end, you’ll smile like champions.” He continued later, “we always look in front of us, see others and ask, ‘how do they do it?’” But we need to be able to see what we have and what we’ll be able to do – maybe making biodiesel is jumping too far ahead – we need to able to feed ourselves, first.”
Maybe this answers the question of why farmers have switched to farming organically?
From The Ethicurean - a blog that looks critically at all aspects of the food system:
Parallel universes: A rice farmer’s point of view on U.S.-European GMO attitudes
Wanted to share this post by Greg Massa, a California rice farmer who has exchanged with several farmers from our network. While he writes, "One [U.S.] farmer told me that it lets you ‘farm dumb’ so that you don’t actually need to think about farming anymore," farmers like Greg Massa, P' Samrat Thong-iam and Paw Man Samsee provide a powerful example of what it means to "farm smart." In the winter of 2007 - thanks to the work of ENGAGE - the three farmers (photo below, with Chris Westcott, ENGAGE member and former coordinator) were able to meet together and exchange about GMOs, as well as their movement for organic rice farming.
(Greg's irrigation system - a little bit different from Samrat's rain-fed paddies.)
The example of past ENGAGE tours is a chance to present one of our new ideas - We're hoping to organize a U.S.-to-Thailand tour for U.S. farmers, consumers and organizers/activists. We invite you to come to northeastern Thailand and exchange further with our network about the global movement for sustainable agriculture as well as the global stuggle against agro-imperialism.
As folks here often say, "We're fighting the same fight!"
By creating new opportunities for exchange and movement-building, Thailand's Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) can only grow stronger. If you or someone you know might be interested in a "Food Sovereignty Delegation"-type tour like this - for Jan/Feb 2010 - please contact us or feel free to comment on this post! All feedback is welcome!
Not many details here, but this recent Wall Street Journal piece got me thinking. Talk about a clash of the world's two largest paradigms.
It's an odd confrontation with capitalism, from a socialist government dependent on oil exports. Cargill is the world's largest grain processor/trader and the seventh largest food corporation in the world. Venezuela's gross national income is over 210 million (just below Thailand's). Venezuelan people - also like Thai people - depend on rice as a daily staple.
Venezuela already faces food shortages and nationalizing further doesn't seem to be a solution.
What are the implications for food security? How is this kind of populism an alternative? If agribusinesses like Cargill didn't control supply, would Venezuelan communities be able to create local food systems?
''Prepare the decree and we'll expropriate Cargill."
In other news, we've just wrapped up this week's "Organic Learning Center" with villagers from Ban Khlot, in Khok Yang sub-district and from Ban Pru, Grasang district, Buriram province. Focusing on low input costs and farming to provide healthy food turned out to be a worthwhile approach with these farmers, who are just beginning their transition to farming organically. More to come once the photos are ready...
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Biodynamic Farming (BD) at Khon Kaen
Here’s a picture taken during the biodynamic course :
The course was held by Sir Hans van Florenstein Mulder who has been involved in Biodynamic agriculture since 1972. He was born in Netherland but he spent almost all his youth in Indonesia. Later, he moved to New Zealand where he has helped established educational project. He also served for many years as General Secretary of the NZ Anthroposophical Society until 2006.
Now he is travelling the world to promote biodynamic farming.
Biodynamic is a type of organic farming that includes an understanding of « dynamic forces » in nature such as : the rythm of the sun. By working creatively with these energies, farmers are able to significantly improve the health of their farms and the quality of food. It recognizes farms as a self-regulating, biodiverse ecosystems.
The course first started with an introduction of chemical farming and monoculture impacts : degradation of the soil, deterioration in the health and quality of crops and livestock. This awareness led to the emergence of various trends such as biodynamic farming.
We learned how to prepare a cow horn manure which is known as the preparation 500 prescribed by the philidopher Rudolf Steiner. Preparation 500 is made by filling a cow’s horn with cow manure, and burying it in the soil during the dry season in the best location as possible. If we use bull horns, we have to put in bull manure. The manure must come from a lactating female cow or bull which will bring in the calcium processes to the preparation. To ensure the good quality of manure, the cow should be fed with organic fodder. Then the horns should be buried in a hole about 40 cm deep and covered with soil that has been enriched with good quality compost. Be careful not to allow weeds to grow, otherwise the weed roots will grow into the preparation and also avoid tree roots. The horns should be buried open end down so that they will not become water logged if the hole is over watered. The hole must be kept cool by mulching with paddy straw for example. After 4 months, cow horns should have turned into dark humus and should be sweet smelling. Horns are now ready. It is used in small quantities at the rate of 25 g in 13 litres of water per acre (2,5 rai). In a bucket, the mix preparation is stirred for one hour making a vortex in one direction and then reversing the direction and making a vortex in the other direction. Preparation 500 is sprayed at the descending phase of the moon and four times a year : October and November and then February and March.
The second day, we learned how to make BD compost. In BD farmind plants are maintained in the soil by addition of compost (animal manures combined with plant material : fodder and straw). The organic materials OM are conberted into a stable humus through a fermentation process. Composting the OM will avoid the nutrients (NPK) losses from oxidation or leaching. In BD, making quality compost is very important as a way to maintain humus in the soil. The best way to learn manking compost is ti do it. Be careful on the aeration of the OM. Without air, the heap will not heat up and it will become anaerobic and smelly.
We started by building a tunnel out of dry matter that will allow air to flow through it easily. Then we put some straw that formed the perimeter of the bed and sprinkle water over the straw. We sprinkled cow manures onto straw and then add a green layer (fresh grass) for nitrogen. Finaly sprinkle a fine dusting of hydrated lime. Another layer of straw and sprinckle it with fresh grass. Again, sprinkle a fine dustung of hydrated lime. Another smattering of manure and then more greens. We can also use kitchen scraps. Repeat operation several times to get layers and layers of straw-grass-manure.
"Using a stick, make five spaced holes (about 30 cm apart), along the top of the heap. One portion of each preparation (5 ml) in turn should then be mixed into a small piece of moist (clay) soil or compost, kneaded into a ball and dropped into one of the holes. Once the preparations have been inserted, the holes should be filled with compost material or pushed together to ensure that the preparation comes into full contact with the soil and does not hang in an air pocket." (source : www.biodynamic.org.uk)
One of the great things about interning with CAEF for the summer is getting to see how a Fair Trade business model works from the ground-up. Alter Eco, a France-baded Fair Trade company, made it's annual visit to the Surin Cooperative recently. Being a native French speaker, Liliane must have been a big help with communication during the recent visit from Alter Eco!
I have spent one day with Cécile and Carmen who came from France to audit Rice Fund Cooperative. They are both working for Alter-Eco, Cecile is the sales Manager of North France and Carmen is one of her staff.
The Organic Rice Fund Surin Agriculture : ORFSC was founded in 1992 and became FLO-Certified in 2003. In 2000, Rice Fund and Alter-Eco have begun to work together and over the past few years, Cécile told me that it is one of the best fair trade cooperative project.
Surin province is situated in the North-east of Thaïland, a region caled Issan. The saline soil of this area provides the best condition for growing aromatic Jasmin rice : Hom mali rice. That is why, Surin province was assigned to conduct the pilot projet in 1999 of producing organic Hom mali rice known domestically and also worldwilde. Rice Fund has been working for many years with small-scale farmers to create a sustainable, fair and local food system. Together, they promote sustainable livelihoods and green community (food security and environmental conservation). For 13 years it has been certified organic by ACT (a thaï Label). CAEF provides training modules for organic farming to help farmers growing their rice organicly and the Rice Fund Coop. provides a structure for joining forces and exporting rice to Europe and the United States.
Rice Fund carries out its own packaging. Rice goes to a quality control system before being packed by labors.
After examined one by one the whole packaging process, we went to Donlengthai village where we interviewed P’ Pakpum. Then, we went to an other village : Tabthai and learnt how to grow rice. We all enjoyed planting rice with the local farmers.
The activity of Alter Eco has always rested on two foundations :
· knowledge and control channels on one hand
· distribution, and the attractiveness of the offer in the other.
Since 1998, we use and enrich our own audit methodologies and control pathways that allow us to complement the Max Havelaar label, to have a perfect knowledge of channels and local issues. Within our team, Audit & Sourcing plays a key role alongside the Sales Department amd the Financial Department. We continuously measure the positive impact of our work on the producers in the South, and also to continuously improve our effectiveness in this respect.
By being continuously directly involved in auditing our producer, we can directly see any irregularities or issues and raise them directly with the producers as well as bring such issues to the attention of WFTO.
These unique methodologies are specific to Alter-Eco. We’re recognized for our commitment from upstream to downstream sectors. This is possible due to the unique knowledge of local issues and sectors that Alter Eco has. Consequently, Alter-Eco has been chosen by FLO-Cert to sit on its Certification Committee that meets to decide on labeling and non-labeling of producer organizations. » (source : www.altereco.com)
The Community for Agroecology Foundation (CAEF) is happy to welcome our new summer intern, Liliane. Here is her first blog post:
First of all, let me introduce myself. I’m Liliane, a french student who work with CAEF (formerly SFS) as an intern. I arrived in Surin the 1st July 2011 and I will stay three months. I’m studying agronomy for sustainable development so that’s why I’m here in Surin. To understand the challenges of sustainable agriculture in developing countries such as Thailand I will observe all along my stay how CAEF makes things change and helps strengthened "Green Community." I have known and contacted this organization thanks to this blog. So here I am, in Surin : the city of elephants.
My first month will consist in observation all the activities that have been set up by CAEF. Thus, I will update this blog as often as possible. I want to apologize for my bad English.
The first thing I saw when I have started working here is the Saturday Green Market. One of farmers’ initiatives was to sell their food excess (vegetables, fruits …) so they though of an alternative way to sell it. With the help of CAEF, they built the Green Market in 2003. It has given the opportunity to farmers to sell their fresh organic products and to meet directly the consumers. Now we count more than 80 farmers that sell every Saturday in the Green Market. In addition to that, the mobile green market in Prasat district has developed. Once, I went to sell traditional homemade cake in front of Prasat Hospital with a farmer, she said to me that "it is a good way to earn money quickly." During one morning, she can get around 1500 THB ($50).
CAEF has also an other alternative market : the Kao Hom grocery. It promotes organic products. Every Thursday, Farmers come to deliver their fresh products and within two hours, consumers have bought almost everything.
The alternative market is a platform that build intimate relationship between farmers and consumers.
However there are still some challenges to overcome. For example, farmers are biased by the non-organic products that are invaded the Green Market. In fact, the current place of the Green Market is next to the traditional Saturday market so consumers can be confused. CAEF is now negotiating with the local authorities to find the best solution for stopping this conflict between the Green Market and the traditional market.
I have also been in the countryside for one week. P’Samrat who has kindly opened is house for me is the chief of farmers’ groups in Donlengthai village. Since ten years now, the farmer group use organic practices with the help of CAEF. They banned chemical pesticides and has been using organic fertilizers (chicken manure). For the first time of my life, I had replanting the rice, it was a hard work because the weather was really hot. But this is the daily condition of farmers here, in Surin. Even if they are poor and they work hard, I found that people were really nice to me and I can feel their happiness every day. They cooked me some delicious dishes that we shared with all the family and the neighbors.
The night before I left, with P’Samrat we talked about the agriculture future in the village. He told me that, nowadays our children don’t want to be farmers anymore, they studied in University downtown Surin or in big cities (Mahasarakham, Bangkok) and left the countryside. He is still wondering who will take care of his rice crops. He was smiling and told me "I will plant rice until my last breath."
From the Alternative Agriculture Network - Esan (AAN) blog:
P’ Kanya Onsri smiles whenever she talks about her organic pig project in Surin. As one of the first organic farmers in her village, she has always been willing to try out new techniques in order to make her farming practices more sustainable. Since 2006, Kanya has pioneered a organic pig raising producers’ group in Tamor subdistrict, Surin province. With support from Surin Farmers Support and the AAN, the program has expanded to more than 70 families and provides 2 whole pigs at the Surin Green Market every Saturday.
The pork is now so popular that consumers now put in orders before the weekend and pick up their labeled packages at the Green Market.
The project wasn’t initially focused on being a money-maker for villagers in Tabthai, who have historically earned lower incomes than larger landowners in nearby villages. The goal was to produce more organic compost from the high-nitrogen pig manure. The pigs are raised in 3 meter by 2 meter, 60 cm deep pens and are filled with shallow layer of rice husks and biojuice (made from plant materials fermented in molasses) before pigs are raised.
Organic pork is an essential part of the Surin Green Market’s success. When Thais go to the market, they’ll often come up with their menu based on what foods are fresh or in season, and while the AAN’s Green Markets have always sold seasonal fruits and vegetables, meats are still limited. Consumers are often frustrated by having to go to the conventional market to get their meats, and often criticize Green Markets for not having enough protein. By bringing 2 whole pigs to the Surin Green Market every Saturday, loyal consumers are satisfied and new consumers have increased, simply by word of mouth. This is also what we hope to accomplish in Yasothon.
Certain things stand out when it comes to the quality and flavor of the organic pork in Surin. Consumers say that when they buy conventional pork from the market, which is often raised in large, closed-system commercial farms and treated with antibiotics, hormones and other chemicals, the meat will lose it’s freshness quickly and the fats coagulate after a few days in the fridge. With the Surin Green Market’s organic pork, this is not the case. The pork stays a nice pink-red color and consumers say that the dishes they make using the various cuts are naturally flavorful, requiring less seasoning.
Consumer demand has helped make the project a commercial success. Though the first group of farmers to raise organic pigs may have focused more on producing manure for their compost, the income from raising organic pigs has been an important incentive for new producers. Because investment costs are low and the opportunity to sell directly to consumers, farmers usually earn about 2,000 baht per pig. Most conventional producers barely break even, after buying expensive antibiotics, feed and selling to middlemen.
The success of the organic pig project has inspired organic farmers in Kudchum, Yasothon to start raising pigs themselves. We now have a group of about 10 farmers who are ready to begin raising the pigs organically and selling their pork at the Yasothon Green Market. Farmers will need to set aside a small piece of land to plant green vegetables to feed their pigs throughout the year, as well as make fermented feed supplements from paddy fish, snails and local herbs. These supplements will help keep the pigs healthy and happy.
The Yasothon Green Market group will also need to plan out a schedule for breeding and slaughtering, with someone in the group responsible for raising a breeding male and several people responsible for breeding females. Villagers in Kudchum have little experience with slaughtering and butchering pigs, but they are committed to learning more – slaughtering may also be a new job for young people in the community without any work (youth in Surin have learned about the entire process and now earn money helping with birthing and slaughtering pigs).
The project in Surin took about 4 years to successfully develop. The principle of not focusing on making money, but raising safe, healthy, organic pigs and making compost has always been at the project’s core. Now that the market has grown, however, the group is thinking more about new ways to manage the market – developing new pork products, and more direct sales (a membership or CSA structure).
Following the seminar last month, Kanya explained about the success of the Surin Green Market, “I have to say, this project really comes from what I learned in the U.S. with MOFGA [Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association], from the Slow Food conference in Italy and from my study trip to South Korea.” As a farmer who works with Surin Farmers Support (SFS) and the Alternative Agriculture Network – Esan (AAN) – Kanya has taken the opportunity to learn about the global sustainable agriculture movement. By exchanging with students and farmers in the U.S. with ENGAGE – a student network that works in solidarity with local social and environmental movements), Kanya saw the importance of making use of all available, compostable materials. By attending Terra Madre in Italy, she got to see how much value could be added to organic fruits and vegetables by making organic foods and food products. And finally, by exchanging with the Korean Women’s League (KWL), Kanya understood how essential it is to sell a diversity of products at the Surin Green Market.
Next week the Yasothon Green Market group will meet to plan out the production process and exchange about useful techniques for successful organic pig raising. The Surin group helped to develop Thailand’s organic standard for pigs with IFOAM, so the farmers in Kudchum will have to follow their example. One of the major challenges for the Surin group, now that their pork is commercially successful, are farmers who seek to quickly fatten their pigs using feed. Our committee will follow up with members to make sure organic practices are being followed. We’ll continue to provide updates throughout the process here on the blog, and expect to have organic pork at the Yasothon Green Market by August.
Rice Fund Surin members agree that organic agriculture is a solution for small-scale rice farmers in the province. And the organic food market that has developed is a result of a strong people’s movement for sustainable livelihoods and safe, healthy food. Yet, given how farming is inherently risky, the transition to organic farming is difficult for many farmers. The expansion of the organic market has taken a long time in Surin, but for many, the movement seems stagnant – organic farmers keep farming organically, and conventional farmers keep using chemicals.
The Rice Fund Surin meeting on Jan 14 sought to look further into the possibilities for local fair trade to help revive interest in organic farming among villagers and further develop urban consumer awareness about food systems. Fair Trade has always been an important part of Rice Fund’s ideology (the mill is Fair Trade certified and farmers’ groups have independently managed fair trade premiums for yeas), but is often overlooked by producers and consumers on the local level. “Domestic Fair Trade” is a small movement in the U.S., and is organized by a network of organizations and producers cooperatives, including Equal Exchange.
There are many similarities between Domestic Fair Trade and what Rice Fund Surin would like to do on the provincial level. With the small-scale farmers’ quality of life at it’s base, local fair trade focuses on 4 main points:
This year, however, with the implementation of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA), most conventional farmers will be unprepared for price fluctuations and insecure markets for their rice. Cooperatives like Rice Fund equip their members with information about what policy changes imply for farmers, which in turn helps them make smart decisions about how to organize their farm plans each season. Many Rice Fund members agree that themselves and fellow members of the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) are well prepared for AFTA – they mill and sell rice independently in alternative market approaches. Planting indigenous rice varieties, while they are well suited to the local ecology, are also beginning to earn good prices at AAN Green Markets and other market channels – here farmers can set their own price, based on the needs of themselves and consumers.
For farmers who may transition towards organic farming, but through contracts with larger mills or rice corporations, their market is growing, but possibly insecure – if organic rice is not viewed as profitable, then farmers can easily be cut off or put back into conventional production systems. Further, rice corporations are increasingly purchasing large tracts of land and growing themselves – one company in Surin has bought a large piece of land in the northern part of the province and is growing “Kao Hom Nin” an improved rice variety which combines characteristics from a black Chinese rice with Thai Jasmine (this variety is not a hybrid, but it’s short growing season allows it to be grown during the off-season). These processes may be viewed simply as economies of scale, but farmers continue take on considerable risk and the organic standard may also be compromised.
Farmers in Surin understand that consumers abroad are concerned about health, food safety and the environment when they purchase food, but most local consumers are not yet taking much interest. More work is also needed to develop farmers’ way of thinking about organic farming and fair trade. In turn, Rice Fund Surin, Surin Farmers Support and the Alternative Agriculture Network will work together to develop a consumer campaign on fair trade concepts. This campaign will also be a way to work together with state organizations and provide clarity for outside groups and organizations about what fair trade really means.
As P’ Ubon concluded the meeting, we can think of fair trade as supporting a fair economy, fair environment, fair health and fair society – these issues are all here, but few people understand. It is up to our farmers’ movement to transform a consumer trend into proof that fair trade is better for society, especially those who grow food.