Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Our Partner's Partners

Recently, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) friends in Laos informed me that colleagues with the Lao Ministry of Agriculture are currently engaged in a one-month long special studies program at Chiang Mai University. The folks at CRWRC wondered if I might have time to take their friends to see local sustainable upland farming efforts, particularly green manure cover cropping and agroforestry, being carried out by farmers in the nearby Chiang Dao district.
As Sundays are the only free days for the two Lao men, we made plans for a May 16 field trip. Crops are usually in the ground by the first week of May. Unfortunately, since the monsoon rains have yet to materialize this year, field crops such as corn and upland rice are still not planted.

By the time we arrived in Pang Daeng Nai village, mid morning temps were already above 100 degrees F. (37.7 C) and our short hike to the permanent hill fields was not comfortable. Despite the heat and the bareness of the still unplanted farms, we were able to see how local farmers are making use of crop residues to partially cover the soil. By not burning their fields, farmers allow decomposing materials to increase levels of organic matter which enrich their top soil.

We also visited green agroforest plots. These biodiverse patches are helping to extend farm productivity, even during this current drought, while the rest of the land remains unplanted.

Being from this region, the Lao agriculturists had no problem talking to local farmers and understanding their innovations. Obviously, this trip was not wasted on them.

In fact, they plan to come back later in the year after crops have been established and the landscape has been transformed. They would like to bring other Lao colleagues to learn not only from the farmers at Pang Daeng Nai, but others in nearby communities where shade grown Arabica coffee is cultivated and where Thai natural farming techniques are used to boost farm productivity with local inputs.

Basically, partners lead to more partners. And this helps ECHO's network of hunger-fighting allies to grow.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Centipedes on the Prowl

Often when watering our vegetables or applying effluent from the catfish tank I encounter a centipede or two emerging from heads of the cabbages. They usually scurry over the heads, pausing every now and then to let the water shower over them.

One such centipede made such an appearance while I happened to have the camera handy. Check him out.

Fact is, I'm a bit skittish when it comes to centipedes, especially the 6-10 inch (15-30 cm) giants of northern Thailand. They're known to inflict a terribly painful bite that can result in massive swelling or worse. Some time ago my friend Jamlong was laid up for days by the bite of one of these giants.

Fortunately, my cabbage-dwelling centipedes are much smaller; 3 inches most. Another friend, Scott, doesn't think the small ones bite very hard (not that I'm aiming to find out).

Since I encounter them on the cabbages and under the litchi leaf garden bed mulch, I'm assuming they're on the prowl for insects and worms; hopefully the looper caterpillars that chew holes in the cabbage leaves.

So for the sake of our veggies, when it comes to smaller garden centipedes, I'm willing to live and let live.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bamboo vs. Cats

A mischevious puppy led to the construction of a bamboo fence around our small home garden. But nature abhors a vacuum. The exclusion of dogs is just fine with our two cats not to mention others in the neighborhood. The felines think the soft soil in the garden beds makes a great sandbox. Unfortunately, not only do cats disturb our vegetable seedlings with their scratching but the presence of their waste is a health hazard.

No fence will keep the cats out. But other exclusion approaches have been successful. Bamboo slats cut to span the one-meter wide beds can be laid side-by-side a few centimeters apart to prevent cats from settling into the beds. Spaces between the slats can be easily adjusted to compensate for growing seedlings. And for even better cat exclusion, plastic mesh with wide holes, supported by bamboo slats, can be laid across beds until seedlings reach heights greater than 2-3 inches. As a bonus, both the closely spaced bamboo slats and plastic mesh also help to protect tender seedlings from the mid-day sun.

The bamboo and mesh are only needed for awhile as cats tend not to venture into beds filled with closely-spaced, larger plants. I wish the same applied to snails.