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.
"Farmers in Isaan are encountering a troubling cycle of investment and debt," said Haynes, who lives a spartan life here (he's moving back to the U.S. this month). "What our organization does is to try to teach them to diversify their crops, to work the land, and to think like clever farmers again. And it works: if AAN (Alternative Agriculture Network) can convince them to lose yields for two to three years while their land recovers from chemical shocks, their yields generally exceed what they were growing before. And our rice is fair trade and certified organic, so it's worth more. Farmers can also raise fish and frogs in the paddies ... These farmers have all the food they need, and some to sell on the side."