After blindly venturing out into Thailand’s countryside, I stumbled upon an ecological treasure. In the Northern Mountains of Thailand about 60 kilometers north of Chiang Mai city is a small farm called Pun Pun. Despite its remote location, over 3,000 people come annually to learn the unique trade of restoring soil and growing produce organically. Yet, for the few who trust the path, they arrive to find incredible beauty and enchantment. Pun Pun is more than a farm.To many it’s a home.
Pun Pun was founded by Jo Jandai and Peggy Reents. Together, they have been farming the land for eight years. Though the soil now looks lush and fertile, cultivating the land was once quite the struggle. In fact, not much grew when they originally purchased the property. The land had been sold to them after years of mono-cropped corn propagation, which greatly damaged the soil’s fecundity. (Continuous industrial corn production damages soil’s nutritious abilities). That being said, how was Jo then able to restore this land to be viable for vegetable production? How was he able to create working soil that can in the future support several families and visitors year after year? The westerner’s plan would be to plant legume, build soil, fixate nitrogen, and then plant crops. But, if Jo planted legumes on this depleted soil, they would die. Other westerners would suggest cover crops. To which Jo would respond, “we have no time for cover crops, and they can’t compete with the grass that grows all the time.”
The challenge, then, is how to create working soil from soil that won’t even produce legumes. According to Jo, there is a successful system for growth when faced with this problem. However, he added a caveat: “For anything natural, there is no formula. If you try to make a formula for nature, you will fail. The techniques from my home didn’t work here and the techniques here don’t work at home.” With that said, the system that Jo created is unique and site-specific; yet still may be beneficial to others farmers who find themselves in a similar quandary.
For Jo, the answer was in the one crop that would grow, grass. In fact, no matter how much Jo would cut the grass, it continued to grow back, and faster. The Thai people call this grass “communist grass”, because it grows everywhere. So Jo decided to use this grass rather than fight it. “Anything that would grow, we will use. Grass is not a problem; it decomposes easily. So, we composted grass and made mulch.” The cut grass would then decompose and add to soil content, with the guiding objective being to “not let the soil touch the sun”.
After this initial process of creating mulch, Jo and Peggy planted Banana trees in rows. These trees not only helped stop erosion, but also helped the soil to retain moisture content for bed development. The main goal was not fruit trees, but vegetable production. Yet, the banana trees offered many benefits on top of erosion control and their leaves were also used for mulch. Fruit trees that would not survive alone were able to get their start from the shade, moisture, and mulch that the banana trees planted nearby provided. The leaves and cut up stalk also proved useful for organic matter in making compost. Since Jo could not afford to mulch with rice straw, this was the best option. However, after two years, the banana trees were only two feet tall with few leaves.
Nevertheless, Peggy and Jo’s patience paid off, as they were able to grow more and more as seasons passed. After a few years, they were able to grow a crop they called lucaina and indigo for green manures; which is the act of tilling a plant into the soil to return its biomass and nutrients back into the land. Pun Pun used whatever was available to rebuild its soil back to its working state. Without ever leaving the soil bare, they successfully re-established working soil. In fact, Jo mulched with whatever he could get his hands on.
Even surrounded by green forests, Jo reports that it is very hard to get mulch here. Consequently, they use whatever they can–grass, indigo, lucaina, banana leaves, Pheasant wood tree leaves, rice straw and whatever else is available. They even collect urine and humanure from the visitors and use it to mulch the fruit trees. Jo would love to use this and “night soil” for vegetable production as well, but says the thought of that is too scary to most Western visitors. The technique of incorporating “night soil” was commonly used throughout Asia for centuries, but ended within the last century. The waste was collected at night, mixed with water in buckets, and poured right over the plants. At Pun Pun they only use composted humanure with other organic material, laid to compost properly and rest for a period of time before used on fruit trees. It has proved to be one of the best composts they can produce.
After 3-4 years of patience and hard work, enough capital was raised to start using rice straw for mulch and incorporating animal dung into the soil. Both of these were inputs that raised cost, but came from nearby farms and supported the local economy. In fact, Jo jokes that animal dung is so profitable in this area. “Here in Thailand we have so many farmers, and because of so many, we compete all the time. There is never enough [manure] like there is in America, where it turns to garbage. Here, we have animal farmers and they don’t think about selling animals, just dung. All year long, profit from dung.”
So, after five years of diligence, the soil was producing ample amounts of crops and sustaining large amounts of visitors to the farm every year. Still, even with nine acres in production, Pun Pun brings in relatively small amounts of input—predominantly straw, dung, phosphate powder, and guano. Most additives come from the farm and are recycled back into the soil. “We don’t spend money, just time, and it works for us.”
This is what makes Pun Pun stand out from other farms, the fact that its farmers were able to create working soil to grow vegetables from abandoned land. This is the true beauty of Pun Pun, and Jo and Peggy have more than succeeded in this task. Today, the farm is home to many varieties of crops. Jo travels throughout Thailand to teach villagers of these farming techniques. He is a quiet and humble 47-year-old man who has the presence of a monk. He speaks softly, and everyone listens. He is living proof that organic is not only possible, but also viable. And there is no better place for it when, down the road, sits Monsanto corn testing land. Currently, almost all the food consumed here is produced on the farm or by neighboring farms.
As for chemicals, none are used. They don’t use conventional fertilizers and they have no need for pesticides. Jo alleges that, because they don’t add lots of nitrogen to soil, they don’t have problems with their plants. “We never really use pest control. When we use too much dung, a plant grows fast, but is weak and attracts pests. So, we let the plant go and they control themselves.” According to Jo, “it is not easy to work with villagers because they grow up with chemicals and they use them a lot. It’s all they know. They don’t know organic can be possible.” Still, many Thai farmers visit Jo’s farm everyday and attend the talks he provides. This is in part because more and more people are realizing that the cost of industrial agriculture is raising and they can’t afford to keep depending on costly inputs.
A recent study released by the National Statistics Office found that 80% of farmers in Thailand are in debt (2). Farming in Thailand is the common choice for self-employment. Yet, most farmers are left to not only propagate and harvest their crops, but also to market it themselves. This heavy demand, mixed with a rising production cost of around 50-60% in the last few years alone, has caused farmers to seek out new methods of farming. Though this transition to organic in the east has different implications than in the West, Jo states “in the West, organic means production. In the east, it means returning to subsistence agriculture and growing for yourself. This is scary for many villagers. To be organic, you need to change your mind, change your life, and then, change farm. This is not easy for many villagers.” Nonetheless, the Organic movement in Thailand is growing, with about 60 percent of the total population still in agriculture many are resorting back to traditional techniques and styles(1).
Another fundamental aspect of Pun Pun’s agricultural system is seed saving. The farm is home to many varieties of crops that Jo and Peggy believe are integral to self-sufficiency. According to Jo and Peggy, it is critical that farmers not only grow a diverse selection of crops, but that they also maintain an indigenous variety of seeds for future generations and neighboring farms. Currently, the farm hosts over 100 varieties of tomatoes, and several additional varieties of beans, cucumbers, lettuce, eggplant, chili, mustard greens, basil, mint and many more. They save some fruit seeds as well, but not nearly as many as they do vegetables: about 6 varieties of bananas, 7 varieties of mangos, 2 varieties of passion fruit and about 6 or 7 varieties of avocado. Saving seed is more than an agricultural act; for Jo, it is a philosophy. He believes that, through saving seeds, we are saving life as well. “I save seed for local people like they used to do in past. The Idea is to grow every year or every other year, and save every year. That means saving our life. We plant to survive and to give them to people. Now, the people that want to be happy can have seed. Now, they have choice again.” Due to lack of infrastructure and ability to maintain cool temperatures for a long time, the seeds they save need to be used every few years to create more.
Jo and Peggy recognize that seed is the beginning of life for both plants and human beings. Yet, a few companies have been trying to control and patent seeds, and their impact has reached worldwide. They have created hybridized seeds that are selected for the market and not for taste or nutrition. Instead, packing ability, yield, and seed appearance are given precedence by the agricultural market. Because of these practices, many seed varieties have already been lost.
Pun Pun empowers not only themselves and their neighbors, but also the many thousand who visit from all over the world each year. There is much to be said about creating something out of nothing, and there is much is to be said for Pun Pun’s farmers, Jo and Peggy. I, for one, feel lucky to bear witness to their amazing accomplishments. Their work stands tall and speaks loudly, though it is ironic that they stand out for practices that should be upheld on every farm. While we continue to grow dependent on an industrial sector and to apply formulas as if they are a universal anecdote, Jo and Peggy have done something different, something that’s worth learning from. As Peggy and Joe say “we don’t believe in experts, but in learning together.”
Get to know Jo and Peggy and learn from Pun Pun at www.punpunthailand.org !
Essay by: Loren Cardeli