For many environmental farmers, the defining questions are: How do I incorporate my operation with the natural biological processes of the environment? How do I achieve maximum productivity without jeopardizing these natural systems? For many, these are the biggest challenges to creating a sustainable agrarian system. But in Northern Thailand, one farmer has a solution. Sandot has created a thriving agrarian and forest system that use the natural ecosystem services to balance productivity and sustainability. Many permaculture systems around the world work together with nature to create a harmonious connection while mimicking natural systems. The goal is to create a complex perennial polyculture that is rich in biodiversity as well as productivity.
The story goes that about 150 yrs ago there was once a poor Thai Farmer south of Chiang Mai who every year paid his taxes with a portion of his crop. This was accepted and appreciated until one year his crops would not cover his taxes and they wanted money instead. Unable to pay, the farmer moved his family up into the mountains of what is now Pai. He settled his family and began to farm some land that was seemingly uninhabited. He first planted rice and then moved on to other crops. He was eventually discovered by the local Hill tribe, the Shan, who questioned him on his land acquisition. After much discussion, they settled on a price and the land was properly sold to the farmer for one machete and one roll of tobacco leaves. The farmer and his family have lived peacefully in Pai ever since.
Now his grandson, Sandot manages the farm, called Tacome Pai, and has transitioned it back to a traditional organic farm. He believes heavily in restoring the forest and creating a thriving ecosystem. “It is the forest that provides most of our food and materials. I can live without vegetables; I can’t live without the forest.” Many forest ecosystems can provide tremendous amounts of raw materials. For Sandot, the forest provides food, shelter, water, medicine, firewood, taro and much more. The stability of Sandot’s agricultural system is founded in its diversity.
So where does one draw the line between farm and forest? For Sandot, there is no line. The forest and cultivated crops live together; symbiotically they thrive to provide for Sandot’s family and guests year round. He utilizes natural biological systems to maximize output while minimizing inputs and labor. Moreover, in a forest-based system, there is no waste, as the output of one system is recycled as an input for another.
Tacome Pai wasn’t always organic. When Sandot took over the farm from his father, the soil was depleted, the water sources were in short supply, and the forests were reduced to almost nothing. Sandot turned the operation into a conventional mango farm. His system was dependent on chemical inputs and lacked diversity. After only two years in this monoculture, Sandot learned that he did not like the chemical inputs. “They made me feel bad and dirty. I wanted to build a house here and raise a family, so I stopped.” Sandot decided that he was tired of relying on expensive chemicals and limiting his harvesting to a few times a year.
From then on, the farm has been organic. Sandot has strived to create a system that works with nature and provides a permanent model of agriculture. “I plant many things in the forest. I find a place where there is space and I plant there. We do not cut forest here. Together plants and forest thrive and live together.” This system has proven to be very successful for Sandot. His forest has grown back tremendously and his water sources are now abundant. At first, Sandot’s family was skeptical and disapproved of his transition. But now, harvesting year-around, his family is reaping the benefits of the transition.
In addition, Sandot has built an entire community of bungalows from harvested forest materials. All of the plates, cups, and utensils are made from bamboo. At Tacome Pai, the forest is the main provider, and almost everything is built from some type of bamboo product. Mixed with the forest, the fruit trees co-exist. He grows many things: mangos, tamarind, lemons, starfruit, banana, coconut, guava, pomelo, orange, longan, mangosteen, neem, avocados, passionfruit, and much more. He also grows crops such as rice, cotton, coffee, sesame and many vegetables and medicinal crops. The crops that require labor are strategically planted alongside the walking paths for easy maintenance and harvesting. During the dry season, he fills glass jars with water and flips them upside down along the paths; a technique he claims provides ample water for one week.
There are many benefits to his forest system. The trees have helped restore the soil fertility by increasing water holding capacity and protecting from erosion. Their shedding adds carbon and encourages decomposition to create humus. After six years of incorporating his forest system, Sandot watched his springs return and now sustains six ponds lasting all year round. Sandot also has no waste. All products get returned back to the soil in some way or another. The forest based agrarian system requires little labor. Two people are able to tend the land while still maintaining ample free time. Planting and harvesting rice is labor intensive, but with the help of family and neighbors it is completed rather quickly.
People come from all over the world to learn from Sandot’s systems. They learn how to plant vegetables in the forest, how to build huts, how to weave baskets, and make their own eating utensils. “I want to teach local people, but they are not interested in the same thing. They do not care about loving the forest and protecting the environment. The traditional way has been lost here.” Sandot plants gardens at schools and tries to teach the students, but even the teachers themselves are not interested. Still, every time a student shows up, he or she is eager to learn. “I want to teach how to permaculture, how to natural farm.”
Another project that Sandot has been very active in is building dams along the forest river so the villagers can have water access throughout the dry season. Many of his projects not only support the local hill tribes but benefit the forest as well. “If they would only stop burning down our forests”, Sandot proclaims. “I want them to learn to make compost from the garbage you have and to not use plastics and weave baskets from bamboo. Bamboo can provide many things for the people, but the destruction of our forests limits its growth. They need to learn to natural farm and to plant together with nature and then take care of the forest.” He spoke emotionally, “I want local people to help take care of forest. Build small dams. Trees will then grow and animals and forest can then survive. Please don’t burn the forest!” Sandot claims, “If they only understood the water cycle, cutting trees will make the water stop.” He makes ponds from earthen dams. Earth dams help to stop water to create ponds that help trees grow and return the water to the land. “I can then survive sustainably from forest and vegetables.”
There were many things that inspired Sandot to farm this way, besides his distaste for monocultures and their chemical dependencies. One thing that influenced his decision were his travels in Saudi Arabia. There, Sandot saw people influenced by money and realized that money does not make happiness. “We have everything to survive. Why sell rice field and forest to make factory? Money does not make people happy, but self sufficiency and simple life does.” Another thing Sandot saw during his travels was the depletion of key water sources. When he was young, every place has creeks as a water source. “When company cut tree the water disappeared. Here, if you have water you can survive.”
Sandot cultivates many things at Tacome Pai, but his greatest achievement is happiness. Every day, he welcomes his guests with open arms, teaching them whatever they want to learn. He sings songs and laughs all day long. Somehow he remembers everyone’s name and treats them as if they are life-long friends. Staying at TacomePai, I was amazed to see what a positive influence Sandot had on his visitors. His positive energy is infectious, and he is admired not only for his production systems, but his passion for life as well. His character perfectly matches his farming mantra, “When it grows in their minds, they will then grow it in the ground”.
As of Sandot’s request, I will end this article with his proclamation: “Let the trees come to cover the world. Let’s together help to protect the world!”