I was told that few foreigners have trekked out this far. The locals studied me as I rode my motorbike through their village roads, waving and snapping pictures. We pulled to a row of rice patties where a farmer walked up, greeting me in broken English. “Hello, my name is Aek. Welcome to my farm.” The farm was called Sai Lomjoin, which means Slow Wind in Thailand’s northern dialect.
He directed me up the road a little ways, which was lined with strategically placed vegetation. The land was divided into strips by several canals. The strips were connected by concrete walking bridges. Along the paths were mulch beds almost 5 inches deep. There seemed to be an abundance of straw on this farm. Outside of the paths, were mixtures of vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees.
As Aek walked up, he asked me to grab my bag and follow him. We walked along the main strip which housed the kitchen, as well as the eating and meeting areas. He grabbed a fresh coconut for me and opened it with his machete. Before we spoke he gestured for me to drink. I did, and as I write now my mouth still waters at the thought of how good that coconut tasted. After a few sips, we began our conversation.
Aek is young, probably in his thirties. He spoke more than basic English, but it was still hard to communicate at times. Aek explained that the farm was a Buddhist farm. His father, who is now a monk, lives at the monastery. So whatever the family and visitors don’t eat goes to the Wat, a temple for the monks. He explained that everything here is organic and that they abide by the 5 basic principles of Buddha: no killing (not even mosquitoes), no lying, no stealing or cheating, no drugs (alcohol, cigarettes, etc.), and no adultery.
He then told me their family story. There are many reasons to turn to organic practices, but I have heard none as sad as this one. Before becoming a monk, Aek’s father ran the farm. He incorporated the use of chemicals after heavy community and government pressure, and used them for about 16 years. In Thailand, many farmers still do not know the dangers of chemicals and use them very liberally. Aek’s father began to have reactions to the chemical contact and had to be hospitalized. The doctors said that he could not survive further exposure to these chemicals. After treatment, he was left with his lower jaw paralyzed. Around the same time, Aek’s mother, who was 7 months pregnant at the time, lost her baby. Together, they vowed to never use chemicals again. They decided that if chemicals were harmful to them and their babies, it would be harmful to the earth and its animal inhabitants as well. As a result, since 1993, Aek and his family have been leading Thailand’s push for Organic standards in farming.
After our initial conversation, Aek took me on a tour of the farm. The farm grew an abundance of crops in many varieties. They used intercropping techniques such as planting beans, cabbage, and eggplant together in one-month intervals. Another intercropping grouping was cucumber, tomato, and eggplant. These combinations were very successful, though Aek emphasized the importance of incorporating different plants at different stages of life for optimal growth. He showed me the numerous rice fields, which totaled about 4 rai out of the total 10 rai (4 acres). The farm was very organized and clean. They used rotations to help deter pests, but as Aek said, there is little pest pressure to begin with. In the hot season, insects are more common, but due to the rich biodiversity, they also attract many beneficial insects (predatory insects). Aek also mentioned that their use of manure is minimal. Since they have been using only organic methods for 18 years now, the soil is very healthy and nutrient rich. Consequently, limited amounts of cow and chicken manure are needed each year.
Chickens were the only animal raised on the farm. They eat no meat here, abiding by Buddha’s rules. They consumed the eggs and the chickens helped with pest management. The chickens also provided the marginal amounts of manure they required. Rice straw seemed to be the only major input, as all food waste and organic matter are derived from the farm. All leaves and branches were incorporated back into the soil, further demonstrating the cycle of use and reuse. “Nature provides everything we need. Other farms look at this as waste; we look at it as compost” Aek’s mother Nang told me. “Everyone worries about N, P, and K. There are many more minerals in the soil than that. If I need N, P, and K, I use manure, rice and egg shells.” She tells me how the farmers here don’t often think about the chemical cost, and debt is rising. Even as an organic producer, Sai Lamjoin is not completely free of debt. In fact, Aek told me that after they switched to organic production, they had to sell some of their land to pay off their debt and start fresh.
We walked around some more and then he told me they had to finish planting some rice. I put on some pants and walked out to help. They grew their rice in trays first. He told me they were using a new technique which was much easier and saved seeds. The trays were planted 15 days ago. After about two weeks, they are ready for transplanting. Aek’s technique for transplanting is a bit unconventional compared to more Westernized practices. Instead of bending down to plant the rice, which Aek believes only hurts your back, they tossed the little rice seedlings into the flooded fields like small rice bombs. When explaining this, Aek demonstrated, with a big smile on his face. He said that this technique allows the whole family to come together and help plant. Aek’s mother came out, as well as the kids, and all joined together laughing and smiling as they tossed the rice into the fields. Sometimes, they’d grab handfuls and throw them into the air, giggling as they dispersed everywhere. When the patty became densely planted, they moved onto the next one. This was my first time planting rice, and I was having a blast. We planted all afternoon. Aek left the planting after a few hours and I watched from afar as he walked throughout the field with a bucket in his hand. He seemed to be collecting something. When it got dark, the family disappeared, and the farm became silent. All I could hear was the occasional splash of a frog diving into one of the canals. I wondered if they were going to have dinner, but I didn’t see anyone. They always leave food out, and they told me that food is for sharing so please help myself to anything. I sat down by myself and consumed some delicious organic food.
The next morning I woke with the sun. I dressed and joined Aek, who was planting rice alone. It seemed as though I was already late. We stood across the patty from each other and smiled as we tossed the rice into the field. After about a half an hour, he asked if I was alright. I told him that farming had never been so much fun. He replied, “If you make yourself aware, each time you throw will be the best time. Humans they think too much and are never aware.” I smiled and marinated on what he said. How right he was. It seemed that every part of this farm was spiritual. The family had a strong bond with nature and with each other. They were all happy and healthy, enjoying each other’s company and helping out whenever possible. I immediately felt welcomed into their home and felt a strong spiritual presence around me.
We had a late breakfast around 10 o’clock and the family and guests joined together to eat. The tables were covered with delicious food, all fresh and all organic. Meat was certainly not missed at this table, and there was hardly any room for it. We laughed and ate together as any family around the world should. Every time I looked up someone was putting more food on my plate. Luckily, the few Thai words I knew at that time allowed me to say thank you and delicious.
After the meal, we went back to prepare the new fields for more rice planting. I watched as the family came together again and combed the fields for snails, ranging from the size of a penny to slightly bigger than a golf ball. These snails are numerous and seem to form an endless army. I watched as they delicately picked out the snails with the utmost respect, demonstrating that even the unwanted can be treated respectfully and with care. Here at Slow Wind farm, they respect all stages of life. They cherish the soil as much as the seed. They respect the cultivation, the harvesting, the consumption, and even the snail who causes countless hours of labor. This profound reverence for food is not only the foundation for this farm, but also the glue that holds Aek’s family together.
Aek explained to me that the snails came from South Africa and were brought here for ornamental reasons. Soon after, they got into the water system and bred with the native varieties. The local variety had never been a problem, but now, farmers throughout Thailand cursed the hybrid version due to the decimation of young rice plants. He told me that many farmers use chemicals to kill the pests. I asked about the use of organic methods to remove the snails, and he told me that some farmers bring ducks to the fields before they plant and the ducks eat the smaller ones. Then, the farmer can easily pick out the bigger, more visible ones. Some farmers also collect the snails and grind them up into compost, which he told me was very nutrient rich. But, here at Slow Wind, they do something different. They live by the Buddha here so they treat the snail with admiration and value its life as part of the ecosystem for better or for worse. I watched as they spent hours, morning and night, combing the patties for these creatures. They collected them in buckets, only to walk down the road and gently pour them back into the water stream. I smiled, for the snails would surely be back. Here, however, that didn’t matter.
I walked around the farm taking pictures and one of the female Buddhists at the retreat center came to talk with me. She spoke wonderful English and asked me what I was doing here. She said they don’t have many foreign visitors, but people come here to retreat. They learn Buddhism and meditate. They also learn about the myriad of medicinal plants that are grown here. She explained that the family eats two only meals a day, so if I was ever hungry, to help myself. I asked her if she would translate for me so I could talk with Nang.
The next day, I had the pleasure of speaking with Aek’s mother, Nang. She explained the family’s history again and told me all about organics in Thailand. Since joining in 1999, she has now become the head of the Northern Organic Standard Association, which currently has over 20 member farms in the Chiang Mai region. She told me that only 0.2% of Thailand’s population currently knows and understands the dangers of chemical use. The foreign companies have inundated the radio stations, television, and newspapers with advertisements. According to Nang, they have manipulated governments to promote their poison, and now the soil fertility is decreased, the seed varieties have been lost, the farmers are broke, and the pests are everywhere. I admired her presence. She commanded respect and was definitely the matriarch of this farm. She spoke kindly and softly, “If we grow for the market, we need good yield and appearance to survive. This is why Thai farmers use so many chemicals. When you grow for yourself, you don’t need to use chemicals. If we use organic methods, we become friends with the environment and can survive together.”
Nang spoke with such poise, and I struggled to write down her comments while still observing her mannerisms and taking in her presence. She was a natural leader, and I could tell from her eyes and the roughness of her skin that she is an experienced one. “We grow the plants we eat! If we have trouble, we use Buddha. He teaches us to focus on the cause of the problem and not the problem itself.” I asked about organics here and why more farmers do not try it. Inquiring, “Do they sell for higher prices at the market? “ She replied, “The community here is not very supportive, but the NGO’s are. They help to teach farmers to grow organically, but they can’t compete with the advertising power of the chemical companies. Now the farmers have too much debt to try organics. They are scared and worried about low yields.” In regards to the market price for organics, she told me, “If you sell direct, the price is not higher. Here at our local markets you don’t need labels because the locals know who grows organic and who doesn’t. But if you sell in the cities, you need labels. If you go through a merchant, the price is higher than conventional crops.” She explained that many merchants are helping the farmers by providing some capital early to help with start-up costs. Then, the organic growers have a guaranteed buyer and don’t half to work with marketing. “We will show others that growing organic makes you happy. Money doesn’t.”
As I left the farm, I thought to myself how strong the familial and spiritual bond is here at Slow Wind Farm; how inspiring it was to experience a family living together harmoniously with nature; how the respect ran so deep throughout the farm. Slow Wind is indeed a picture perfect image of a small family farm, and it finally made sense to me why Eastern farming is so intertwined with spirituality. In fact, if I learned anything from my brief time at Slow Wind, it’s that the act of farming itself is spiritual. Tired of being disconnected from their food source, the farmer grows his or her own food, in touch with the earth by running fingers through the soil. This enables us to establish a connection with not only our food source, but also with nature and the elements. In this way, farming becomes more than a practice. It becomes a way of life, and a philosophy. It is obvious how the transcendental experience of farming appeals to such believers around the world. I smiled as I remembered something one of the family members told me as we ate together, “Slow food, Slow Life.”