Sowing Seeds

For the last two weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of trucking

Truckin' through Thailand

Truckin' through Thailand

around Northeastern Thailand learning about the organic foods and sustainability movement. I carted my friend, Deborah along, sure that if I needed laughs like I did in Vietnam, she’d help provide the soundtrack. Turns out though, we really needed each other to listen, to sit and talk, and to figure out where we all went so wrong. When I explained the “tour” to her, I couldn’t tell her what we’d be doing other than visiting some farms and maybe doing some gardening ourselves. I didn’t know we’d build a house and chat with Burmese refugees.

In the hustle bustle of Yasothorn, in the dry eastern area near the Laos border, Peggy Reents strolled up to meet us. She was younger than I expected. I had anticipated a fat Thai farmer, so the girl-next-door from Colorado in Chacos surprised me. She brought us back to her husband’s family farm, down a dirt road in the heart of rice fields.

Over the next day other tour members arrived. There was Cindy, the New York production assistant, Minh, the med-school-gone-awry-traveler, Juan and Marisa, the Mexicans from Oaxaca, Sun and Aum, the Thai farmers, Parker and Bjorn, the American philosophers, Neil, the South African writer, a pair of Julias and a few others I’m currently forgetting. The amalgamation of people would serve us well as we forged ahead, learning about the new movement of Thai organic farming and sustainability, pondering our place in the world and amidst our lands.

And of course, there was Jo Jandai.

Seed Saver Jo Jandai

Seed Saver Jo Jandai

He dons patched-up fisherman pants and an embroidered Karin bag over his shoulder. He’s barefoot most of the time. His hair, true salt and pepper. Though he became a monk at age fourteen and later attended law school, he finds himself back on his family farm and his farm in the north, reclaiming the title “farmer.”

It hasn’t been easy. When Jo began looking for cheap housing and squishing all the dirt around him into mud, slapping it into bricks and building houses out of it, his neighbors laughed. When he refused to spray chemicals or toss out conventional fertilizer on his rice paddies, they called him crazy. His yields went down, he remembers, for the first several years, as the soil remembered how to take care of itself. Five seasons later, though, Jo’s family farm out-produced those around him, and he hadn’t spend a penny on fertilizer.

Jo and Peggy take us around to see some other organic farms in the area. Jo’s success has lead to thirty other men declaring themselves organic, to a co-op for the neighborhood and to exporting their rice to the EU through a fair trade organic company. Long gone are the days when these men had to pay nose bleed prices for seeds, chemicals and take loans out from the bank. The Grapes of Wrath days are over for these farmers, though hundreds around them can’t seem to make the switch.

When asked what prompted many of the farmers to turn to a more sustainable practice of growing, many cited the rising price of chemicals and seeds—up 110% in 3 years!—and illness. A woman at a farm named “Farm of Peaceful Breezes” said her husband lost feeling in his face; nerve damage as a result of spraying the fields. Even his doctor told him he would have to stop. Ironically, the agents used in Thailand are prohibited in the United States. As we are so good to do with other products like guns and armaments, we sell these toxins to the Thais. Later, we import the jasmine and batsami, eating up the carcinogens we avoid on our own soil. Companies make a killing. We are simply killed.

We meet with a variety of groups: the Asoke, a Buddhist group living apart from the traditional Theravada sect of Thailand, where we get into a heated discussion of why women can’t become fully ordained monks.

Monk Chat

Monk Chat

Monk fight! Monk fight! Peggy and Jo take turns translating, hoping not to offend us Westerners when we hear “women can’t do as much as men,” or the monk when we say, “Why?” (That is not a question allowed in this sect of Buddhism.) We meet a feminist group that works with organizations to ensure gender equality and religious tolerance. We interact with a group of young people secretly fled from Burma; they attend a clandestine school and have been learning about sustainability. Their teacher tells them, “You have been practicing your English so much and keep saying you want to tell your story to people, that you want to tell others what’s happening in Burma. Now is your chance.” In halting English, they describe children captured to be soldiers, village leaders coerced into handing over people as forced labor: “If you don’t give them the people, the government says to the village chief: Choose charcoal or bullets.”

On long truck journeys and on our overnight bus we discuss the problems, our disdain for Monsanto and militant leaders and The Man. Yet once we reach Pun Pun, Jo and Peggy’s farm in the North, we walk through a trellis of passion fruit. And that’s all it takes to enter another world.

Here, The Man doesn’t exist. Jo makes sure of it. He collects his own seeds, grows his own food and raises his own muddy walls. Buildings on the property stand as a beacon of what can be done with little money, a wise mind and a set of willing hands. The gardens, bursting with kales and lettuces, bananas and pumpkins, sing of a soil ripe with nutrients and minerals, totally non-existent prior to Peggy and Jo’s purchase. It wasn’t easy, of course, to develop a land where nothing grew for the first several years. But Jo’s avant-garde thinking pioneered the way. “Weeds are friends,” he says, almost sing-songily, explaining how the constant re-growth of weeds added needed food to the earth. Along with the shit. When I bend over to check out the “Humanure” compost pile, all I see is some greens sticking out of soil. But I look closer—it’s a huge tomato plant, two in fact, with the most amazing looking tomatoes I’ve ever seen. Someone passed the plant seeds out while pooping, and here they are, months later, health, vibrant, perfectly edible plants.

From Mud--Home

The farm has produced goods other than food stuffs as well. Two neighboring farms, You Sabi and Panya, sprouted up on the same curved mountainside. The sites offer organic cooking and permaculture courses, high school activities and adobe building for anyone interested. During our three days at Pun Pun (a thousand varieties) we clomp around in the

mud, pour urine on compost and discuss seed-saving. With soiled hands and our new-found ability to use resources all around us, it strikes me as odd that we’ve wandered so far away from the simple things: shelter, food, family.

The sun falls and stars light up the sky—a map in the heavens. New found friends and I watch the last oranges seep away, and Joe shouts at us: “Why nobody watch the moon?” We ponder his question and head to the sala for dinner. Truth is, no one has answers to most of Jo’s questions.


1 Response to “Sowing Seeds”

  1. 1 Zucchini
    February 20, 2009 at 4:21 am

    We have to watch “The Future of Food” together when you get back. Who is that wearing a neck brace in the truck? They stole my idea.

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