Food is my obsession. I don’t just mean from the moment it hits my plate; my interest is in everything from the soil and the growing to sustainability.
Yet I’ve always suffered from a case of consumer guilt when it came to food. I’ve never eaten anything that I’ve grown myself or hunted my own food. Whenever I’ve discussed the ethics of certain farming practices I could hardly justify my criticism, being far removed from the process that keeps me alive. So when a friend of mine, Steve, left the big city with his girlfriend, Hazuki, and went to Northern Thailand to study permaculture, I was very interested to find out more. Two flights and a winding bus ride later took me to beautiful Pai.
Permaculture, short for ‘permanent culture’, is an agricultural practice where one tries to design a farming system that mimics systems found in nature. Permaculturalists oppose many modern agricultural practices including monocropping (planting fields of just one crop, every year), chemical pesticides, field burning and GMO’s (genetically modified organisms). While modern permaculture has its roots in the 60’s and 70’s, methods of sustainable agriculture have been practiced by hill tribe people for centuries, which makes Northern Thailand a popular choice for many foreigners who want to learn more about living in sync with the elements.
Several options are available for travelers who wish to learn about sustainable agriculture. Steve and Hazuki had taken the DIY approach. I met them on their land a fifteen-minute drive outside of Pai. Expecting to see something that resembled my notions of what a farm is, such as open fields of rice, gardens, chickens, I instead drove into a thick forest with a couple of wooden huts, without electricity or running water. This was Steve’s new home. The 5 rai (one rai of land is 40m x 40m) of land was situated on a hill, at the top of which was an irrigation pond that pumped water from the Pai River just below. The land was terraced in parts, but nothing was growing on the terraces yet.
My friends had only been there for three weeks so far, just long enough to harvest the coffee trees that grew on the land and to start a small nursery for a garden they wanted to plant. Living on the land with them were three other volunteers, Seb, Austin and Jenna. Seb is a former Muay Thai boxing champion from France who had now been on the land for two years and spoke fluent Thai. Austin and Jenna are two travelers who were only there to stay for two weeks. They found out about the place on Help Exchange, a free website that connects hosts and helpers for home stay and work-for-food opportunities around the globe. The owner of the land lived in Chiang Mai, let them stay for free, and do as much or as little as they wanted with the land. They could keep whatever they grew except for the coffee, which he kept for himself and his family.
“This place is a place for self learning and self experimentation,” Steve told me when I asked whether he was receiving any instruction. Armed only with a few books on permaculture and his girlfriend’s farming experience, Steve is comfortable with taking it slow and having fun. I asked him how long they would stay on the land. He shrugged and replied, “As long as my savings last and I’m happy.” Money will be an issue, despite having a free place to live. The land isn’t self-sustaining yet so they still have to go into town once a week to buy food. Then there is also the monthly visa run to Laos that will take the largest toll on their savings. Still, Steve figures they can get away with at least a year of natural living, so long as they are having a good time about it.
I wanted to check out other home stay options for nature-loving would-be farmers, so I paid a visit to a place called Tacomepai, just ten minutes south of Pai. Following the wooden signs, I parked by a small pigpen where two little blackies greeted me with their snorts and squeals. They seemed to be the only ones around. I went to the first hut I saw and found what looked to be a classroom. The desks were wooden swings and the teacher’s chair was a hammock. On the wall was a map of the land and I could see that I was looking at something bigger than Steve’s farm. Bigger and more developed, with many fruit trees, rice fields and fifteen huts with electricity and running water. To stay here it costs only 100 Baht (approx. 3 dollars) and you get free meals if you help out and work on the farm.
After some walking around I finally found the owner, Sandot, a middle-aged Thailand native. The land had been in his family for generations but when he inherited it twenty years earlier it was nothing but sand and rock. The first thing he did to revive it was to plant mango trees. Trees are excellent for holding in moisture, as the shade and the mulch offered by the leaves help keep the water in the soil. Now the soil is much healthier on his 50 rai of land and he grows bananas, papaya, tamarind, oranges, pomelo, rice, and has about 1200 mango trees and 3000 coffee trees. Apart from the rice field, there was no visible structure to how and where Sandot planted his trees.
“One garden where there is moisture and sun, I plant,” he told me. I asked him how he deals with insects and he replied that he doesn’t, “They eat, I eat. I don’t make a garden, I plant there, plant there,” he points randomly into the woods, “[the insects are] confused, they come to look, ‘where’s the plants?’ Then go away. The insects don’t know where [the vegetables are] because always I’m moving.”