Jason’s Global Organic Odyssey: Living and learning one farm at a time
On to LAOS: Jason and Derek work with Thanongsi Solangkoun, whose silk-farm, organic restaurant and international learning center offer an alternative to chemically based agriculture.

By Jason Witmer

Farm at a Glance

Location: 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.

Farm Type: Organic

Size: 2 hectares (approximately 5 acres)

What is grown: Silkworms, mulberries, bannas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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: Ohio traveler debuts “global grassroots” network of farmer-correspondents

BEGINNINGS::From pitching in on his Grandpa’s farm to an organic sojourn across two continents

EASTERN THAILAND: Meet Jon Jandai -- farmer, builder and man of leisure

 

 

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 entire life.

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

A landlocked 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.

"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 in Laos

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.

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.

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.

"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 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.

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 for children.

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.

Staying grounded

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 farmers."

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.