Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Little Dry-Season Rain

The smoke and haze that's been covering Chiang Mai has been extraordinarily bad this year. We hate to think what this is probably doing to our health. But as March leads up to the climax of horrible air pollution and extreme-dry conditions the inner optimist keeps saying, "In two months time it will all be past."

Fortunately, as the heat and humidity has increased over the past few weeks some thunderstorms and scattered showers have broken out, giving most spots at least a sprinkle. And though this doesn't mean the end of the hot, dry season (actually, the worst is yet to come as far as heat and humidity are concerned), the showers have cleared the air significantly and rinsed the dust off any remaining foliage.

Even with minimal moisture, it's quite amazing how quickly certain plants are responding. Of course, the big greening that occurs every May hasn't happened yet. But the wild grass growing in the goat field has begun to express tiny, new shoots. And the goats are loving it.

What's in the garden?

Right now I'm appreciating the new leaf shoots of several bird's nest fern (Asplenium nidus)that are growing in our garden. You can find these fern tucked in the crotch of a few fruit trees. And some serve as ground cover of sorts in the mixed border that grows along the garden wall. Residing in the irrigated portion of our garden, they continue to thrive despite the present dry conditions.

Though not native to northern Thailand, bird's nest fern grows wild in more equatorial, humid climates such as in Thailand's south. In their native forests, being epiphytes, these ferns grow on trees and logs. Their natural basket shape enables them to capture and compost fallen leaves that collect within, yielding nourishment. Various leaf litter-dwelling insects and other creatures also make their home in the habitat created by bird's nest ferns.

Extremely easy to maintain, the bird's nest fern offers a bit of the rain forest for our garden.

As soon as I'm done writing this blog, I'm catching a bus for Chiang Rai and then hitching a ride with Kim and Jamlong from UHDP before meeting up with Bob Morikawa (from Floresta) at the airport. Our plan is to spend the night in the border town of Mae Sai and then enter Burma for a two-day trip to the Shan State town of Chiang Tung. There, I'll be offering some consulting assistance for Floresta.

And then on Wednesday, Bob and I plan to travel down from Chiang Tung, cross the border back into Thailand and then catch a flight in Chiang Rai for Phenom Penh (via Bangkok). Again, Bob and I will be making some Floresta-related contacts among several Cambodia-based NGOs. I'll also have the chance to do a bit of ECHO promotion before I return to Chiang Mai on April 5.

Hopefully, I'll have a story and a picture or two to share from the journey.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Our Yarden

Although our Chiang Mai home comes with a two-acre lot where we raise some goats and chickens the actual garden space adjacent to our house is quite small; approximately 14 x 11 yards. Roughly 88 square yards of this area is what one might generously call a lawn. In other words, though small, it's open and somewhat grassy (at least during the rainy season).

Planted between the three-sided garden wall and small lawn, the rest of the this area is a U-shaped mixture of tropical ground covers, gingers, bananas, vines and small trees. And many of these perennials offer edible products.

Back home it seems that American homeowners often work from a landscape trichotomy that's divided into three three fairly distinct zones; the lawn, what we call "the garden" (i.e., a plot of annual flowers and/or vegetables) and shrubbery plantings (either beds of woody perennials or scattered individuals). But without a doubt the major feature of most American landscapes would be the lawn.

These days, though, lawns are increasingly criticized as wasted space and often money holes. Either planted in pure stands of various lawn grasses or tended as mixtures of such grasses and weeds, American lawns can be vast, requiring considerable labor and expense to maintain. In this period of economic hardship, with threats of food insecurity, urban or suburban farmers reason that lawn space might serve us better as areas of small-scale food production. So what's to stop us from growing annual and perennial food crops or even rearing small-scale livestock such as chickens, rabbits and even goats?

Guess I forgot. Neighborhood associations would have a cow issuing warnings and threats towards anyone considering such a bold move. After all, conventional wisdom holds that agriculture and high home values are incompatible.

Yet American homeowners (and would be backyard farmers) might be surprised to learn that raising small home flocks of chickens, pygmy goats or hives of bees is permissible in many metropolitan areas (check out the recent National Public Radio story "City Folk Flock To Raise Small Livestock At Home"

Still, converting wasted lawn space into an edible landscape, or so-called yarden, is probably a much easier, less controversial option. After all, who can build a case against a yard full of peach, pear and apple trees or grape vines?

Fortunately, our Thai neighbors aren't too high strung about urban and peri-urban agriculture. It's common to see fruit trees and small container gardens in neighborhoods throughout Chiang Mai. And I dare you to find a place out of range of a rooster's crow.

Until the goats arrived we tended a garden in the corner of the large vacant lot adjacent to our house. To be honest, I put a lot of time, effort and expense into developing the small plot.

I learned that one of the easiest food-producing options is to plant local varieties of perennial vegetables; basically bushes that produce edible greens and pods. These plants require minimal maintenance and only a few bushes can provide significant veggies.

Still, Ellen is a real Southern cook and we like our comfort food. Fortunately, okra's easy enough to grow. But tomatoes, sweet corn, cabbage, snap beans and other back home crops are often hit-and-miss. So I ended up putting considerable time into evaluating vegetable varieties (both local and imported) that are adaptable to Chiang Mai's climate.

Unfortunately, there was no one willing to carry on vegetable garden efforts when our family was away for extended spells (furlough, etc.). And I became discouraged with the state of the garden each time we came back home. So we decided that goats, being fairly low maintenance and very effective against the annual rainy season onslaught of biomass, would be a better long-term choice for the vacant lot.

Within the walls surrounding the house our yarden is compact with little sunlight. And being the domain of dogs and boys, the potential for significant vegetable production is limited. Squeezed in with a tiny, low maintenance lawn the best gardening option within such a small space would be to make the vegetative strip as hardy, biodiverse and potentially edible as possible. Our models would be the local forest as well as traditional northern Thai home gardens.

Today the landscape of our rented home includes a canopy of four types of tropical fruit trees and a few tall palms with edible/usable products. The understory is made up of a viny yam variety, two species of native trees that yield edible shoots and flowers and two wild cousins of black pepper. Stalks of garden and forest banana are also scattered within. And purely ornamental plants, such as bird's nest fern, orchid, heliconia and various palms, are included as well.

With so many potentially food-producing plants it would seem that we wouldn't need to go to the market again. But truth is we rarely eat the produce (except for the fruit). There's rarely enough for a meal. And it's all so lovely that we pretty much keep things ornamental (which feeds the soul). But if push comes to shove...

A Walk in the Woods

Chiang Mai is a growing city full of markets, malls, schools and homes. And it's often easy to lose sight of its most prominent natural resource, Doi Suthep (Mountain of Angels). Over a mile high, this mountain is still covered with some decent tropical forest and offers a valuable watershed for the area.
This past Saturday a group of friends and I enjoyed a day-long hike originating from near the top of Doi Suthep (at its famous temple) whereby we followed a stream known as Huai Kaew (Crystal Springs) to the Chiang Mai Zoo at the bottom of the mountain.

With dry season air quality being so bad within the city, we enjoyed the lush, cool montane evergreen forest at the upper range of the hike. And we encountered several impressive water falls as we descended into the dry deciduous forest at the base of the mountain.

A mysterious, but friendly red dog of large proportions joined us the entire way, eagerly serving as a back up guide. We had no idea where Red Dog came from or where he was ultimately headed but he showed absolutely no anxiety about accompanying us on our jaunt through the forest.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Different Kind of Farm

One of my ECHO Asia duties is to seek out local venues for possible training and exchange. Truth be told, getting out of the office to visit potential resource sites in and around Chiang Mai isn't a bad way to spend the day.

Last week I visited the farm of Patrick and Jaem Perringaux, a French/Thai couple who attend our church. A natural experimenter, Patrick has been evaluating various varieties of exotic Mediterranean crops, including fig, olive and raspberry, to see how they might fare in the sub-tropical climate of northern Thailand.

Dozens of species of wild fig grow in Thailand's forests; some of which are valued by locals for their edible fruits and leaves. However, unlike "Brown Turkey," a popular variety found in gardens of the southern US, Thailand's wild figs aren't known for their dessert fruits.

So over the years Patrick has imported lots of garden fig varieties for evaluation. And most have fallen victim to the extreme humidity and soaking rainfall that occurs during the six-month rainy season. Still, Patrick reports that at least two exotic varieties have proven to be hardy and productive in the local environment, the fruits of which can be sold for a premium price in the finer restaurants of Chiang Mai and Bangkok. And he expects to add at least a few more varieties to his roster of tried and true figs.

And there's vanilla. A type of orchid native to Mexico, according to Patrick, vanilla pods grown in Madagascar sell for a few hundred dollars a kilo (2.2 pounds). Although his two-year old plants are still a year away from production the vines appear to be very healthy. Patrick reasons that if vanilla actually proves productive at his Mae Ping valley farm then the crop will be even more promising in the cooler hills. In fact, Patrick thinks that vanilla would be an ideal agroforestry crop for forest communities as it can be grown under the tree canopy.

The Perringauxs have also been importing and evaluating exotic rabbits, chickens and ducks. These breeds, when raised well, grow much larger than the hardier but smaller local breeds. And again, fancy restaurants are reportedly happy to reward Patrick for his meat products.

Admittedly, I'm generally partial to local biodiversity. But I'm extremely impressed with Patrick and Jaem's integrated farming approach which avoids waste at all costs. For example, Patrick has built an array of attractive stone terraces which run along the contours of his sloping farm. These terraces and ditches funnel practically all of the rain that falls on the farm to a pond where the ducks are raised.

And all the animal manure and plant biomass produced on the farm are composted to produce natural fertilizer that nurtures the soil on which fruits and vegetables are grown. The greenest stand of sweet corn you've even seen is testimony to Patrick's compost. Even the moisture that drains from the compost pile is collected and utilized as liquid fertilizer.

There's one other notable benefit related to Patrick's approach. He sells as locally as possible. Compared to similar foods sold in a relative handful of restaurants in Bangkok and Chiang Mai that cater to the well-heeled, Patrick's products (e.g., figs, raspberries, rabbit, poultry) come with a much smaller carbon footprint than those imported from distant lands. In other words, his products travel a much smaller distance. And this results in not only cheaper shipping costs but significantly less emitted carbon.

Though their farm is small it's one of the most diversified operations I've ever seen. One could easily hang around with Patrick and Jaem for days just to get a handle on their work.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

I'll be danged if he didn't do it again. Bucky jumped the wall Saturday night.

Earlier that day he seemed to be getting a cold. I feared pneumonia. Stressed goats, especially those which have been recently moved, get sick easily and can go down fast.

Consulting my favorite internet sites, I decided that we'd better prepare for the worst. I rounded up an antibiotic, an anti-inflammatory, vitamin B12 as well as some parasite medicine. Then we sequestered Bucky in the "sick pen" next to the wall and took his temperature. 106 seemed too high (a healthy goat's temperature runs between 102-103). So William and I held Bucky while Ellen dewormed him and administered his injections. Leaving him with some fresh water, forage and feed we urged Bucky to get some rest.

Come Sunday morning, Bucky was no where to be found. I peeked over the wall and there he was, wandering about the vacant lot.

Let me take this opportunity to offer a correction to last week's blog. I stated that Bucky had jumped a six-foot wall. However, Ellen pointed out that if I could peek over the wall while standing on my tiptoes then "the wall wouldn't be six-feet high, would it?" Good point. Make that a five-foot wall. And if there's anything that a stressed out goat loves move than a six-foot wall then that would be a five-foot wall.

Anyhow, Sansuk, our Hmong neighbor had also discovered that Bucky had escaped. Together we strategized how we might capture him. Unfortunately, Bucky didn't agree with our plans. And having made a miraculous recovery, Bucky was able to dodge and run with vim and vigor. Headed out of the vacant lot towards the four-lane highway, I figured the goat was about to meet his demise. And I'd be responsible.

However, just before reaching the road he made a wise left turn. He ran 100 yards, evading surprised neighbors and angry dogs and made another wise left turn. Trailing by 50 yards, Sansuk followed Bucky when he made a final wise left turn into the lane that borders our goat yard. Sansuk quickly opened the gate and Bucky ambled back into the coral.

Anyhow, so much for the "sick pen." Ellen and I decided that Bucky was well enough to rejoin the herd. Unfortunately, he's due a follow up shot on Thursday. Pray for us.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Burnettes Have Worms!

It's official. Our family now has worms. No, not that kind (at least as far as we know). We're raising red wrigglers that our friend Scott, an accomplished backyard worm farmer, gave us this past Friday.

I know what you're thinking. "Exactly why would you want to raise worms?"

Actually, we're not producing big, old night crawlers that we could use for fish bait like my Uncle George used to raise. Although I haven't gotten them properly identified, our worms fall into the same category as the tiger worm (Eisenia fetida) and red tiger (Eisenia andrei). These are basically composting worms. And that's exactly why we want them.

Every week our kitchen produces a bucket or two of vegetable scraps, leftover fruit and coffee grounds. We always kept these biodegradables out of the garbage can, generally spreading them around garden plants where they slowly decompose. However, this lazy form of composting is unsightly and not very intensive. By simply spreading the kitchen waste around the garden we got less bang for the buck.

But under our vermiculture (worm farming) system, as waste from the kitchen decomposes the wrigglers will ingest extremely tiny bits of the scraps. But the worms main food source is actually various types of microorganisms that break down the kitchen waste in our vermi-compost system.

So not only are the kitchen scraps being composted for future use as soil amendment within our garden, we're also gaining nutrient rich worm castings; basically worm excrement. The late Mary Applehof, author of "Worms Eat My Garbage", explains that vermi-compost (the desired end product) is "a dark mixture of worm castings, organic material, and bedding in various stages of decomposition, plus the living earthworms, cocoons and other organisms present."

Over the past few weeks I've been preparing soil in a round three-foot wide cement tank (which we previously used to raise catfish) as the future home for our wrigglers. This tank actually sits atop another tank just out of reach of the nosey goats. For starters, I bought a sack of potting soil and added several pounds of goat manure and spoiled goat feed. After moistening, the mix quickly heated up as the organic material began to biodegrade. With occasional turning, the mix eventually cooled resulting in a very rich soil compost.

After the worms were introduced on Friday we began adding kitchen scraps, keeping the whole thing covered with a layer of cardboard. So far so good. No mass wriggler die off or escape.

Never Underestimate a Stressed Out Buck

When we began raising goats almost a year and a half ago we decided we wouldn't keep a buck around. With bucks being somewhat smelly we didn't want to take the chance of offending our neighbors. Grown bucks can also behave aggressively, so I didn't want to put the boys or neighborhood kids at risk. And they have certain unmentionable habits.

That being the case, we either sold off or castrated the bucks in our small herd. In the end, however, these practices are unsustainable, especially if one wants to maintain a herd over the long-term. So we decided that a couple of times a year we'd borrow a buck from Mr. Piak, the man who sold us our first goats (and buys occasional spares).

By the way, in most parts of Thailand, you won't see many goats. As Thais aren't partial to goat meat, the animals are rarely encountered except in Muslim or other minority communities. Mr Piak, who is Muslim, raises a fairly large herd of mixed breed goats on the east side of Chiang Mai.
Anyhow, some time ago I made a deal with Mr. Piak that I would borrow a buck from time to time. If he'd provide a young healthy male, I'd do my best to feed and care for the animal.

So on Friday, after picking up my first batch of worms from Scott, we headed over to Mr. Piak's. He had picked out a fine young buck that I hauled back to the house. After settling Bucky into a new pen that we had constructed in the corner of the goat yard, I gave him some water and feed and told him to make himself at home.

A few hours later, while trying to finish up e-mails at the office, Ellen called and said for me to come home immediately. The buck was MIA. It wasn't in the goat yard and was presumably in the large, overgrown lot adjacent to the pen.
So how the heck did Bucky get out? The wall is six feet high. Ellen pointed out that I had brilliantly left three sacks of goat manure against the wall. That provided a two-foot tall spring board that the adrenaline-powered buck used to his advantage.

Fortunately, by the time I got home, Ellen and Bui Loi had located the buck in the corner of the Hmong neighbor's backyard farm. Because he was quite exhausted from the day's ordeal, we caught Bucky fairly easily and hauled him back over the wall.

The sacks of manure have been removed.

Mission Accomplished

Saturday was the first day in weeks that I had the chance to tackle the tall dry grass and brush standing in the adjacent vacant lot (where Bucky made his escape). After hours of hacking away at the vegetation with a machete and stacking the biomass about 10 meters away from our wall, the area in question is now cleared of combustible material and I can sleep at night without fear of a sneak wildfire igniting either our thatch and bamboo animal pens or our house.