Gettin’ Busy at the Organic Mulberry Farm

La mia anima sa scieglre tra valori.

In alcuni si trova meglio.

E perche’ allora non dovrei gettermici a corpo perduto?

– Cesare Pavese, Journals.

My soul knows how to choose among values.

It’s happier with some than with others.

Why, then, shouldn’t I throw myself towards them headfirst?

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Meet Thanongsi Sorangkoun, aka “Mr. T.” Since 2009, Characters such as Mr. T. have started entereing my life with greater and greater frequency. First, it was Aviram Rozin, an Israeli CEO who saved up $63,000, quit, moved to India, and started Sadhana Forest. Most recently, it’s been Beau, a Louisiana boy who somehow found himself rich beyond his wildest dreams after landing a job in the oil business in Singapore. Two years ago he quit to start Rak Tamachat, the permaculture farm and natural building community in Thailand where I’m staying now. In between have been several Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese folks with similar stories. Mr. T., likewise, spent most of his life working as a civil servant in Vientiane until 20 years ago when he moved to Vang Vieng to start an organic farm. In addition to farming, the he’s also involved in all sorts of other village outreach activities, from English lessons to community organization initiatives to natural building workshops. Lured by a sign for “Organic Farm Guesthouse and Restaurant,” I coasted into his home just a few hours after climbing – and descending! – the last of four months’ worth of mountain peaks. Goodbye, China. Hello, possible futures.

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Organic Farm Vang Vieng is the kind of place that just makes sense to me. No TV in the restaurant, or anwyhere else for that matter. Nothing that looks overly expensive. Nobody with showy clothes. Nobody doing anything that makes me wonder, “why is our world like this?” Strangers sit down together for meals, become friends while helping out with chores, and spend their evenings drinking homemade wine and playing cards. I felt at home immediately – so much so that after a bowl of warm curry I decided to postpone by a day or two my plans of visiting the SAELAO project, another similar community not too far away. The following day, I agreed to stay on for another week.

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Guests at OFVV can choose whether or not to participate in the daily farm work. This includes: feeding the piggies (kitchen waste, downed fruit, and wet rice bran ) and cleaning their pens. BONUS: pig poo gets hosed into a sluice behind their pens, where it drains into an underground chamber. The liuid waste drains out, the dry waste turns to compost, and the gas released through natural decomposition processes gets captured as biogas, which can be used for cooking. One pig’s manure produces enough biogas for one person to cook meals for himself for a day.

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Feeding the guinea pigs grass cut from nearby fields, and cleaning their cages.

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Feeding the goats mulberry leaves and banana leaves as well as wet rice bran. Heading out to the fields to gather said leaves. Shredding said leaves with a wood chipper (I never quite undestood why). Cleaning the goats’ pens. Freeing them when they push their head through the slats of their pen and can’t get back in.

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Helping the staff to milk the goats and to make cheese and yogurt.

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Feed the chickens and Guinea fowl (really strange looking creatures, but it was too dark inside to take any photos) and collect their eggs.

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Heading out in the morning to pick all the avocados that had dropped the previous night. Also picked starfruit, rose apples, rambutans, pineapples, bananas, and more.

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Two-tiered goat house: the goats live up top on slatted floors, which a) keeps them cool (after all, they’re mountain animals) without any air conditioning or artificicial ventilation, and b) allows their pee, poo, and leftover food to drop down into the compost pits below.

What do I enjoy so much about doing menial, repetitive work with on behalf of these smelly and stubborn beasts? Well, for one, of course, they’re all cute and charming in their own ways. Like the goofy contrast between the Guinea fowl’s beautifull patterned coat and its god-ugly shrunken head. Or how most of the goats that didn’t enjoy milking (though the majority by far didn’t seem to mind) tried to just run away from us, but one genius would simply plop her hind quarters down on the floor and refuse to budge. And the little chirps and gurgles and odd video game sounds that the Guniea pigs made every time there was a crash of thunder; since we usually keep them in relative isolation, we never get a feel for what vociferous little buggers they really are when in a community of hundreds.

It’s more than the quirkiness, though. It was the elegant, ingenious, eco-friendly, sustainable, profitable, easy, and so-gosh-darn-clever-it-blows-my-mind system that they were all parts of. To wit:

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In the first draft of this post, I wrote that I wished I could diagram the goings on at OFVV, but that it would be too convlouted. Then I tried to put it into words. Immediate problem: where to start, and where to end? In an ideal permaculture setup, each plant, animal, and even structure fits into a web of relationships and performs a number of functions, making various other parts of the system more healthy, more robust, and more productive, and on and on and on, eventually carryig on into a virtuous feedback loop . Yes, better to express it with a drawing, where everything is presented at once in all sloppy glory.

In this case, take goats – they provide the farm with milk, out of which they make yogurt and cheese, which can be either consumer or sold at a profit. They can also be eaten, sold at market, or lent to nearby farmers and villages as development aids. Their presence attracts visitors and generates extra income for the farm. Finally, their effluent drops down into the compost bin below to be processed by worms, thus entering into the compost cycle, eventually improving the soil that allows their very own food to grow up quick and healthy. The pigs, chickens, guinea pigs, edible plants, and inedible plants are all bound up in the same web. As are we. The drawing above makes it look like we don’t give back, but we do – because of us, the animals have safe, stable lives, free from privation and predation. Large swaths of land are protected from those who would turn it into hotels or parking lots, so that life prevails where concrete might otherwise. Further, agrarian communities that follow Mr. T’s example rather than conventional ones are more likely to approach a sort of closed-loop self-sufficiency, thereby having less reason to take out loans for new products and machinery, less chance of incurring debt, fewer financial burdenrs, and thus a much easier time maintaining old traditions and lifestyles, and using discerment when deciding which parts of modernity they’d like to accept.

Compare this to the current conventional story: large-scale farms raise either one kind of livestock or one kind of crop, but rarely both or a variety of either. Inputs like feed, fertilizers, and pesticides are purchased from the outside, often from abroad, with little attention paid to the effects their production have on distant environments, or the effect their transportation has on our atmosphere. Wastes, rather than being recaptured and used, are allowed to concentrate, to fester, and perhaps to pollute local water sources or ecosystems. Inputs travel as if on a giant conveyor built, eventually becoming either outputs, which generate private profit, or externalities (pollution, depletion, climate change), which generate social loss.

My soul knows how to choose among values.

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And I choose this! Oh, wormpost, thou sweet black gold!

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Newborn piggies. Even here at OFVV, nothing is perfect: of the seven piglets, only four were born alive, and only two were alive after three days.

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Not only was the farm system exceedingly well thought-out; the food was also exceedingly excellent. So much so that it deserves its own post – check back in two or three days. Or, head over to the OFVV website at http://www.laofarm.org, which I spent my afternoons setting up for them in exchange for heavily discounted meals and priority access to all the downed avocados.

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From Monday through Thursday, the other volunteers and I would bicycle a kilometer or two to the nearby village school, where the Equal Education for All charity (http://www.eefalaos.org) provides year-round free English lessons. Conditions were basic: most students had pens and notebooks, but few had much else. Nor were the classrooms particularly well equipped. Chalkboards, but no books, overhead projectors, or computers with powerpoint. Chalk and erasers, we bought ourselves in town and left for future teachers to use. No funding to provide for daily printouts, games, and so on. Students of all different ages, skill levels, dedication. And, of course, no long-term teachers. Just an gap-filled chain of foreign volunteers, few of whom were professionals and most of whom had never met and will never meet one another. My professional diagnosis: this is a Challenging Situation. How far can good intentions take us?

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Many farmers in Laos earn less than $400 a year, and that money often has to go to support a family with grandparents past working age and several children who haven’t quite reached it. Learning English gives the kids access to the giant stores of wealth of the West, some of whose citizens wouldn’t blink at spending $400 on a single day on vacation. It’s also the key (well, one of many) to higher education,, since Laos has few universities and few options about what can be learned.

Part of me wishes that Laos would stay pure and pristine; that nobody would leave the villages for the cities, that nobody would trade in the deep joys of life writ small for the shallowness of the city, that they would all realize that they’ve already got what it takes to be happy, and that we Westerners have a lot to learn from them, not only the other way around. And yet, realistically speaking, the change is coming. All the money and power rest in the hands of people who have already accepted that Laos’ future is development and urbanization. These kids and their families don’t have a choice about what kind of society they’ll get to live in; all they can choose is whether or not to try to understand the process and prevernt their own marginalization.

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I gave myself two missions for my ten days with EEFA: first, to do what I could in my five class sessions with the kids to establish good drilling habits and overcome reticence to participate in realistic, communicative activities; and second, to convey to the other volunteers everything I had learned in four years of teaching and one month of intensive CELTA methodology training.

For those who want details about what I taught:

Day 1: Introduction questions (What’s your name?, etc) and answers.

Day 2: My name is X, Your name is Y, His/Her name is Z

Day 3: 2 Again, plus I am from Laos, You are from America, He/She Is from England. Observation: the students all know pretty perfectly what verb matches up with what subject (i.e. good old rote memorization), but they don’t understand the difference between the personal pronouns. For instance, Q: What’s your name? / A: My name is Sai; Q: What’s my name? / A: My name is Mike. Pro: Prime material for mingle games! Con: Students have never heard of or tried mingle games.

Day 4: More work on personal prounounds, this time showing pictures of my faminly and adding in a few basic physical description adjectives, which, again, they already knew, but didn’t know how to use right. More standing up, moving, chatting, communicating.

Day 5: More of the same, with a few adjectives about emotions.

All in all, goal 1 went pretty well – by the last day, most students could scream out the answer correctly and with confidence when I barraged the class as a whole with a series of questions like “What’s my name? Where are you from? How old is he? Am I tall? Are you angry?” Some even enjoyed it!

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Actually, this boy was not among those that enjoyed it. None of the boys were. Most of them wanted to be outside playing soccer. Part of me wishes I had a month or longer with these kids to learn their names, learn their needs, learn their personalities, and put together a series of lessons that would really serve them. Another part of me is kind of shamefully relieved to have visa deadlines, plans to meet friends, some sponsorships in the works (!), and other such excuses to avoid trying something so difficult.

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As for goal 2, meet Will: a young English chap on a short break from his college studies. On Monday, he was a trainee. On Tuesday, an observer and a prop. On Wednesday, a co-teacher. On Thursday, he took the reigns. A week later he would pass them on to someone else. May the chain go unbroken…

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Alas, such was my life for ten days. In a word: intense. The joys of working together with local villagers and forieng volunteers on dirty, sweaty, stinky, and often hilarious farm tasks. Frequent tongue twistage as I attempted to speak with other guests in Korean, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, and even English for the first time in so long. The constant physical pain and emotional ecstasy of being verbally contract-bound to eat and photograph one of everything on the menu. The spiritual agony of not having the resources or time to give the schoolchildren what they needed. The mental agony of trying to plan quality lessons for them anyway.

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And, last but not least, the comradery at my farwell dinner where Mr. T. wined and dined us all. The capstone was when he, usually so busy and taciturn, stood to toast us volunteers out of gratitude for our time and effort. I congratulated him in return for having managed, against so many obstacles, to have put together such a powerful place, and thanked him for letting me be a part of it, if only for a few short weeks.

If you or any friends have plans to visit Laos, I highly recommend a stay at Organic Farm Vang Vieng. http://www.laofarm.org.

If you or any friends might want to dedicate a week or two to teaching (or make a donation), I highly recommend Equal Education for All. http://www.eefalaos.org. .

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5 Responses to Gettin’ Busy at the Organic Mulberry Farm

  1. Marisa says:

    I noticed in on Eiffel the classroom photos that the first row is all boys, with girls scattered in the rows behind. Why is that?

    • Michael Roy says:

      Yeah, so, for the first four days the kids all naturally segregated, with girls (3 rows or so) in front and boys in the back, though they would talk to each other a fair bit during games. While I was up at the board, though, the boys were being a little naughty and inattentive – even some of the ones who were quite good. I moved them all up front mostly as an experiment, but it seemed to work pretty well. I got the feeling that there was some peer pressure preventing them from displaying their interest in English, but when they were up closer to me, it dissipated. This is the sort of teaching knowledge that really only appears after you’ve spent a good amount of time with a certain group, which is why the teaching situation at these sort of volunteer projects is so difficult…

  2. Marisa says:

    Eiffel?? How did I type “one of” so wrong that it corrected to Eiffel??

  3. Maryanne Bell says:

    Dear Michael,
    I loved the blog. Do take care with the seating arrangements so that girls are not disadvantaged… boys seek attention by any means. Perhaps rotate the seating so that everyone gets a turn at the front etc.