Monday, March 9, 2009

Organic Agriculture Part 1: Mae Taa

For two days and nights I lived in the farming community of Mae Taa, where 15 years ago a group of villagers switched from mono-cropping baby corn to growing a diverse array of organic vegetables and fruits. Their wares are sold mostly to upper- and middle-class professionals and academics at an organic market in Chiang Mai. Despite the Hi-So (Thai slang for high society) clientele, the prices are comparable to other markets around town.

On the first night we were introduced to mah-lawd, a small red fruit that looks a lot like a cherry tomato, but in addition to the bright red color is covered in little golden bubbles that make the fruit look gilded and quite royal. The initial sour taste makes one's taste buds shrivel, but the sweet aftertaste is worth the pain. The trick is to roll the fruit between your thumb and forefinger for a few seconds before eating to ease some of the sour taste.

At 6 a.m. on the first morning I crawled out from under the bright pink mosquito net encasing my bed and sat down at the dining table, which was made of teak and shellacked to a shine. A whiff of morning smell gave me flashbacks to the Heifer Ranch-- a mixture of fire, manure, boiling vegetables, and dishes from the Global Village that are washed but never seem to be clean. It was a comforting smell of the grit of farm life and made me feel at home. Looking around I realized that this family had incorporated a ton of outdoor space as primary living space in a way that isn't possible in the U.S. because of the cold weather. Sitting at the table in the open-air space on the first floor of the house I could hear chickens twittering away, a rooster, and some pigs. Later in the day I knew I would hear cicadas-- but a species I'm not familiar with that sounds like a car with squeaky brakes or a power saw.

After a breakfast of cucumber and egg fried rice, we met up with our host mom's sister to hike about 3 km to their garden plot. The two sisters live next door in almost identical houses and farm adjacent plots in the valley. The landscape was ever-changing as we made our way past fields, through forests, and into the valley. We turned immediately off of the main road onto a dirt track between fields and grazing cattle. The scene changed as we rounded a hill and came upon a teak plantation. Our host mom said the wood is used to build houses for members of the local community. We then entered a dry, leafless, burned-over forest that seemed lifeless in every way-- not a single shrub or weed poked up anywhere. We trudged up and down along the dusty path and rounded another hill to find a green valley stretched below us, ringed with low mountains colored grey by the haze. I imagined that the same valley would be breathtakingly beautiful after the rains. It was still beautiful as we looked down, just a bit dusty and parched.

We stopped during our descent into the valley in a fruit grove to taste mulberries, guavas, bananas, and the gilded little red fruits I talked about earlier. The guava was small, but the best I have ever tasted! The bitter/herby flavor hadn't taken over like the guavas I have eaten in Chiang Mai. It was just the right mixture of sweet and flavorful. And the crunch factor was ideal.

After slurping down the fruit we made our way down to the vegetable garden, tucked into an intimate little valley between the hillside and a river. We immediately sat down on one of the raised bamboo platforms for another snack. Our host mom pulled out a small, yellow fruit about the size of duck egg. I had never eaten passion fruit before, but the minute the tangy flavor hit my tongue I was in love. Emilie said she had passion fruit in Belize, but this one was far tastier. I should devote an entire blog post to all of the delicious fruits I've had in this country!

We prepared beds for planting pag bung (morning glory) seeds. We mixed organic fertilizer in with the soil using hoes made of bamboo, planted the seeds in narrow rows, covered them over with more composted soil, then watered well. We also weeded malee (mint), which was a really pleasant job because the scent permeated the air around us. Three people came to ask our host mom some questions and they recorded the answers on a clipboard. I asked one of the girls where she was from and I think she said something like, "another garden over there" in Thai. They looked like University students working on a project, but they also might have been inspecting for organic certification, or maybe they were just fellow farmers sharing some information. Not sure.

The language barrier was a huge impediment to my education at Mae Taa. I do feel like I experienced something important, but organic agriculture is something I have also experienced elsewhere. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the techniques they use, the ways in which the co-op supports the individual farmers, etc... but instead I was stuck simply being a part of the lifestyle for a day. The trip was too short and the language barrier too wide to learn anything particularly deep. There are still so many questions running through my head.

Lunch was papaya salad , leftover morning glory leaves/pork from dinner, pork skins, bamboo shoots, hard boiled eggs, fried rice, sticky rice, fruit, and ka-nom (Thai sweets). I enjoyed every bite, especially since we rolled up balls of sticky rice and ate with our hands in the traditional way. Once the bowls were cleared away, everyone stretched out on the wood plank floor to nap. I sat leaning against a beam of the raised bamboo hut and looked out over the valley, enjoying the quiet and writing in my journal. In front of me were rows of lettuce, parsley, and greens shaded by black plastic mesh stretched over bamboo trellises. Most of the tenderest crops were under the mesh-- maybe the sun would be too intense otherwise? Near the edge of the trellises a herd of cattle were grazing. The head cow wore a bell that sounded a dull tinkle as she nosed through the chaff for edible tidbits. The shepherd and his wife were nearby, armed with slingshots. They both had deadly aim to ensure that the cows didn't get into the crops nearby. There are no fences. Every once in a while a cow would low, or a shepherd would yell somewhere down the valley. The cicadas kicked up from time to time, then their buzz-saw drones faded away on the breeze.

After the brief siesta, we transplanted celery and tomatoes. Then, another snack of tamarind and raw peanuts and we headed home over the hill and down past the teak plantation. This time the wasteland forest gave me a weirder feeling than during our morning trek. In my experience, when the trees lose their leaves the weather is cold rather than at 80-90 degree temperatures. It reminded me of an exhibit at Epcot where you hold a cold bar with your left hand and a hot bar with your right hand and your brain is completely thrown off. I found myself wishing there was an equivalent of "The Watershed" nearby in which to cool off before heading back for dinner.

Dinner that night was not so fun, as our host dad came home drunk and started asking uncomfortable questions and invited us to come drink whiskey with him. I was exhausted from the day in the garden and was trying hard to be riaproy, but it was difficult.

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