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

Thailand's Buddhist "Asok" movement builds
organic farms, sustainable communities

In a farm economy devastated by reliance on chemicals, Buddhist monks teach thousands a new way to grow

By Jason Witmer

Farm at a Glance

Location: Central Thailand, 12.5 miles outside Kaeng Khro

Farm Type: Organic

Size: 12 acres

What is grown: Cabbage, pumpkin, morning glory, banana, papaya, rose apple, rice, mushroom, soybeans





























































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

LAOS: A chemical past convinced this farmer to prove organic is the future



Posted March 21, 2003: In Thai, “Hin Pha Fan Nam,” is translated literally as “Stone, Cliff, Sky, Water,” and signifies “abundance.” This is the apt name of a 12-acre self-reliant Buddhist community located 20 kilometers outside of Kaeng Khro in central Thailand.

"We have enemies," notes Darbboon Deeratana, a 25-year member of an Asok. "Monks from other temples, and fertilizer companies."

Here a stream trickles down out of the western mountains, turning into marshes of wild, edible lotus flowers, bordering gardens of cabbage, pumpkin, morning glory, banana, papaya, and rose apple. The stream eventually feeds into a swimming pond where nearby children mill homegrown rice by hand, meticulously removing the husks with woven bamboo baskets and nimble fingers.

Down a dirt path lined with landscaped boulders, others stuff a fine mixture of sawdust and fungi spores into plastic bags that will eventually yield edible mushrooms. Past piles of earthy compost, two children grind soybeans into milk, which they will take to the kitchen to make tofu.

Early to rise and 5 rules for happy days

Sharing their widsom: The Asok movement hosts 40 seminars a year.

This community, with roughly 20 permanent members and 20 boarding students, is part of the larger “Asok” movement that has become the pioneer and leader of regenerative agriculture in Thailand. Meaning “no sorrow” or “happiness” in Thai, the movement was begun in 1975 by Bodhiraksa, a Thai celebrity-turned-monk, as a reaction to what he saw as corruption in Thai Buddhism. The Asok movement now includes thousands of members living throughout the country and hundreds living in 18 self-sustaining communities.

People living in Hin Pha Fa Nam, like all Asok members, rigorously follow Buddhist teachings, as they interpret them. Everyone must strictly observe Buddha’s five precepts, which include no killing, lying, sexual misconduct, stealing, or taking of intoxicants. The day begins at 3:30 am and, after two hours of meditation, members spend most of the day working. Adult members eat only one meal a day.

Additionally, while several mainstream Thai monks are millionaires, Asok monks are not allowed to own any property and lay members living inside the community make no money. But everyone receives free food, lodging, and medical care, and students receive free education.

“We want to show that we can live without money,” said Rakboon Asoktrakool, a woman who has been supporting Asok for 18 years and moved to Hin Pha Fa Nam two years ago. “You can earn your living by growing plants, not just by taking money.”

The sun sets on a Western philosohpy

Asok calls this system “boonism.” “Boon” means “merit” in Thai, and the “ism” is added to show that a system based on cooperation and morality can be at least as viable as Western economic systems such as capitalism.

Team Spirit : In this Buddhist community everything is shared including the smiles.

From the beginning, self-reliance has been a central goal, and most communities produce almost all the food and products they need to sustain themselves. Fifteen years ago, members, who had already been strict vegetarians, began growing and consuming only organic products, partly for health reasons.

“We recognize the dangers of chemicals,” said Asoktrakool. “We feel sympathy for people who use them and want to prove that (organic) is best for Thais.”

Additionally, members, already prohibited from slapping even mosquitoes, wanted to more accurately follow the first precept of not killing.

“When the farmers used a lot of chemicals it killed a lot of insects,” said Darbboon Deeratana, 25-year member of the “Santi Asok” community outside Bangkok. “We don’t want to kill animals – we don’t want them to suffer. If you go to Sisaket province you see a lot of paddy fields but no animals live there.”

Deeratana noted that there are practical reasons for not using pesticides as well. “We don’t use chemicals because it goes against the first precept of no killing. But also if you kill animals you break the ecological chain – the animals help reduce the population of pests. Using a lot of spray is the wrong thing to do.”

"Six years ago, communities began hosting seminars on organic agriculture and self-reliance. Eventually, these were even funded by the Thai government, in an effort to relieve the debt of poor farmers who had invested too heavily in chemi-cals and agricul-tural equipment. Ironic, because it was the govern-ment which promoted modern farming practices in the first place. "

Members now grow all crops organically and several communities have recently opened up organic produce stores and restaurants. Those living on farms outside of communities can sell their produce here, as long as Asok inspectors have approved them.

Asok members also use less technology, as can be seen by the wooden, hand-operated rice mills, and the scarcity of large agricultural equipment such as tractors. Besides decreasing reliance on money, Asoktrakool feels this furthers a sense of community.

“Brother and sister, father and mother – everyone can talk while they’re working,” she said. “It causes good relationships and is a lot of fun. There are many jokes and a harmony of spirit. When you use the machine mills you just pay money and don’t form relationships.”

Asoktrakool stressed that many Asok practices stem from traditional Thai ways of farming, rather than having been introduced by the West, the way chemicals were. “We got many of our ideas from old Thai wisdom. Not from America,” she said. “We don’t use chemicals from America – your country gave us the chemicals!”

Bright days are born from growing knowledge

Like many organic farmers, Asok members experiment continually to find better methods. Several years ago, for instance, they discovered an alternative to the previously company-owned fermentation mixture that serves both as fertilizer and pest deterrent. This mixture includes soil, burned husks, plants from the legume family, fresh leaves, a byproduct of milled rice, and manure. The mixture is then fermented with sugar, doused with water, covered for 7 days, and turned.

“We adopt and improve and then spread to other communities,” said Asoktrakool.

Because compassion and selflessness are central components of their religion, Asok members devote much of their time to sharing their knowledge. After a large economic collapse in Thailand six years ago, communities began hosting seminars on organic agriculture and self-reliance. Eventually, these were even funded by the government, in an effort to relieve the debt of poor farmers who had invested too heavily in chemicals and agricultural equipment. This is often felt to be a bit ironic, because it was the government, lobbied by companies, which promoted modern farming practices in the first place.

Today the Asok movement hosts roughly 40 seminars a year, each including 50 – 100 farmers, and lasting about a week. Farmers learn everything from the secret of the fermentation mixture to soap making.

Asoktrakool noted that these seminars are usually highly successful. “Most tell us it is the best for them when they come back, that they gain more production than before,” she said.

Quietly waking to a new tomorrow

But Asok practices and ideas have not gone without criticism. “We have enemies,” Deeratana noted, “monks from other temples, and fertilizer companies.”

From the beginning the movement has been frowned upon by mainstream Thai Buddhism, which went so far as to sue Asok for incorrect practice several years ago. Chemical companies, with much to lose from organic agriculture, have also posed problems. Besides being suspected of “buying out the bureaucrats,” as Deeratana puts it, in an effort to make money off of cash crop agriculture, they have been accused of even more direct trouble making.

A year ago, an Asok produce store was set on fire and, although the community didn’t press charges, many felt the culprit was obvious. “People in the village know it was someone from the fertilizer company,” said Deeratana.

He explained that the company had lost a lot of profit due to organic seminars held at the nearby Asok community. Indeed, the village there had turned almost completely organic, as people saw that they could produce more without using chemicals. While no one knows for sure who was responsible for the arson, hostility from the fertilizer company is common knowledge.

But there are also many who support Asok practices and admire their courage. Luke Cannon, an American who has stayed and worked on four different communities, is one of these. “They’re embracing a lot of difficult things most people are afraid to face – in the face of politics and tradition,” he said.

Small time farmer and natural builder Jon Jandai agrees, and has collaborated with members to build several adobe structures in Asok communities. He emphasized how much the movement has accomplished. “They are the best model for self-reliance in Thailand, “ he said. “They don’t have an academic thing -- not writing, talking – they just do it. I think that is the best way.”

And despite external opposition and strict rules, members themselves continue to wake up at 3:30 am, to eat organic, homemade tofu, and to sit together seperating rice husks by hand.

“Living here I feel peace and high confidence – to be alive in a good life,” said Asoktrakool.

For those like her, “hin pha fa nam” is enough for happiness.

Coming next: Jason and Derek are on their way to India. But that’s all we'll know until our fearless travelers make contact again from the land that brought us algebra, geometry and calculus—maybe there is a reason we haven’t heard anything yet…