04 March 2012


As our first unit on food comes to a close and we begin our next unit on land, I cannot help but reflect on how my views of our food system in America have changed as a result of the families I stayed with and interacted with on this first unit. While I have always been conscious about the food put into my body, I never really considered where it came from or the journey it had to make to sit before me. I have always been pro-organic, and as someone who eats mostly vegetarian, have always embraced my love for fresh vegetables. However, after leaving Yasothon, the region in Isaan we primarily worked in on our past unit, I can safely say my views on organic farming and sustainability have changed for good, in a way that makes me want to change my role in the food system today.

In Yasothon I stayed with Paw (father) Wan and Mae (mother)Meow, both farmers that live in a house with their daughter and her partner, and their other daughter’s child. Both Mae and Paw are active members of the sustainable organic farming movement in Yasothon. Paw is an active member of the AAN, the Alternative Agriculture Network. He switched from chemical farming to organic farming in 2001. In 2002 he joined the AAN, seeking to switch the farming community in Yasothon to totally organic.

Mae Meow is also a farmer and sells her products at the Green Market in Yasothon that gathers a couple times a week. At the Green Market, Mae sells the vegetables and rice that she and Paw grow. Other Maes sell their produce there as well. The market is completely organic and is frequented by members of the organic community as well as members of the community that still farm with chemicals.

On the last day of our home stay in Yasothon, I accompanied Mae to the Green Market. I arose at 5 am to meet her there, although she had been gone since 2 am to arrive at the market by 3 am to set up. She was up late the night before, too, making sweet coconut pastries wrapped in banana leaves that she would sell for 10 baht a bundle, the equivalent of 30 cents. When I arrived at the market, I was overwhelmed by all that I saw: white rice, red rice, brown rice, small bananas, pastries, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and many other kinds of vegetables and drinks. All completely organic! I wanted to eat absolutely everything.

There were about thirty women working at the Green Market, and many of them were selling the same strains of rice and similar fruits and vegetables. However, I noticed that there was really no sense of competition. If one Mae made a sale, there were no glares from the other sellers, no apparent bad feelings brewing. All of the women were happily selling their foods together, as if they were all on the same team. Their organic community seemed to be all for one and one for all. In fact, at the end of the market, my Mae told me that she would trade her goods for other goods that had not been sold. When I asked her if she ever needed to go shopping at a supermarket, she replied that she could sustain her family on food that she and her husband grew. What she could not grow, she could trade for with other women at the market.

This sense of support and community through agriculture and sustainability is something almost foreign to me as an American. At home it feels like there is much competition between stores and sellers, and most of the food is processed in chemicals and sold for way more expensive than it should be. The Yasothon community’s sense of sustainability has made me really consider where my dollar truly goes. I now more than ever am aspiring to buy local, trying to find a way that supports local farmers that are constantly being overpowered by an unfair and corrupt system.

-Abby Friedman

Kenyon College


Emily, CIEE-SL student said...

I have so many questions about the organic farming movement in Thailand! Is it a hold-out community or a wildly-recognized movement? Is it an effort to hold onto traditional farming practices or a new style growing out of the rejection of the "green revolution" or something similar?

It's great that something on the other side of the world tunes you into something at home, namely the industrial food system. I've been similarly questioning since I arrived in the Dominican Republic as part of CIEE-SL in Santiago. Here we spent a week in a mountain community heavily influenced by organic agriculture, where a school to spread knowledge of organic practices was founded in 1982. The work and mission of the school was admirable and well-needed and it made me wonder about the agriculture going on in the plains of the country. As a fertile tropical nation, the DR is a great location for growing cash crops for export to the US. Staying more local, where does the fruit that my host mother prepares for me come from? The same place as the mountains of plantains in the streets?

With that, I turn back to Thailand and am curious to know, outside of Yasothon, where does the food in Thai kitchens come from? What sort of efforts are there to spread organic practices and what does their progress say about global trends?

Anna Cecilia, CIEE-SL student said...

In my own hometown of Eugene, Oregon, there is a big push as well for organic agriculture and buying locally. We have a full market twice a week for the various farmers to sell their products, as well as various grocery stores that focus on selling all-organic products. However, I don’t know if the farmers are organized, nor nearly enough about to whom they sell their products. Reading this, and participating in the CIEE-SL program in Santiago, Dominican Republic, has peaked my interest of this system.
The dynamic of the market explained here is fascinating. The apparent absence of competition and the sense of community support is not a common trend, particularly in the United States, and I would love to know more about how the system works. Is Mae’s situation a common one? Do all the women find that they can support themselves and get what they need all through what they grow and trade? I am anxious to learn about the possible existence of these trends in my own hometown, and to see if creating a dynamic like this would be possible there.

Isabelle Jaffe, CIEE-SL student said...

I found it really interesting when you said that Mae’s farming was sustainable and provided her with enough food to feed her family, and that anything that she did not have, she could get from other sellers easily. I believe that no matter how “poor” someone is, as long as they have enough to live comfortably, they are wealthy. I wonder, would Mae seem “poor” to some people? To other Thais or to outsiders? Does she feel as though her life is full and she has everything she needs? She seems very content and satisfied in the life she leads.

Also, I loved reading about the sense of community between the Maes: no one feels competitive or scorns another person simply because she makes a sale. In the United States, I feel like organic farming has a similar feeling—whenever I go to a farmer’s market or an organic farm to buy groceries, there’s always a deep sense of community between the sellers, as if they’re united in their love for their cause. Do you feel that way about the Thai sellers? Are they happy for each other because they are all providing organic food, or simply because it is their culture and their custom not to begrudge another person their success?

Ellery Graves, CIEE Thailand said...

To answer some of these questions from you CIEE-SL friends, with a couple more months of staying with families and farmers, it seems as though the organic method is not widely accepted practice across Thailand, but it’s a growing one.

We just came back from a community that was displaced by a dam being built on their wetlands, the source of their livelihood, many years ago. Now they are trying to further strengthen the community that was created among villages through their struggle against the government getting compensation for their loss of livelihood, culture, and home around the wetlands. Some very motivated and inspiring community leaders hope to start a Green Market for only organic produce as a way to unite the community again- this time around healthy, sustainable new ways-of-life. However, this is still a new idea. It seems the majority of farmers in northeastern Thailand rely on chemical fertilizer to continue to cultivate the same piece of land season after season. I think just as it has take a couple decades to really catch on in America, it will need some time before the organic movement becomes a commonplace in Thailand but it is definitely on it’s way.

MavaMarie Cooper said...

It seems only fitting that I comment on this seeing as Paw Wan and Mae Meow were my parents as well in Yasothon but I also think you make a wonderful point about the comparison of rural Thai and American views on the food system. I remember Mae Meow asking me once where I got my food in America. I started to explain to her the idea of a supermarket, that I was able to get food from any country in one place. She was so confused. She kept asking me if I knew the people who grew the food. Obviously I didn’t but and I felt really stupid about it. It is amazing to think that their family could subside completely on the things they grew. In America, this is a rare occurrence. Self-sufficiency has been replaced with capitalism and the commercialization of agriculture. Being there definitely made me more conscious of where I get my food and the people behind the things that I eat.