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, bannas
|| 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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.