Tuesday, March 1, 2011


     A few days ago we returned from a 5-day homestay in the village of Yassothahn, getting a chance to meet organic farmers- some who under contract by a sugarcane factory, and some acknowledging the last generation of farmers on their land -and hearing their stories as they pertain to the issue of sustainable agriculture in a globalized market.  We had the chance to meet with the aforementioned sugarcane factory, and, alongside the farmers who grew the crop, we observed the model of manipulation from the top down, the government-subsidized factory taking a considerable profit from the hard work of hundreds of Isaan farmers. But aside from these intense experiences had with the group, there were moments unique to my interactions with the land and the beautiful people who worked on it that I feel compelled to record.  

Three particular moments I want to share:
1.) The family I stayed with for four days had their lives rich with the freshness of babies: the family just witnessed their youngest daughter give birth to a boy 10 days before me and my friend, Lindsay arrived; one of their cows birthed a calf two days before our arrival; and while we were sleeping one night, their pig gave birth to 10 beautiful piglets.  So much new life all at once! Why does is it still so extraordinary to me? Our "meh" was a grandma - her mother, who was a 69-year-old lady who still helped out on the farm, was now a great-grandma.  And the cycle continues. 
Out of the litter of pigliets, only one had a definitive white spot on its body, and this precious thing also happened to be (coincidentally?) the runt that was left out by its brothers and sisters.  It was the only baby who couldn't get a hold of any of its mother's nipples.  Ahh! I died I died I died, it was too much to handle. Finally "paw" let me hold it. It took all of me to put it back in its pen. I hope it grows up to be president someday.
Mama ('n') Babe
2.)  Lindsay and I walked in on paw and a fellow rice farmer on the floor of the house, fully engaged with signing papers, calculating ledgers, with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses in between them.  We sat nearby watching in silence, trying to pick up any familiar Thai words that we might have learned in class previously.  After a few minutes, and most likely feeling awkward with us staring blankly at them, they offered us each a glass of soda and whiskey.  It wasn't that we got to drink with our Thai father and his comrade that made this moment a memorable one (though that was definitely a highlight of the homestay). It was seeing their business model in action, rather than speculating what it might be like to actually sustain oneself through managing a farm.  The scene also gave Thai farmers more context in my eyes - they were no longer individuals selling their produce at competitive local markets, but helping one another in the broader scheme to have financial capital to show for their hard work.

3.) I interviewed our family's youngest daughter (the 23-year-old, unwed mother of the two-week-old baby) and her father (my "paw") for a feature I am writing, concerning the trend of the younger generation moving out of the farm to start another life in the cities, and how the effects of this migration is compromising the future of the family farm.  What I learned from the daughter's account is that she plans on teaching science in one of the adjacent provinces, and, saying in a lowered voice since she was in earshot of her mother, that if her parents were okay with it, she would leave baby "Chine" with her parents to raise.  Her older sister is also a teacher in a nearby province, though she still lives with her parents to save money for med school.  However, as soon as she saves up, she will also move out of the parents' house as well.  When asked what his plans were for the farm after his two daughters move out, he responded, "Maybe this will be the last generation for the farm." 
"Paw" on his organic rice field.  The buffalo graze on the old land
and their poop fertilizes the soil. Oh, and the week-old baby calf.
All things mentioned are pretty incredible. 
   Organic farming is how roughly 5000 farmers grow their crops, and to them, it is more than a healthy decision.  Their produce being organic is mainly a byproduct of an integrated system of agriculture, one that requires a kind of devotion that defines someone's identity, a devotion that this sort of agriculture depends on to sustain itself.  But now with this new recent education migration, values are shifting away from upholding traditional communal farming techniques towards a more individualistic motivation.  And during a time when corporations are buying out farmers' lands to monocrop for a profit, small-scale, family-run organic farms are losing all fighting chance they have left.  

  A few times, our group discussion came to a stall when the idea of allowing corporations to roam free as long they were held accountable was brought up.  This idea of "capitalism with a heart," or institutionalized free trade unleashed the floodgate to a multitude of questions: Could it ever happen?  Do good-intentions even exist in these out-of-reach, untouchable institutions?  They're important questions, and ones that should be given considerable thought.  As a world, we are near full-capacity.  There's no more room for us, or our capitalistic ventures.  So which is more effective: working with the agencies in power so that they may give agency to the little people, or work in solidarity to reconstruct the discourse of what is important to the people, such as promoting the dignity behind the occupation of being a farmer?  Yet at the same time, do we have the right to discourage a child from wanting to explore the vast opportunities available through an educational degree all for the sake of preserving, what some consider, antiquated practices?  
And more importantly, who is the "we" that should be having these discussions? I can only hope all of us, since these are problems that are not just isolated to developing nations, but to the States as well. 

 These debates all stem from the basic questions, such as where does your food come from?  Who is benefiting from your choice to eat one thing over another?  As a friend recently told me that every time you buy something, you're voting.  Once we each, as conscientious individuals, acknowledge the importance of acknowledging the people who produce what we eat, and the systems that play into they produce, the easier it is to imagine and to achieve "globalization with a heart." 


*Both photos were taken by Lindsay Friedman.