Jason’s Global Organic Odyssey: Living and learning one farm at a time
Our intrepid world travelers make their way to eastern Thailand and Jon Jandai -- farmer, builder and man of leisure

By Jason Witmer

Farm at a Glance
Location: Ban Sri Than is 20 km from Yasothon, a small city in Thailand, about 100 km NW (I think) from Ubon Ratchatani, one of the larger cities in Thailand. It is relatively close to the border with southern Laos.
Farm Type: Organic
Size: 8 acre
What is grown: A variety of crops and a fish pond for personal consumption. Rice for export.

Jon Jandai: `The most difficult thing in building an earthen home ... is to change one's attitudes.' Picture by SOMPHONG PLAIPHONGSA, courtesy of the Bangkok Post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor's Note:
Jason Witmer left the U.S., January 8, 2003, on a six-month-long odyssey, visiting farms across Asia and Europe.

Read how the adventure began:
Jason's Organic Odyssey: An introduction

Beginnings

He organized this trip with the help of World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

Coming Next Week: Laos

Next week: Meet Thanongsi Solangkoun, a truly regenerative agriculture hero “among the jagged green mountains of northern Laos.” Learn how this former government employee, rejecting the ill-effects of tractors and synthetic fertilizers, has turned deforested wasteland into a bio-diverse, multi-enterprise farm that provides opportunities for an entire community. (Photo by Jason Witmer)

 

 

Resourses:

WWOOF connects volunteers with organic farmers around the world. Check out their website from more information on what they are doing and how you can get involved.
www.wwoof.org

Click below to read the Bangkok Post's profile on Jon Jandai:
"Return of Prodigal Son"

Green Net is a Thai organization that helps organic farmers find a market for their produce. Read more about their mission and efforts:
Green Net


 

Building a new future: Inside one of the mudbrick houses Jon built in Yasothon province. Picture courtesy of `SARAKADEE' MAGAZINE through the Bangkok Post.
February 28, 2003, BAN SRI THAN, Thailand: After an eleven-hour third-class train ride through the night, a three hour bus ride, and a ride in a pick-up truck from a couple of locals, Derek and I found our way to the small village of Ban Sri Than in eastern Thailand.

Our tourist guidebook had given little attention to the town and we now saw why. It seemed little more than a collection of tin-roofed houses clustered among bony cattle and gridded rice paddies.

To our surprise, two earth-covered Americans greeted us as we stumbled up the dirt road to the farm just outside of town, which we had learned about through WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, at www.wwoof.org). Standing in the shade of a mango tree, overstuffed backpacks slung over our shoulders, we were soon introduced to a string of others caked in mud. One of these was a thin Thai man in his 30's, dressed in flowing slacks, with smiling brown eyes and a dark-skinned, pleasantly handsome face.

"Hi, I am Jon," he said simply. "Welcome."

This was Jon (pronounced Joan) Jandai, the owner of the 8-acre organic farm and the host of a week-long adobe building workshop that had drawn over 30 western and Thai apprentices. Derek and I joined this workshop and quickly learned much about the methods and benefits of adobe building. But as the days passed, we began to realize that we were learning the most simply by watching and listening to Jon Jandai.

He was always barefoot, always smiling, and was almost reckless with the way he experimented to find easier methods of building.

"The roof will hold, no problem," he told us, even though he was using half the amount of recommended clay. It held, but took too long. The next day he told me, "I decided I don't like clay floors. Too much work. Maybe I'll use bamboo instead." As Jon saw it, there was always room for improvement.

"Laziness is the true way to be an environmentalist, to live sustainably." - Jon Jandai, organic farmer and adobe housing innovator, Thailand

"People call me a crazy man because everything I do is not usual," he told me with a grin. "But why do what it says in the book? That way has already been tried."

One of the first to use alternative building methods in Thailand, Jon has hosted numerous alternative building workshops around the country and is continually experimenting to find better and easier ways to build. Additionally, he uses absolutely no chemical fertilizers or pesticides on his farm, and is the chair of the Ban Sri Than group of organic farmers. Recently, he was even featured in the Bangkok Post.

A hunger for independence

Jon's unconventional choices are a result of his philosophy on the best way to live. "It isn't necessarily natural building that I'm interested in," he said. "It's self-reliance, and shelter is one of our four basic needs. If we cannot rely on ourselves, we have no freedom. I like to be free."

Jon's interest in self-reliance runs deep and stems largely from past experiences.

When he was 15 years old, Jon left the family farm. Like many others, he was lured away by promises of a richer life. "I'd watched too many movies that showed nice houses, cars, the sea - and my biggest wish back then was to be able to lead a life of luxury."

Having little money, Jon joined the monkhood so that he could continue his studies. Three years later, he left and began taking classes in a law school in Bangkok. Because he had little money, however, he spent most of his time working at odd jobs in restaurants and hotels, rather than studying.

“There was no life for me there," he said. "I felt like a robot. I had to work all the time and had no time to enjoy the beauty of life." After seven years, Jon chose to return to the farm and the way of life that he had left.

But he decision wasn't easy. "A lot of people teased me and looked down on me because I had spent a long time in Bangkok and didn't have a good job," he said.

On top of that, he was deciding to give up on even trying to attain a high paying job. "I chose to come back and not have an income for myself," he said. "Many people want more money."

Jon continued to make unconventional choices while back at the farm. He began experimenting with alternative building methods so that he wouldn't have to pay others for labor and materials. Adobe is the cheapest and easiest that he has found so far.

Additionally, instead of buying chemical fertilizers, he uses manure and compost, although he asserts that often using less fertilizer will make stronger plants. He also uses a fermented mixture of plants and "anything sweet." This adds nutrients to the soil, as well as keeping pests away. Jon explained that this recipe was first sold to Thai farmers by a company. Farmers such as Jon have now learned the secret, however, and are able to use fermentation for free. Jon also uses native strains of crops and saves the seeds each year so that he doesn't have to buy them.

"People call me a crazy man because everything I do is not usual--But why do what it says in the book? That way has already been tried."

By using these methods, Jon is able to manage his farm without investing a large amount of capital. He keeps a year-round garden and fishpond to feed he and his 5-member family, and grows rice from June to October, during the rainy season.

"It's easier to be organic," he explained. "With conventional farming you make a lot of money, but you also have a lot of expense." Jon manages to pay almost nothing, while making 30,000 baht a year, mostly by exporting rice to Europe through a set up called Green Net. This is less than $1,000 U.S. but it is plenty for a family living in Thailand where the price of living is extremely low. Besides, they are only working half the year.

Training your mind to say “enough”

“With organic farming, you don't make a lot of money all at once," Jon said. "But you have enough to live on. Most people just compete, try to make money. When you are more lazy and aren't working all the time you can see beauty - the butterfly, the sunset - these things are very beautiful. I think humans are the stupidest animals-- none of the others work 8 hours a day. I just want to tell everyone that they don’t have to work so hard -- they can be more lazy. Laziness is the true way to be an environmentalist, to live sustainably."

By laziness, Jon isn't talking about doing nothing. He simply realizes that he doesn't need a lot of money to be happy and so only works for what he needs.

Jon believes that this mindset is the most important step. "You have to train your mind to say 'enough'," he said. "If we don't have this attitude we can't do this thing."

Jon explained that he has to make a conscious effort to ignore advertisements and education that would lead him away from self-reliance. There are many voices promoting the use of expensive chemicals and non-traditional ways of farming. "Many advertisements tell us we should produce milk, drink milk," he said. "But we have never done that here. It isn't good advice to completely change our lifestyle."

"Conventional farming is stuck. People are slaves on the land - they work very hard and have nothing, only debt. When people suffer they have to think about solutions. Organic farming is the solution now."

An increasing number of Thai farmers are beginning to agree with Jon's struggle for self-reliance. Although organic farming is still in the minority in Thailand, an economic collapse 6 years ago caused many to seek alternative ways of subsisting. A Buddhist community movement called "Asok" even adopted organic agriculture as its main source of income and self-reliance as one of its primary goals.

"Conventional farming is stuck," said Jon. "People are slaves on the land - they work very hard and have nothing, only debt. When people suffer they have to think about solutions. Organic farming is the solution now."

As Jon strolls along the dirt paths of his family farm, assembles the bamboo roof of an adobe building, smiles and chats over a bowl of rice, it is easy to see that is has been a solution for him.

Needless to say, Derek and I left the Jandai farm very much inspired. We head for Laos next, following rumors of an organic mulberry farm outside of the tourist town of Vang Vien.