Sunday, February 22, 2009

And you said farming would never pay off...

Should anyone have scoffed at our efforts to achieve sustainability by raising goats and, most recently, chickens in our backyard then it's time to eat crow. Or egg. Actually a very small egg. Behold...our first egg. Apparently laid by the bantam hen. Starvation narrowly averted.

Interesting People - Impressive Projects

One of the main reasons we proposed establishing the ECHO Asia Regional Office in Chiang Mai was fairly convenient access to regional agricultural activities that might be of potential interest and value to others in ECHO's global network. Over time we expect to make contacts throughout Southeast Asia as well as adjacent parts of South and East Asia. But for starters, northern Thailand has its own share of interesting people and impressive projects. These are just a few of whom I've met over the past couple of weeks.
Jo Jandai - Jo and his wife, Peggy Reents, co-founded the Pun Pun community( in the Mae Taeng district just north of Chiang Mai in 2003. In a short time, Pun Pun has gained quite a reputation for innovating sustainable living approaches, including the promotion of earthen (e.g., adobe) homes and sustainable agriculture. On Feb. 13 Jo hosted a few of us who are interested in Pun Pun's seed saving activities. As ECHO Asia is in the process of setting up a regional seed bank, various open-pollinated vegetables being bred at Pun Pun are of particular interest to us. By the way, Jo and Peggy are slated as speakers for the upcoming ECHO Asia Agricultural Conference to be held in Chiang Mai (Sept. 21-25, 2009)
Josh Kearns - While at Pun Pun, we met Josh Kearns, a young American who represents Aqueous Solutions (, a non-profit based in Huntington, West Virgina. The mission of Aqueous Solutions is to "enable households and communities to ensure the safety of their drinking water in a self-reliant and sustainable manner." Such work includes rainwater harvesting, solar disinfection of water and water filtration systems. Pun Pun serves as a base for Aqueous Solutions in Thailand. While at Pun Pun, we saw Josh's recent effort to build a low-cost solar shower system for the community. Using black tubing, a glass cabinet to heat the water-filled tubes and a gravity-fed water system, the solar shower at Pun Pun costs less than $100 US. The water heats up nicely, particularly on sunny days.

Clement and Amee Doyer - The Doyers established their farm in the Chiang Dao district of Chiang Mai several years ago. Clement, a French-Canadian, and Amee, a Lisu-Thai, spend part of each year in Quebec tending their business, Labo Solidago Inc. Otherwise, they're engaged in a natural farming venture in northern Thailand that incorporates pig production, a tangerine orchard and paddy rice production. Our group of 12 traveled to the Doyer's farm on Feb. 19 to see the production of cooking oil expressed from Niger seed. Relatives of Amee brought Niger seed into Thailand from neighboring Burma a few years ago. Although basically unknown in Thailand, in parts of Burma, Niger seed is produced for not only cooking oil but also for export as wild bird seed (known otherwise as Nyjer seed or "thistle" finch seed). Anyhow, the Doyers, along with numerous Lisu and Kachin neighbors, are pressing the locally grown Niger seed into cooking oil. According the Clement, within a few years, the numbers of local farmers growing their own Niger seed for cooking oil has grown from one family (the Doyers) to approximately 600 families this year. And many more are expected to begin production in coming years. Clement also presses oil for the local growers. Apart from a small fee, Clement retains the seed cake (reportedly containing 32% protein) for use as pig feed. And his hogs certainly looked happy, fit and sleek. Anyhow, ECHO Asia will definitely be following up on the potential of Niger seed as a cooking oil source and animal feed.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wedding on the Border

Truth be told, I had some other things I'd rather be doing on Saturday. We're right smack in the middle of the dry season and the dessicated grass and brush in the empty plot next to our house has me worried. This area actually caught fire during the same period two years ago sending a two-story wall of flame rushing towards our two-story house.Bold Ellen was was recovering from a sick tummy and I was away in the hills with a group of UHDP volunteers. Fortunately, a small brigade of friends handling three garden hoses was successful in keeping the flames from reaching our house.

That's one of the main reasons we got goats in late 2007. We figured they'd keep the biomass in another adjacent lot (that comes with our rented house) under control. And they do. But we're not at liberty to release the herd into the plot with a history. We're grateful that Hmong neighbors have cleared some of the plot in which to conduct their "guerrilla urban farming." But I still need to cut a large band of dry grass and brush that runs between their garden, our home and the combustible bamboo/thatch chicken house and goat sheds in the other plot.

The Wedding

So early Saturday morning I picked up UHDP interns, Ruth and Brandon, at appointed spots in Chiang Mai for the trip to Baan Mai Samakhi, a community in the Chiang Dao District; a stone's throw from the Burma border. The residents of BMS are primarily Kachin, a minorityamong Thailand's numerous minorities. In fact, BMS is one of only two rural Kachin communities in northern Thailand. Most of the original residents were displaced from Burma's distant Kachin State that lies between China's Yunnan Province, Tibet and northeastern India.

The groom is Da, a former colleague at UHDP, who works with the project's documentation and citizenship efforts. His bride, Pimpapawn, is a lifelong BMS resident. They met when Da came to assist the Kachin of BMS with improving their legal residence status. By the way, Da is a Karen from Chiang Rai. Pimpapawn, despite growing up in Kachin culture, was born to Akha and Lahu parents. Can't get much more cosmopolitan than that.

And it was a great ceremony with tons of folks wearing variations of Kachin, Karen and Lahu tribal dress in attendance. A Karen pastor conducted the ceremony. Mac, a young Kachin leader, served as the master of ceremony. A Karen choir sang followed by a Kachin choir. And three hymns, all traditional western melodies with wedding theme lyrics, were robustly sung simultaneously in Thai, Kachin and Karen.

Vows were said with the congregation laughing it up each time the pastor, bride or groom flubbed a line. Rings were exchanged and then the Karen groom was presented with a Kachin ceremonial sword and shoulder bag, symbolizing his acceptance into the clan.

I had been asked to share a brief vignette. I truly did my best, reading a scripture passage and offering an insight or two based on almost 22 years of marriage.

The event concluded with a lunchtime feast. Great Kachin food and table conversation before the trip back to Chiang Mai.

So it's Sunday and I don't feel inclined to chop away at the dry brush today. But I'll keep the three water hoses handy just in case.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Big Dry

At least three months of dry season remain in northern Thailand. Since late October the North-East Monsoon has brought cooler, drier air into the region. It's been rather pleasant, even nippy at times. However, from late February or early March the temperatures will begin their annual climb. And with still no rain, the landscape will become increasingly dessicated and the air heavier with smoke from countless fires burning throughout the region. March through April are notorious months. Even mild, pleasant people turn testy from the heat, dust and smoke while waiting for the rainy season to commence.

When the rains finally begin to fall sometime in early May the results will be astounding. With a good initial dose of moisture the biomass will explode transforming the landscape from muted earth tones of brown and red to more shades of green than I can describe. The air will clear with forgotten mountains coming back into focus.

Maximizing their access to regular rainfall, the hilltribe farmers will plant their fields in upland rice, corn and numerous secondary crops including pumpkin, melon and sesame. And lowland Thai farmers, having harvested dry season soybean, garlic or onions will begin preparing for the main crop of paddy rice to be planted between July and September.

Such rainy season magic is still months away. But there are paddies and hill fields to prepare. And gardens still need tending.

Burmese Grape

One of northern Thailand's native plant species that's currently in full bloom is the Burmese grape (Baccaurea ramiflora). Known locally as mafai, Burmese grape really isn't a grape at all. The only thing grape-like are profuse clusters of yellow, cherry-shaped fruit that hang off of the branches and trunks of the small trees.

When ripe in May (or June for wild cousins in the forest), although a bit pithy, the meat of the fruit is juicy and refreshing.

Last year, though, when a friend and I treated ourselves to a rather large quantity of not-quite-ripe Burmese grape from the tree in my garden, our teeth became painfully sensitive. Unfortunately, this condition lasted for several days. So this year I'll be waiting until the mafai are fully ripe before indulging.