To view a slide show of images from Jarrett's trip to visit the organic farmers of Ubon Ratchathani, click here.
In a remote Thai village, a 24-year-old New Jersey man named Bennett Haynes farms rice and vegetables. But Haynes also plays a more sinister role: in a recent farming folk opera about rice, he's been cast by villagers in the part of sticky rice #6. This type of rice is an "improved" variety—a commodity crop sold by seed companies—that has supplanted local varieties.
In the opera, Haynes's evil character wanders the countryside, stealing the hardy brown and black grains sown for centuries and infecting the paddies with his own seed. Sticky rice #6 is white, and so is Bennett, which makes the audience chuckle.
It is difficult to downplay the significance of this crop in this part of Southeast Asia. Sticky rice is the staple of the Isaan and Lao diet. It is eaten at every single meal, plucked from rattan baskets and rolled into dense balls between fingertips. The rice then becomes utensil—used to soak up simple curries, spicy dips, or sour salads of herbs and chewy meat. But some argue against the industrialized model that produces this staple crop. Many farmers here are in debt. Alcoholism is rampant, as farmers become idle during the dry season. And the region's political discontent has raged all the way down to Bangkok. Upcountry Thai farmers are not faring well.
Which brings us back to the rice opera of Nong Yang. The opera celebrates 39 kinds of rice that a close-knit farming collective is trying to reintroduce. The organic farmers of Nong Yang think their system is broken, and they are diligently trying to fix it by promoting traditional farming methods through education and community outreach.
After visiting the Alternative Agriculture Network's website, I became increasingly curious about the nascent organic movement in Thailand's northeast. That website led me to Haynes, who spoke of a growing community of certified organic farmers he works with. Farmers who set up their own weekly "green markets" in rural towns. Farmers who do their own seed research, raise their own livestock, and release catfish and frogs into flooded rice paddies, where aquaculture flourishes in the absence of pesticides.
So I flew to Ubon Ratchathani, rented a motorcycle, and rode about 100 miles through parchment-colored rice paddies at the end of a bitter dry season. Temperatures hovered around 100, and meaningful rain hadn't fallen in months. I went to see Haynes's operation, so I can secure his organic rice for a restaurant I will open later this year in Bangkok. And it was an eye-opening experience.
Most people purchase organics for health reasons, but there's another compelling reason to go green in this part of the world: it can better the lives of impoverished farmers. In the Isaan region, many farmers have become accustomed to the sedentary lifestyle that mono-crop agriculture affords, and many are deep in debt. That's because rice prices fluctuate violently, and each growing season they must invest in new seeds, new sprays, and new fertilizers—at a cost that can outstrip their skinny margins. At the end of the growing season they sell their rice at the commodity price, and during the growing season many don't produce any other food to feed their families. "It's not a nice thing to say, but industrial farming has made Thai rice farmers lazy," Haynes explained.
The evidence is convincing: on one side of a field I walk though, rice plots lay barren, beige straw hugging parched earth. But just over a high berm—organic farmers are reintroducing large berms between paddies on which to grow other things, and to keep out chemicals—there are mango trees starting to fruit. At another farm, bananas, eggplants, galangal, and chilies spring up on shaggy rises, even in desert conditions. Other farmers grow long beans, which fix nitrogen in the soil, and raise mushrooms in old mango stumps plugged with spores. Weeds are allowed to flourish in fallow ground, as they too improve the soil. And cashew trees will soon bear fruit.