Kids learn about Sustainable Agriculture with Sian Tawong by making natural, liquid fertilizer
My name is Sian Tawong and I am the Director for the Nong Sai School. Nong Sai is a village about 100 kilometers from Khon Kaen, Thailand. In addition to the regular school curriculum, we teach 5th and 6th grade kids about sustainable agriculture for several hours every week.
 
With PLAN's help and working with local farmers, we have turned the farms around the school into model farms. The kids learn about nature, ecology and farming by actually working with local farmers on the farms. This is a living classroom where everyone learns from nature.
 
These model farms are an alternative to 'modern' forms of agriculture, which have become almost universal in Thailand.
 
'Modern' Agriculture in Thailand
'Modern' agriculture here in Thailand strives to produce high yields of single crops such as rice, sugar and corn. Forest land is cleared to make room for large fields. Motorized farm machinery, chemical fertilizers and pesticides are all employed to increase production. These techniques do initially boost yields and their short-term success has contributed to their wide spread use.
 
Farmers buy or rent motorized farm equipment to care for both larger and in some cases even small fields. This is due to:
  • The modern value system of consumerism i.e. "consuming"
  • More than half of the family members have migrated to far away industrial and commercial areas to work - causing labor shortages for farming. Also, because they are shorthanded, they cannot keep buffaloes for farming which require daily caring.
  • Limited pasture land (public and private) for buffaloes or cattle.
However, these practices are disastrous to fragile local ecologies. As the forests disappear so do their bounty of fruit trees, edible and medicinal plants and insects and other animals, which are important local food sources.
 
Pesticides become less effective as pests develop immunities to their poisons. More and different pesticides are needed. Pesticides along with chemical fertilizers pollute local water supplies. This is not only a health threat to humans but also kills fish and other aquatic life, which are also important food sources.
 
Farmers have become less self-reliant. They must buy motorized farm equipment, petrol, fertilizers and pesticides. They also have to purchase herbs, fruit, fish, insects, etc. they used to get for free from the forest. Overall, they are worse off than before modernization.
 
A Better Way of Farming: Permaculture
For some years now, small groups of Permaculture farms have been a successful alternative to 'modern' agricultural practices in this area. However, Permaculture farming is just starting with our model farms in the village of Nong Sai.
 

A local woman farmer (left), Sian Tawong and Suphot Namliwan (a member of the sustainable agriculture group who helps teach the children) show off a nice pumpkin, growing among the trees

Proud Permaculture farmers
Permaculture is a term coined in 1978 by Bill Morrison, an Australian ecologist, to refer to a sustainable way of farming where people and nature support one another.
 
Permaculture is a philosophy and an approach rather than a predefined set of farming practices. We watch the natural local ecosystem to learn how to live and produce food in harmony with nature. We also utilize techniques developed by older Permaculture farms in this area and learn from traditional farming practices. We are constantly experimenting with new ideas and improving our methods.
 
Plant Synergy
We grow a diversity of plants together, instead of large fields of a single crop. Banana, coconut, mango and other trees grow together along with herbs and vegetables planted in between. This is a more efficient way to use the land and is also how plants grow in nature.
  • Water is conserved since run off from one plant is utilized by another.
  • Food is produced throughout the year rather than one large harvest.
  • Space around a maturing plant is utilized. For instance, coconut trees take many years to grow large enough to bear fruit. Several generations of banana trees can grow around the coconut tree and produce fruit during this time.
  • Plants such as Sweet Lemon Grass are grown because insects do not like their smell. They act as a natural pesticide for the other plants.
  • Watering and fertilizing are easier to do in a compact space so it also conserves the farmer's energy.

Student diluting a batch of Grow Water
Natural Fertilizers
We do not use any chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Instead we use an organic, locally produced, liquid fertilizer, known as Grow Water. It is made by mixing a variety of local, ground up, plants with sugar, water and microorganisms from a previous batch of the fertilizer. The mixture is allowed to ferment for seven days, becoming a molasses-like fertilizer. Grow Water can then be diluted with water and used for a variety of purposes including fertilizing, grafting plants and repelling insects.
 
Of course rice is an important staple here. We prepare the soil for rice paddies by growing a type of bean plant in the paddy during the off-season. The bean plants are then plowed into the soil before the rice is planted to add nitrogen and humus to the field.
 
Less Work for the Farmer
Sustainability also requires the conservation of the farmer's energy. We plant trees and vegetables in a circle around a compost pit. Discarded plant matter is placed in the compost pit. Grow Water is sprinkled on the dead plant matter to encourage decomposition. These compost pits are referred to as Fertilizer Banks because they are a reservoir of nutrients for the crops. The trees send roots under the Fertilizer Bank and make 'withdrawals' directly. It is easy for the farmer to fertilize vegetables because the Fertilizer Bank is right next to the plants.
 

Fishponds, ready for new crops to be planted on their banks

Learning from nature
Fishponds
Another local technique is to plant crops around small fishponds. We contour the land into mounds and pits. The pits are then lined with plastic sheets. Rain or water pumped from nearby reservoirs turns the pits into small ponds and Grow Water is added to these ponds to encourage algae growth. Baby fish are put into the ponds to grow into a delicious food source. A variety of plants are grown on the mounds. The nutrient rich pond water is used to water the plant, conserving human energy by its close proximity to the plants. After the growing season, the mud on the bottom of the pond is used to enrich the soil.
 
A Better Life
Our farms are quite self-sufficient which is also important to sustainability. There is very little we need to buy. We are even able to generate income by selling surplus fruit, vegetables and fish.
 
It is very satisfying to work with the people of Nong Sai developing a better way to grow food. Hopefully, the children, who are learning the long-term benefits of sustainable agriculture, will spread the news in their own village, to villages throughout Thailand and the world.
 
Lessons Learned:
It is very difficult to persuade a farmer to change their agricultural practices because it is their livelihood. They must learn about and see a better alternative in practice over a long period of time to be convinced. This requires sustainable community involvement. Institutions must be formed, such as local committees, which are dedicated to learning, implementing and teaching the new agricultural practices.
 

(click on the lotus leaves above)
Nature is the best teacher.
 
See More Photos from Nong Sai village
For more information, email Mr. Chalin Subpamong , Program Support Manager c-thaila@plan.geis.com
 
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