I'm more of a dreamer than a farmer. So,
while I have visions of buying two water buffalo
and tilling the soil in a valley somewhere in California,
I realize that might not happen in the near future
Somewhere in India
Contrary to popular belief, Derek and I haven’t
followed schedules of complete workaholics on our trip. We’ve
penciled in a few excursions here and there for pure enjoyment
(island beaches off the coast of Thailand, pristine mountain
rivers in Laos, fishing-villages in Goa) and these brief moments
(OK… weeks) have offered us a chance to reflect a bit
on what we have learned.
Here’s a brief Q&A providing a look at what’s
been going on inside our heads.
In your travels, what ideas
have you been putting in your back pocket for future use?
hard to choose one because they all work together; it's a
systematic approach where components are all as necessary
as the different parts of a human body. The general idea I'd
like to apply to my life is water conservation techniques.
In Goa we made a short, unexpected stop at an organic farm
along the road and one technique the farmer there used to
conserve moisture in his soil was covering the ground with
organic mulch. Between all of his fruit trees, he would spread
leaves and coconut shells to shield the soil from the sun.
This prevents evaporation, contributes organic matter to the
soil, and creates a cooler soil temperature, which is perfect
for the life of various soil organisms, which aerate the soil.
Then, when the rains come, less water is lost through leaching
and more is absorbed in the ground.
point... maybe you should be writing the articles...
man, I just took a class on this stuff in college. I'm content
playing my Martin backpacker guitar.
I am more of a dreamer than a farmer. So, while I have visions
of buying two water buffalo and tilling the soil in a valley
somewhere in California, I realize that might not happen in
the near future...
I'm not sure if I ever want to go into farming as a means
of making money, but I would like to have a small homestead
in which I strive to be as self-reliant as possible. If I
ever build a house I will use a combination of straw bales
and the adobe techniques we learned from Jon Jandai. I would
concentrate on growing plants that are indigenous to the local
environment--I like the idea of heirloom varieties. And, I
would use low-mechanization techniques. Who knows, maybe I
actually will be following a couple large horned animals through
a field someday...
this trip has trip actually materialized after years of dreaming--right
now anything seems possible. Anyway, the day after I return
to Ohio I plan to begin soymilk and tofu production. Because
I’m lactose intolerant, soymilk is beautiful to me.
(Soymilk is much more prevalent in Thailand than India, where
the cow is worshipped as a goddess). Despite outrageous prices
at grocery stores in the U.S., soymilk and tofu are so easy
to make--just blend up some soybeans, strain them, and add
a little epsom salt for the tofu.
you continually imploring Indian people not to add any milk
to your chai has been amusing... especially since they usually
end up putting it in anyway, thinking anything else would
Jason: At least
one of us sees the humor in it...
What differences have you
perceived between organic farming in the USA and countries
Jason: I guess
I've come to realize that the difference in climate between
the U.S. and countries we've visited makes regenerative farming
more important in some ways. Because the countries we've been
to are in the tropical instead of temperate zone, there is
a rainy and dry season and building up the soil structure
is vital to preventing erosion from alternating monsoons and
hot dust storms.
I've also noticed that a major struggle of many farmers has
been fighting Western influences. Before the green revolution
in the 1960s, everyone farmed organically, and there are still
a fair amount of farmers who don't use chemicals simply because
they can't afford them. There are a larger number of small-time
farmers in the countries we've been to than in the U.S, but
because of the lures of money and city life, their numbers
are declining. The lucrative organic market present in Western
countries is often hard to find.
The few farmers who have begun consciously farming organically
are pioneers and almost every one has been familiar with the
phrase, "learning by doing." Often it is one of
the few ideas they feel they can express precisely in their
broken English and their faces never cease to light up radiantly
as they say it.
Derek: As a
generalization, from what I've seen in the US, it seems most
people who grow or consume organic products do it for reasons
of environmental and health concerns. In Thailand, while these
reasons were present, I was struck at the Asok community by
how much religion played a role in their reasoning to farm
organically. Being strictly Buddhist, they observe the first
precept, which instructs them not to kill. To the Asok members,
this means much more than just humans. Pesticides and other
chemicals meant to kill pests are seen to violate this first
precept, hence organic methods are required.
me of the story you shared at the adobe house dedication ceremony
about an ant who bit your toe. It reminded you that even the
smallest of creatures are as important as us.
How well does WWOOF work?
is a wonderful program. It's a great way for people like us
to learn from farmers who know what they're doing, to see
organic farming successfully done. However, it's not perfect.
There are some hosts (and WWOOFers) who aren't as serious
about the farming aspect. Some are more geared towards natural
healing or teaching English than they are farming. I guess
it's all a matter of the worker seeking out the farm that
suits them best.
One problem with WWOOF is that it appeals a lot to travelers
like Jason and I who want to work and learn but also want
to cover some ground. So, while the farmer would prefer the
worker to stay more than one week (justifiably wanting to
get the most out of the time and energy they spend in training),
the worker doesn't want to stay in one place too long. While
both sides are justified, it's a constant struggle. In the
future, I would make plans to spend more time on fewer farms.
and seeing that I'm always a little more antsy to get to the
next place than you, maybe you would choose a more laid-back
What’s been the highlight
of your trip so far?
a dirty job: WWOOFers get hands on experience
in natural building, which was the highlight of
the trip for Derek. "It's artistic and environmentally
sound. As part of a sustainable system (or any system),
adobe is perfect--cheap and easy to build, strong,
beautiful to look at. It's a knowledge and skill
I'm glad to have gained."
was learning how to build adobe houses. Natural building has
fascinated me for a while but I've never had a chance to do
any hands-on learning. Getting your hands and feet in the mud
and molding your house out of the earth is a dirty deed but
gives a kind of visceral satisfaction. It's artistic and environmentally
sound. As part of a sustainable system (or any system), it's
perfect--cheap and easy to build, strong, beautiful to look
at. It's a knowledge and skill I'm glad to have gained.
Jason: I know
you loved the natural building workshop... but perhaps one
contributing factor that you neglected to mention was the
attractive brunette that I often noticed you working next
Derek: I have
no idea what you're talking about.
really enjoyed talking with the farmers we've met. I've had
a chance to connect with some amazing people and look forward
to visiting them again. I see future vacations as perhaps
consisting of trips to my favorite WWOOF farms.
The place that caught my interest the most was probably Hin
Pah Fa Nam--the Buddhist community. I enjoyed learning how
to separate rice husks by hand, how to make tofu, and taking
part in the community life. Intentional communities are something
I've long been interested in, both sociologically and as a
kid trying to figure out a good way to live.
also seemed to enjoy the attention of the four or five teenage
girls with bamboo baskets at the rice mill.
try. Should I mention...
What have you learned from
Derek: I never
really realized how much comfort and security I put in having
things before I left. I never knew how little I actually needed
to live. This realization illustrated itself when I packed
12 rolls of film, five tee-shirts, and a bunch of other items
I've since sold or discarded. I was hoarding up for myself
enough things that I would feel a sense of security, knowing
I didn't need all that stuff immediately, but maybe would
in the future. I was facing a scary situation at going out
into the world where there were so many unknowns.
The experience has taught me that I do this at home as well.
There are so many things in the States that I have just for
security reasons--a closet and dresser full of clothes I never
wear, 400 cds, two 1975 BMW's I've been meaning to fix up
On the trip I've spent nights laying awake thinking about
all the ways I could simplify my life by getting rid of unnecessary
possessions. All these things give us a false sense of security
when they are often more cumbersome than liberating. When
you have a plethora of possessions you have to figure out
what to do with them all—find a place to stash them
in our over-sized houses, which nevertheless seem to need
just one more closet.
always wanted me to be a preacher.
right. My 4,600 cu.in. backpack is now only half full as I
keep leaving things I don't need at farms or guest houses.
I've also realized the freedom that comes from leaving security
behind. As I sat on the Chinese Airlines plane on the way
over here I was scared to death. I remember them giving me
warm towelettes with chop sticks and playing old American
films dubbed over in Chinese and wondering what was going
to become of me. I couldn't stop worrying that maybe I would
get conked on the head by a deadly Thai coconut or cursed
by a Laotian ancestor spirit. Except for you, I knew I wouldn’t
be able to rely on my usual support network of friends and
family for months.
The first couple weeks were pretty rough. We met with taxi
drivers who didn't speak English, ate endless meals of rice
mixed with unidentifiable mushroom species, and dealt with
squat toilets. But after continually facing my fears, things
I remember a moment in Laos, riding on the back of a pick-up
truck, having left you for a couple days, when I realized
I wasn't afraid anymore. Mountains stretched in the distance,
thatch-roofed villages whizzed by and I, sitting next to a
man from the Akha tribal group and bumping over potholes,
was happy. It was then that a confident exuberance began to
fill me--if I wasn't afraid of being on my own in a foreign
land, what was there to fear?
street vendor food for one.
got me there.
How has this trip influenced
your thinking about organic farming?
Derek: In brief,
it's possible. And contrary to popular belief, it's often
not any harder than chemical farming. Granted, the farms we've
been working on have all been very small-scale, low-mechanization
farms. Most have been worked mostly by hand without the need
of tractors and other machinery. In general, they’ve
been less interested in farming as a means to make money than
as a means to sustain themselves. Instead of profit, they've
concentrated on first providing for themselves and then selling
I see organic farming as a valuable asset in this kind of
system because it requires very little monetary input. Instead
of expensive, synthetic fertilizers, farmers use their own
compost made from manure and other organic material. Instead
of pesticides and herbicides, farmers rely on organic methods
such as crop rotation, mulching, inter-cropping and herbal
pesticides to control pests and weeds.
These methods work when the farmer focuses on creating biodiversity
and maintaining the health of the ecosystem. Nature is able
to control itself. Pest problems are due largely to mono-cropping
systems and chemicals indiscriminately killing pests and beneficial
insects. With a balanced, healthy ecosystem, organic farming
Jason: I agree.
Before this trip I had little experience on organic farms
and had some doubts as to the practicality of it. As you said,
the farms we visited have been small, and very different than
Grandpa's sweet corn farm, but I've come to see the beauty
and necessity of regenerative agriculture.
Next: On to dryland farms in India.