Jason’s Global Organic Odyssey: Living and learning one farm at a time

A time for reflection

With their journey almost half over, Jason and Derek share a new perspective on organic farming, material possessions and foreign cab drivers

By Jason Witmer

Author’s Note: 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?

Derek: It's 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 use myself is utilizing 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.

Jason: Good point... maybe you should be writing the articles...

Derek: Naw man, I just took a class on this stuff in college. I'm content playing my Martin backpacker guitar.

Jason: Admittedly, 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...

Derek: Hmmm...

Jason: Hey 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. (It’s 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.

Derek: Watching 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 be impolite.

Jason: At least one of us sees the humor in it...

What differences have you perceived between organic farming in the USA and countries you've visited?

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.

Jason: Reminds 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?

Derek: WWOOF 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.

Jason: Yeah, 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 traveling companion.

What’s been the highlight of your trip so far?

Derek: One 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 to.

Derek: I have no idea what you're talking about.

Jason: I’ve 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.

Derek: You also seemed to enjoy the attention of the four or five teenage girls with bamboo baskets at the rice mill.

Jason: Nice try. Should I mention...

Derek: Next question.

What have you learned from traveling?

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 for years...

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.

Jason: Amen Brother Derek!

Derek: Mama always wanted me to be a preacher.

Jason: You’re 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 became easier.

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?

Derek: Indian street vendor food for one.

Jason: You 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 the surplus.

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 can work.

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.