Sandot Sukkaew explains the difference between his own organic rice paddies
and the chemically-treated ones in the background.
As the forests were felled, the life-giving water disappeared – Thai farmer Sandot Sukkaew made that critical connection decades ago while laboring in the mud of his father’s rice paddies, and he’s spent the past 20 years trying to remedy the situation.
In 2009 and 2010, as unusually dry rainy seasons lead to droughts that threatened the crops of farmers in the Pai valley, the fields of Sukkaew’s 25-acre Tacomepai farm were still watered, with full dams and bubbling springs providing all the moisture required for showers, drinking water, irrigation, and even a swimming hole.
It wasn’t long before neighbors came over to ask for some help. Sukkaew was waiting with a smile, a quick word about the importance of trees and earthworks, and an assurance that the water would soon be on its way. It’s the sort of quiet, friendly, but determined sustainable agriculture evangelism the farmer has been engaged in for years, yet he says that despite the success of his farm, his neighbors have not been quick to follow his lead.
After years of talking about the benefit of building soil, eschewing chemicals, and restoring forests to prevent droughts, Sukkaew has earned himself a reputation among the locals.
“I try to explain; always they call me crazy,” Sukkaew said. “They not interested to see where the water is from.”
The Making Of An Organic Farmer
It wasn’t until after Sukkaew planted 1,200 mango trees that he realized he’d gone astray.
After attending a technical trade school as a young man and serving a stint in the Thai Army, he spent a short but successful career as an electrical engineer working on power plants in Saudi Arabia. After seeing the oil wealth of that country contrasted with its unhappy people and wasted deserts, what Sukkaew said he wanted more than anything was to escape the consumerist mentality he felt lead to so much destruction and discontent.
He returned to Thailand in 1991 to the farm his grandfather and father worked before him to find it a nearly-treeless 25 acres of sand and compacted earth leading down to a series of rice paddies.
Sandot, on a forest path through his property, explains how he grafted tasty
mangoes onto the rootstock of bitter wild mangoes, which were all that
could grow in the farm’s sandy soil when he began his work 20 years ago.
Those paddies relied on irrigation water piped in from ever-more distant forest reservoirs, but every time a new water source was found farther back in the mountains it would soon go dry as the the trees that fed it were felled for timber, more farm land, and development. In the past 150 years, Thailand’s forests have declined from a high of 70 percent of the land to the current 30 percent, Sukkaew said.
Trees that do not produce crops are not a particularly well-respected thing among Thai farmers, he said, and his father and grandfather worked hard to cut down the farm’s large trees in the belief this would ultimately improve yield. The water continued to dwindle.
Upon his return to Thailand, Sukkaew decided he would do things differently than the other Thai farmers, eschewing chemicals for rich compost and reforesting the land with productive tree crops as well as the wild trees found in the forests. His idea was to work with nature, encouraging its natural processes and building an ecologically rich and productive farm.
“I use natural compost, from the trees,” he said. “The animals, they help.”
It was at this time he decided the best way to make a living was to plant a large cash crop of mangoes on terraces he hand-dug into the farm’s sloping hillsides. While also holding down various jobs in the area, he worked hard in every spare moment to plant his trees, building dams and water-saving earthworks by hand. Within a few years his trees were yielding large, tasty mangoes.
He had dreams of selling his fruit, but Tacomepai, which he named after his grandfather, is relatively remote. The closest town, Pai, is only 6 kilometers away, but the population is small and the local market has no use for such a large supply of mangoes. The nearest large city with a wholesale market, Chiang Mai, is almost four hours away by road, but he decided to load up a large truck with his first harvest and drive off to the market.
One of the numerous styles of bamboo houses at Tacomepai farm
He wasn’t aware farmers had to bribe the local police, and couldn’t figure out why they were harassing him on his way, hoping to get some money out of him. When he finally arrived at Chiang Mai, he found no one willing to give him a fair price for his crop, despite how tasty his mangoes were.
“They didn’t care about the organic,” he said.
In desperation, he drove another three hours to Bangkok, where he finally found someone willing to pay him something.
“It was not a lot,” he said. “Not enough.”
After two years of these problems, he decided that he’d gone astray, and that there were better, simpler ways for him to live.
Tacomepai Farm Today
I met Sukkaew in July of 2011, 20 years into his farming venture. I was staying at Tacomepai for a two-week permaculture design course, and the farmer immediately struck me with his near continuous smile, ready laugh, and encyclopedic knowledge of local plants.
Leading us on a tour of the farm past free-ranging ducks and chickens, it was obvious he has a deep affinity for his land, and is proud of the changes he’s wrought there. Walking into the forest, he crouched down and scooped up a handful or rich black earth, letting it fall through his fingers.
Sandot explains the role of nitrogen fixers in soil regeneration
“This all sand when I started, 20 years ago,” he said. Farther on, he pointed out the six interconnected dams he labored to build up and a gravity-powered ram pump that sends water up a slope to fill a holding tank. Down slope from his terraced mango orchard, several springs have burst from the ground. He used them to fill a swimming hole encircled by bananas plants.
Today, his crop is much more diversified than the monocrop farms of his neighbors, and he makes his living selling small surpluses to locals. Little of his massive mango harvest is sold, with the rest eaten by visitors, given away, or allowed to decompose on site and enrich the soil.
These Times, They Are A Changing
The 49-year-old Sukkaew said the voice of sustainability is often drowned out by the the loud calls of the chemical companies. Although he regularly invites locals to see what he does at Tacomepai, he can’t compete with the dance parties and gifts chemical companies put together for local farmers to hook them on their products.
Yet Sukkaew said things are changing, and believes his message is becoming more and more relevant as global temperatures rise and water shortages become more and more of an issue for locals.
Although the local Thais shun his tree-planting advice, they are starting to see that his strategies are useful. Neighbors saw how his own farm remained well-watered in the recent drought years, for instance, and benefited from his release of water, which Sukkaew said made an impression.
Elsewhere, there are other signs of difference. Sukkaew’s rice fields, which are chemical free and rely on nitrogen-fixing cover crops, added organic matter, and a mix of beneficial predators to keep them productive, are free of the snails which ravage the paddies just over the property line. Sukkaew says his paddies require more labor, but get almost double the yield compared to neighboring chemically-treated fields.
Local women who like to eat bug larvae have found his farm’s forests and paddies are the only local areas where these creatures remain in large numbers. They like to come to his farm to collect them, and Sukkaew hopes they’ll come to understand their presence is caused by the lack of harmful chemicals.
Almost harvest-ready banana plants at the farm
But even if the locals aren’t eager to adopt his message, the wider world definitely is, he said.
In 2006, a lost foreigner ended up at Taicomepai and explained to Sukkaew that his methods and philosophy were essentially the same as those embraced by permaculturists, which the farmer had never heard of. Soon after he opened up the farm to visitors from all over the world. Many young educated Thais from the cities are also visiting, curious to see how his farm works.
The permaculture design course I attended in July of 2011 was the first on his farm, with Sukkaew and permaculturists Damien Bohler and Stephen Thomas sharing the teaching.
Sukkaew’s methods are at the extreme end of the do-as-little-work-as-possible philosophy often embraced by permaculturists. His forests could be more productive if more intensely managed and pruned, he said, but he prefers to let nature have its way and to leave time for the things he values, such as playing music with friends and chatting with visitors.
He’s made various tradeoffs, such as not building a duck or chicken house so the animals will range about the yard and sleep in the forest. This means it’s harder to collect eggs, but while the penned chickens of his neighbors have often died off from disease, his have remained healthy.
The roaming animals also serve as the farm’s cleanup service, picking up food scraps from the open-air kitchen and dining area. “I not need to clean,” Sukkaew said. “They do it.”
Rather than embracing expensive technologies and building techniques, he prefers to rely on natural forces, such as the gravity which moves his water to showers and water tanks. His buildings are mostly built of local bamboo using techniques he’s copied from the Thai hill tribes that live in the mountains, although he’s also experimenting with mud brick and other methods.
Permaculture teacher Damien Bohler, who is currently living at Tacomepai, said Sukkaew’s low-work approach shows how flexible permaculture is and the wide range of styles that can be accommodated under its umbrella. “I think it’s cool,” he said of how the farm functions.
He noted that while building compost piles would be a quicker way to improve the soil, Sukkaew prefers to take the longer route of simply allowing the trees to enrich the land while adding uncomposted organic matter to areas that need it.
“It works, but it’s slower,” he said.
The farm now has about a dozen structures, including numerous bamboo huts tucked away in gorgeous locations – such as the one fronting a beautiful rice paddy I was staying in – a school house, open-air kitchen, charcoal production and sauna building, and several others. Many lack electricity, and at night the sky is a brilliant panorama of distant constellations.
Spreading The Message
With the help of foreigners impressed by his work, Sukkaew has purchased a new plot of land not far from Tacomepai which he intends to turn into a self sufficient education farm for foreigners and local Thais. The land technically belongs to a national park, but lax laws mean these lands are often stripped bare by locals who want to grow soybeans, corn, and other monocrops.
The “Banana Dam,” a small water-slowing earthwork on Sandot’s new
property built by myself and five other volunteers from the Permaculture
Design Course. The dam was built by digging down until clay soil was
hit and then filling rice bags with sand to form the dam wall.
The end result is more drought, unprotected soils being washed away by the summer rains, and a devastated landscape. Sukkaew said he hopes to reforest this land into a productive food, nut, and wood-producing forest while also creating several sustainable rice paddies and other demonstration fields planted in a sustainable manner with combinations like the corn, beans, and squash guild.
As part of the design course our group constructed several small sandbag dams on the property’s often-dry streams, which Sukkaew said he hopes will be flowing with water again in a few years after reforestation and swaling efforts have taken off.
Because many Thai Farmers have seen the soil of their deforested land degrade, he hopes that the site, which is visible from a road often traveled by farmers, will help show them a better way to make a living.
With the earth continuously degrading, the local farmers may have no choice but to change their ways.
“I think one day they will know,” Sukkaew said.
You can learn more about Tacomepai and upcoming events at the farm’s website.