Here’s the report from Session 2 of our Organic Learning Center. From March 23-26, we hosted farmers’ groups working with the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC) community development organization in Ubon Ratchhatani, Chaiyaphum and Surin. There were about 29 farmers in the group, at various stages of progression towards organic farming.
Paw Samrit , Paw Tama and P’ Bresong helped start things off on Day 1 at Rice Fund. In the opening session, Paw Samrit (standing, above) said something that really stood out. After talking about the importance of soil improvement in organic farming, he reflected, “You can farm without land. I was just in Bangkok for a week and I realized; you could plant on the roofs of buildings, grow lemongrass in pots. The land is on the roof.” As foodies and gardeners in urban areas of the U.S. begin growing on their roofs, Paw Samrit – a 78 year-old farmer with 14 rai of land (about 5 acres) who doesn’t get off the farm too much – recognizes the need for local food production in Bangkok. But are urbanites in Thailand interested?
Paw Tama, a leader in the Nong Bua farmers’ group – which started in 1985 – used the analogy of climbing a mountain to explain transitioning to organic farming: “before you start climbing, you think it’s going to be really hard, or impossible, but once you start it’s pretty easy and as you move up, you get stronger and stronger.” But chemicals continue to be a major issue in Nong Bua - of 5,000 people in the sub-district, 38 died from liver and other forms of cancer in the past year. For those who have leptospirosis, “they don’t have leptospirosis, they have chemical-sickness,” coming directly from the corporate control over agricultural inputs. P’ Bresong used to grow corn, kale, tobacco and garlic with chemicals, which he was taught to spray all throughout the day without any protective clothing. He eventually wound up in the hospital with pesticide poisoning. It took him 6-7 years to fully transition to organic farming, because he continued to seek work as a Taxi driver in Bangkok. Today he grows beautiful, organic garlic and shallots during the cold season - look for a later post with a photo series of his garlic.
We also watched another episode of Pandin Thai, which focused on monoculture production in Thailand (this series is really good). The first segment looked at Hmong farmers in Northern Thailand that grow cabbage. They plant cabbage for its weight: 1 rai will yield up to 10 tons, which earns up to 2-3,000 baht (more than $100). But farmers’ dreams of wealth aren’t realized. They spray pesticides 2-3 times per crop, and if the season’s conditions are bad - 4-5 times – this is the most of any crop in the country. A small can of pesticide costs 425 baht (the price has doubled since first beginning use). Cabbage prices continue to fluctuate, but seed prices continue to rise. Ultimately, corporations can cut costs, charge more and control the process closest to the market, but farmers simply cannot.
A small farmer named Joh was interviewed about his production system. While he hand transplants (plowing with a tractor leads to major soil erosion) and fertilizes with chicken manure on his 6 rai, he must invest 60 thousand baht per season. Chicken manure has gone up 20 baht per bag in the past year. Joh told the reporter that he was bored with chemicals (6,000 baht in pesticides), but because of consumer preferences middlemen won’t accept “unattractive” produce with bugs or marks on the cabbage.
While the farmers watched chemical-intensive production in yet another region of Thailand, I think the most important lesson from the film was for consumers. Cabbage farmers don’t want to use chemicals, but they need to because of consumer preferences. We want only “beautiful” produce and we want it as much and as cheap as possible. Until we change this way of thinking, farmers will continue incurring debts and getting sick from chemical pesticides. This also connects us to what Paw Samrit talked about regarding urban gardening – many Thai consumers don’t yet realize the need for local, safe and healthy food. Though I did see beautiful cabbage growing in raised pots outside the Satong market in Roi Et on Monday...
During the afternoon session, P’ Yae got things focused, “learning with villagers, you’ll see the basis for an alternative, for sustainable agriculture. We are faced with two options: corporate agriculture using farmers purely as labor and the people’s struggle for survival."
Day 2 got farmers engaged with our farmers’ group's alternative. The morning session was focused on seed saving and SRI techniques. P’ Pakphum opened the session by talking about how seed saving and climate change are connected. The group is working to preserve and expand field rice varieties with strong root systems that are suited to the local ecology and survive with very little water. “Nieung Guong” rice for example – has been profiled by national media and has led to requests from all over Thailand. This session’s group was much more interested in seed saving than the first group, so P’ Jansee got a lot more detailed in his explanation of SRI techniques. For the afternoon session, the farmers got into the paddies and planted rice using SRI methods and then learned about green manures and organic compost.
The evening exchange brought the voices of the Ubon Ratchatani farmers group. Hailing from Ban Muu in Khaam Beea sub-district, the group has worked for community forest conservation since 1985. They’ve resisted the “Green Isaan” (eucalyptus plantations) program and developed an organic farming school of their own, alongside community rice mills (made from community forest trees). Their resistance is much like other villagers' groups in Ubon, including Baan Puu Khaam, which the "New Generation" group of NGOs visited last Decemeber.
P’ Pakphum also spoke about his panel discussion at the Seed Exchange Festival in Khon Kaen. Farmers don’t have power because they sell all at the same time, all the same crop – how do we get farmers to come together and build their power? We can be the ones who decide about crop prices, and realize we can produce food first and then sell surplus rice. But P’ Pakphum’s issue is complex – we don’t have irrigation and can’t change our planting season, and lowering rice production (planting a range of crops) isn’t a solution to a systematic problem.
P’ Pasan, the BAAC representative working with the Chaiyaphum farmers’ group, continued, reflecting on the Ubon farmers’ experience, that state policy doesn’t look at ways to support farming as an important career – farmers are being used as the laborers of capitalism. Organic farming is an important solution for farmers’ careers – but right now it is in a “pothole,” it still hasn’t gotten onto the blacktop. To which P’ Yae responded, “but many things that have already gotten onto the blacktop are finished – for example, Jasmine 105.”
Before Tabthai started raising pigs, purchasing ingredients for organic fertilizer cost 80 thousand baht for it’s 25 members. Day 3 brought everyone to Tabthai village to learn about small-scale production and organic livestock (above, P' Kanya on the loudspeaker). P’ Yae focused on 4 major points related to food security: the basis for our work needs to be self-reliance, nature must be respected and viewed as important (otherwise it’s just organic farming for the market), integrated, diverse production is the approach and finally, farming in cycles (for example, P’ Kanya’s vegetables used for pig feed). Farmers need to take this integrated agriculture concept and apply it, make it work according to their local ecology, and further, farmers need to continue going out and exchanging with others to improve or change techniques.
The Green Market was also discussed in the afternoon session. P’ Tip pointed out that it isn’t just selling vegetables or seeds; it’s selling a way of thinking, an idea. Consumers the used to say, “I can’t eat local plant varieties” eat them now, but this has come from long-term coordination between consumers, local government, NGOs and farmers’ groups. Farmers’ groups are about inspection as well as participation – producers and consumers exchange about presentation and preparation of foods at the Green Market. The learning process for ACT certified pork helped farmers develop their livestock raising system.
I’ don’t work on managing farmers’ loans, I’m here to work with farmers and help them in their community development efforts. We might not yet feel confident about what we’ve learned, but we’ve got the people we’ve learned from and can look to their example
- P’ Pasan of the BAAC
- P’ Pasan of the BAAC
This was one of the most surprising and progressive things we've heard a BAAC representative ever say and it seems like P' Pasan means what he says. It's encouraging to see this kind of involvement from the BAAC. Session 2 was a great learning experience for everyone involved - our village "wisemen" were stronger instructors and the farmers group learning with them was more engaged. We'll continue to follow up with the groups who learned with us in the months following session 3 from April 6-9.