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November 2009 (page two)
For me, when I got out of the truck in Denleng Tai, the rice-farming village where I would be staying, about 25 kilometers from the Cambodian border, this is what I saw: I saw a simple wooden house with an outdoor staircase, on stilts, with a kitchen underneath and a bathroom out back. I saw an older woman sitting outside, weaving silk, shaded by a verdant canopy of tropical trees bearing coconuts, avocados, and limes. Beside her, I saw her silkworms, spinning in their baskets beneath a bug net. And I saw a coffee plant that I later learned had been acquired from a Fair Trade coffee cooperative in Laos, a trade for some organic, Fair Trade rice.
The weaver I met was Coo-eye, the lady of the house, the mother of Samrieng and Pakphum, her two adult children in their forties. I would be working with Pakphum for the rest of the week, so Bennett and I sat down to wait for Pakphum to return.
When Pakphum arrived, we greeted one another through Bennett, and Pakphum cheerfully chopped down some coconuts and cracked open their tops, for us to each sip a refreshing drink while we got to know one another. Pakphum had been at the elementary school that morning, he told us, catching up on some paperwork for the class he’s teaching on organic farming, hoping to instill an appreciation for natural, pesticide-free production in the younger generation.
While not every farmer in his village farms organically, organic farming predominates in Pakphum’s cooperative, and Pakphum farms exclusively organically. After being sickened by the pesticides he was using around ten years ago, he made a promise to himself to stop using toxic chemicals in his work, and that promise has paid off in a big way. Not only did his health improve, he told me, but the switch to organics helped him climb out of debt, as he and stopped spending his hard-earned money on chemical fertilizers from giant agriculture companies, and began to rely on the organic material already on his land for his fertilizer.
Pakphum and Samrieng enjoy a fresh coconut from the orchard behind the shed, after a lunch break with one Samrieng's delicious rice dishes. (See a slide show here.)
During my work with Pakphum later that week, I would learn more about how this cycle works. I would see, for instance, Pakphum spotting small snails in his fields at ten paces (tiny things I never would have noticed) before picking them up and pocketing them. When I asked about this later, I learned they’d be crushed and fermented in a special compost bin, because snail compost is so effective at correcting for certain ill conditions in the fields. Bennett and Pakphum showed me the separate containers by the shed in the fields; the jackfruit compost is perfect for one condition, while the mixed compost is perfect for a different condition, and the water buffalo manure is just healthy overall, and so on. This is genius, I thought.
As we sipped our coconuts on the first day, Pakphum explained how what we’d be doing that week would be intimately related to his decision to farm organically. Pakphum had some damaged fields, he told me, and we’d be repairing them. “When people find out I’m an organic farmer, sometimes they ask me ‘What do you do about weeds?’” Pakphum said smiling. “’I pull them out,’ I tell them. It’s not that hard to figure out.”
So, starting before the dawn the next morning, we traveled out to the fields to begin the work – transplanting healthy rice plants from a weed-damaged field into the spaces cleared in an adjacent field by the damage from the fresh-water crabs. We collected the crabs in a bucket that we handed off to Samrieng (she’d be cooking them later, I believe, though the family was kind enough to cook vegetarian for me while I was there), and we carried the rice plants by hand from the weed-damaged field, using a hoe to re-plant them in the soft, rich earth beneath the standing water in the paddy. When the transplanting was complete, we’d be plowing under the weed-damaged field, preparing it for new planting.
(continued on page 3)