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

The Great Awakening
High on a Himalayan Mountain top--a million miles from his Ohio home--Jason reflects on a trip whose mission was met but whose purpose was usurped by the magnitude of the people met along the way

By Jason Witmer


Sunset, sunrise: The adventure may be over but the real organic odyssey is just being for Jason Witmer. Above: Sun setting over the Himalayas.

 

 


On top of the world: Jason Witmer (right) returned to his home in Ohio after a six-month tour of farms in Europe and Asia. Above: Jason and Derek on top of Mt. Chandrachila in India.

See 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

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

INDIA: Indian farmer creates an organic oasis in a harsh land

INDIA: Beyond the Green Revolution to Regeneration

The Himalayas: The western world has invaded, but not yet conquered

SPAIN: Fighting weeds and tradition in Spain's wine country

 

 


N
ear the end of my journey, I sat daydreaming two miles above sea level on the snow-patched slopes of Chandrachila, the “Mountain of the Moon.” That morning our guide, Kundan, had led Derek and I through rhododendron trees sprouting pink and red flowers in the April Himalayas. We had scaled terraced cliffs and forded icy streams that narrowed as we climbed higher. In the early afternoon we reached Chopta, a collection of tiny stone houses that had been abandoned for the winter and were vacant except for one. We drank black tea there and ate rice, lentils, and chappatis that an Indian man cooked for us over his stone and adobe wood-burning fire pit.

Odyssey aspiriations?
If you will be making an agricultural pilgrimage, or know someone else that will, let me know if there might be fresh farming stories in the offing. – Greg Bowman (greg.bowman@rodaleinst.org)

With a free afternoon ahead, I hiked a quarter mile from Chopta,sat down on a large rock, and watched the sun descend in the West toward snow-capped peaks, a huge red ball sliding behind dense gray clouds. The only sounds were whisperings of snow-melt and the hollow taps of a far-off hammer. I figured that while the sun was setting here it must be peaking out from beneath the horizon on the other side of the world, bringing dawn to frosted Ohio cornfields.

I had wanted to travel around the world after graduating from college because I lacked direction and hoped that just following the compass west for a while would lead to something else. Perhaps I would be inspired to join the Peace Corp or seek a position with the UN. If nothing else, it seemed like a good way to meet people and find some fresh mangos. But as I sat on the slopes of Chandrachila, I realized that these farms had worked their way into my psyche and begun to pull me in a clear and unlooked-for direction – I wanted to go home and plant a garden.

Over the past several months, I have met farmers who are saving their world one acre at a time, farmers who are bucking the constraints of popular opinion to do what they love and believe in, whether or not they are rewarded with money or accepted by neighbors. They are growing their own food; building their own houses; regenerating ecosystems and reviving tradition.

Team work: Asok members use low-mechanized methods of farming to save money and promote togetherness. Here young Asok men lay hay to help keep weeds down.

In doing so, they are proving that traditional methods of farming can be both empowering to people and beneficial to the environment. Asia had a tradition of subsistence agriculture that had been refined and proved to be sustainable for thousands of years. Then Colonialism brought a market economy and many traded self-reliance for dollar bills; they began growing cash crops and using synthetic inputs or left the fields all together.

Yet the farmers I met understood that there is wisdom and wealth in the practices of the past – in eating chemical-free food that hasn’t been hauled in from hundreds of miles away, in cooperating with the land and living by one’s own hands rather than working nine to five for someone else. Mr. T is reviving silk production and weaving in his childhood village in Laos. His farm provides jobs for local women while regenerating a wasteland. In Thailand Asok members use low-mechanized methods of farming to save money without sacrificing community.

A silky return: Thanongsi's work has revitalized the land and the economy of his childhood home. Above: Mr. T with his mulberry trees for silk

 

Jon Jandai, who returned to his family farm after years of working odd jobs in Bangkok, wants people to know that they don’t have to move to the city to get a job as a dishwasher, as he did when he was young. They can grow their own food and don’t need a television, the newest kitchen appliance, or expensive pesticides and fertilizers. “I just want to tell everyone that they don’t have to work so hard,” he told me. “They can be more lazy.”

The beauty of growing your own rice or building an adobe house, I learned from Jandai, is that it feels more like play than work. You feel lazy, privileged, even if, like him, you never cease moving.

As I watched people like Jandai, I came to understand that an organic farmer isn’t simply someone who discards synthetic inputs and then carries on as before; they are energetic, creative people who find alternative ways of farming. Pacifists are often mistaken for being passive – simply cutting out violence and doing nothing in times of war. But true pacifists, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, actively engage in creative alternatives to violence such as mediation and civil disobedience. Likewise, the farmers I met are more interested in creating something beautiful than just getting by without chemicals.


Fields of aloe: When Mr T. discovered aloe grew without him he decided why fight nature.

Many, like Vijay Shaw in India, have changed their entire approach to farming, seeking to understand the land and to work with it, rather than getting caught up in a never-ending cycle of violence against their environment. For years, Shaw spent his days spraying termites with pesticides and his nights in worried sleep. Then he learned that termites were actually beneficial to his farm. He now calls them his best friends because they are leaders in the process of decomposition of dead organic matter.

Because organic farming is no longer common practice, these farmers have been forced to be creative, to “learn by doing.” Mr. T was one of the many farmers I met who used this phrase proudly. He told how he used to collect cow dung from the streets of a nearby village. Though initially others laughed at him, he just shrugged and kept working.

Now others are listening. Mr. T has persuaded many locals, and even government officials, of the benefits of cow manure over synthetic fertilizers. Jandai has become famous for the countless hours he has spent around adobe houses, inventing, constructing, directing, and teaching. The dozens of organic workshops Asok members host every year are influencing farmers all over Thailand.

As I sat on the mountain that evening, I considered the self-reliance, the creativity, and the energy. I also thought about how people in Thailand, Laos, and India were, in many ways, richer than Americans. We have wealth, sure, but also loneliness, obesity, high blood pressure, and lifestyles that use up ninety percent of the world’s resources. My hope, obviously from an outsider’s position, was that they would keep what they had – community, tradition, and homegrown food – instead of leaving family homesteads for factory jobs so that they could buy American products that advertisers tell them they need.

From what I had seen, I knew organic farming could revitalize ecosystems and improve the lives of people – even those without the luxury of first-world money. And it seemed the responsible thing to do, especially for someone like me, who does have access to first-world money. I remembered the words of Doctor Haria, “Organic farming can save the whole world.”

I muttered those words to myself as I huddled on a Himalayan rock with a growling stomach and watched the red sun melt into icy mountain peaks. Since then I’ve made plans to visit local organic farms in Ohio this summer, accepted a fall position as intern with Mildred’s Daughter’s Organic Farm in Pittsburgh and have been helping my dad care for the tomatoes, onions, squash, peppers, cucumbers, spinach and soybeans in the garden in front of our house.

Jon Jandai, organic farmer, adobe builder extraordinaire. Above: Jandai designed and built adobe hut

As I’m pulling weeds from rain-dampened sod in early morning light, I often find myself looking toward the eastern sun. I picture myself back on Chandrachila, watching the same glowing ball roll west over mountains. Standing on the rock, squinting, my right hand held above my eyes, I can just make out Jon Jandai stacking adobe bricks in Thailand; Mr. T chatting with customers over mulberry pancakes in Laos; Asok members making homemade tofu; Vijay admiring the work of termites on an heirloom Indian date tree, which he calls by name; Doctor Haria preaching the benefits of organic cow urine; and Ron Boyd sitting on his tractor in the terraced Spanish hills.

Besides being good farmers, these people are philosophers, teachers, activists, inventors, and pioneers. They’re taking risks to do what they love and believe in. Thank you for all that you’ve taught me, for the hope that you give the world, and for the direction from the clarity of your purpose. I never even had to turn the compass.

If you go far enough west, you end up back home.


Editor’s Note: And if the trip has been good, “home” is a place you know but can see with new eyes. This column ends Jason’s global odyssey of 2003, one that has excited and enriched our staff and readers as our first international ag travelogue. Thanks, Jason, for taking on the discipline of writing when your body ached, the mosquitoes buzzed and the images of Asian agriculture kept colliding in your head.