at a Glance
Van Vieng is a small tourist town about 70km north
of Phon Hong and 160km north of Vientiane nestled
in a bend in the Nam Song river.
2 hectares (approximately 5 acres)
is grown: Silkworms, mulberries,
A fair exchange:
Jason (right) and Derek (left), like the rest
of the falang that visit the farm, work for their
Posted March 6, 2003, VANG VIENG, LAOS: Nestled among
the jagged green mountains of northern Laos, two miles outside
of the small tourist-town of Vang Vieng, Phoudinaeg Organic
Farm stretches along the banks of the rippling Nam Song River.
Mulberry and banana trees line dirt paths, chickens and turkeys
scamper freely and gardens sprawl everywhere. Numerous Laotian
workers bustle in the kitchen, in gardens or with hammers adding
a bamboo awning to the idyllic organic restaurant.
Here in front of the restaurant, 59 year-old Thanongsi Solangkoun,
a small soft-spoken man in sandals and a ball cap, inspects
the work of the carpenters and chats with customers. Known to
Western tourists as "Mr. T," Thanongsi appears as
though he has played the role of successful business owner his
Although his is largely a story of success, it hasn't always
been that way. Thonongsi's farm is actually somewhat of an experiment
and, like Jon Jandai
in Thailand, his pursuits have often earned him the label
of "crazy man.” Eight years ago there was no farm
here—only a deforested wasteland—and Thanongsi was
working for the government in the capital city of Vientiane.
A nation under-cut
nation, Laos is dominated by mountains, forests and subsistence
agriculture. With only four percent arable land and eighty
percent of the population making their living as farmers,
deforestation has become a major problem. In the 1950s, forests
covered 70 percent of the land area. By 1992, according to
government estimates, forest coverage had decreased by nearly
one-third, to just 47 percent of total land area.
A growing population has put increasing pressure on natural
resources. Traditionally, Laotian farmers let fields lie fallow
for 15 years in between plantings. But because there are more
people to feed, and more things to buy, many farmers have decreased
this to 2-3 years. This quickly depletes the soil, and farmers
have been forced to clear more land.
"I realized that poor farmers
were becoming poorer and poorer. Before, they depended
on the forest, but now there are less forests and in
the rivers no fish." - Thanongsi Solangkoun, organic
farmer and visionary on the current state of agriculture
To stop what amounted to "slash and burn" agriculture,
and to increase economic gains, the government began promoting
the use of modern agricultural technology. Working with the
department of forestry, Thanongsi began to see the need for
an alternative method of farming in Laos. "I realized that
poor farmers were becoming poorer and poorer," he said.
"Before, they depended on the forest, but now there are
less forests and in the rivers no fish."
For five years Thanongsi worked with the government, supporting
farmers to buy tractors and chemicals, and to grow cash crops
for an international market. Eventually, he became disillusioned.
"One tractor costs the same as 15-20 water buffalo,"
he said. "And now there is no cow manure because everyone
has a tractor." Manure was replaced with expensive chemicals,
and the majority that couldn't afford them were left out of
the market. Besides this, chemical fertilizers and pesticides
were often doing more harm than good. "I had the opportunity
to visit Thailand," Thanongsi said. "They had the
same problem as us—depleted soil and killed microorganisms."
Laotian farmers needed another option. Thanongsi saw the answer
in a system that, like the forests, was fast becoming obsolete.
He was determined to show that traditional methods of farming
could be both economically viable and environmentally sustainable.
Reclaiming the land
After several proposals to the government for pilot organic
projects were rejected, Thonongsi resigned from his position
of twenty years and started out on his own. Leaving a doubtful
wife and daughter behind in Vientiane, Thonongsi bought two
hectares of unwanted land and moved 100 miles (160km) north
in preparation for raising silkworms. Thus the experiment
began with only a handful of acres, a small hut and one assistant.
the best of it: Thanongsi, with what we
think are mulberry trees for silk, is working with
the land instead of fighting against it.
Having grown up on a small farm near Vang Vieng, supported
primarily by his mother and sister silk-weaving, Thanongsi
was familiar with the challenges of the mountainous terrain.
His first hurdle was rebuilding the soil. "Learning from
the forest, I improved the fertility of the soil by using
waste," he said. Thanongsi began by collecting cow manure
from the village, which he spread on his fields—an uncommon
practice in the area. "All the people in the village
said I was crazy," he said. "They smiled and said
(the manure) was dirty, but I didn't care."
Thanongsi planted mulberry trees as a long term crop to feed
the silkworms and short term crops such as banana, papayas,
and various other vegetables so that he could save time and
money by not always needing to go to the market. "At
first I had to go to the market every day," he said.
"But after a couple months I went only once a week."
To control pests, Thanongsi paid village children to bring
lizards and toads to eat insects. Mulching around the plants
gave them a place to hide and the compost and fermentation
mixture he learned to use didn't hurt them.
A particularly difficult challenge was maintaining a good relationship
with villagers, who often looked at him with raised eyebrows.
After several items were stolen from his farm and the local
free-ranging cattle had eaten one too many mulberry trees, he
began looking for a solution. Taking advice from his sister,
he used the little money he had to construct a new school in
the village. "I have a certificate of congratulations now
and nothing is stolen," he said. "Now I have good
relations with the village." Thonongsi has also planted
mulberry trees at the school. Children tend to these and earn
money from them by selling the leaves back to him.
||"When my daughter came to visit
me she saw me very changed— slim and unshaven —
she cried and said she would stay with me."
A new spin on success
After a year of preparation, Thanongsi built a silkworm house
with the help of sericulture specialists and began a small
silk production. It was at about this time that his daughter
made a trip from Vientiane to the farm for the first time.
"When my daughter came to visit me she saw me very changed—slim
and unshaven," he said. "She cried and said she
would stay with me. She was so surprised because I was living
so differently than in Vientiane." Appreciative of more
help, Thanongsi plunged ahead with his new and different lifestyle.
Dedicated to reviving silk weaving in the area, Thonongsi
began distributing half of the cocoons of raw silk spun by
his silk worms to local women, giving them a percentage of
whatever their woven silk brought at the market. He used the
rest of the raw silk to educate others and to experiment to
find better methods. "At first it wasn't great quality
or quantity," he said. "But we were happy we could
make it ourselves." Besides being profitable for Thanongsi,
this provided women with a way to earn an income while caring
An unlikely organic market
After several years, Thanongsi's efforts began to pay off
and his business began growing rapidly. Surprisingly, this
was due largely to Westerners or “falang,” as
they are known in Laos. In 1999 Thanongsi joined World-Wide
Opportunities on Organic Farms or WWOOF and began hosting
Westerners on his farm.
WWOOF is an international association dedicated to helping
volunteers connect with organic farmers. At one time he had
as many as 25 travelers helping in the kitchen, hoeing in
the fields, giving him ideas for his business and drawing
widespread attention. "Before, people weren't interested
in what I was doing; when I joined WWOOF even the government
started paying attention," he said. "Their main
question was why falang came to work on the farm - usually
they just stay in Vang Vieng. The farm became kind of famous.”
Although the government demanded that he run a guest house and
pay taxes to have falang stay on his farm, the attention was
good for business and Thanongsi benefited from the Western help.
Additionally, the transformation of the small village of Vang
Vieng into a tourist hangout provided a local market for organic
goods. Thanongsi capitalized on this by beginning organic restaurants
both in the village and on his farm. His gardens supplied the
restaurants with fresh organic food, and he began making everything
from pancakes to wine out of mulberries, touting their healthful
properties. Thanongsi also built a sun drier to dry bananas
and star fruit, and began using many of his mulberry leaves
to make tea.
wanted: This beautiful hand painted sign
welcomes visitors to Phoudindaeng farm.
But Thanongsi's success hasn't changed his original goals.
"My idea is not only to make money but I would like to
show the people that organic is better than chemicals—the
fields are green and the leaves are very clean," he said.
"Hopefully I can create something to compare for local
Thanongsi uses 20 percent of his income to educate people
about organic methods, distributing free mulberry sapling
to many local farmers and letting anyone who would like to
learn about his methods stay on his farm free of charge. He
estimates that he has hosted 25 people this month, including
government officials, small-time farmers, and NGO’s
(non-governmental organizations) holding seminars. Ultimately,
he hopes to create a self-sustained village and a sustainable
lifestyle that will live on after him. "I don't want
the farm to die," he said. "I want it to continue,
to develop, to belong to the village, to the community."
Indeed, the market for his products, especially mulberry leaves,
is far from tapped. "Yesterday a lady from Singapore
said she wanted to buy a ton of mulberry tea in one month.
I said maybe in two years. Maybe I can convince others to
raise them because she'll pay a lot of money." This tea
has also become popular with tourists and even government
officials, and is less labor intensive than silk production.
His wife, at last, has finally been convinced to try Thanongsi's
new way of life, and has moved to live with him on the farm.
"For five years I stayed here alone," he said, his
face breaking into a smile. "I finally convinced her
and now she works with weaving and forgets Vientiane."
Perhaps she was persuaded by his transformation from a skinny,
haggard farmer into a successful pioneer in regenerative agriculture.
Or perhaps it is the magic of second chances alive in a land
turned from deforested wasteland into a mulberry-shaded paradise
on a river.
Coming next: After leaving Laos, Derek and
I hope to visit a self-sustained Buddhist "Asok"
community in Thailand, before heading to India.