In Thai, “gin kow” means “to eat”, but, literally, the phrase means “to consume rice”. The significance of rice in southeast Asia is embedded in the language, because if you want to eat like a southeast Asian, you will eat rice three times a day. If you are tired of rice, you can switch to noodles, which are made of rice. Afterwards, you can eat dessert, which is most likely made of rice.
Rice is the staple food for over half the world, and Thailand is the world’s biggest exporter (having recovered its title, after a disastrous government rice subsidy program). In Thailand’s countryside, the importance of rice is inescapable. Rice fields stretch out from the roads further than the eye can see, parceled into rectangles and connected for irrigation. Because different farmers plant at different times, if you are lucky, you can see the whole life cycle of the crop from one vantage point. Rice is everywhere, because as my Thai friend Pom puts it, “rice is life”.
Pom and U own a rice farm about two hours north of Bangkok, in central Thailand. Both are former marketing and graphic design professionals who lived in Bangkok for much of their adult lives. However, after years spent in the fast-paced city, the couple decided to leave their careers and return to the countryside. They spent a season at an innovative hands-on farm school in eastern Thailand, studying different methods of organic farming, before moving back to Pom’s family home and starting their own rice farm.
Driving past highway-side rice fields, Pom and U explain to me how to “read” the rice fields. Patches of grass show that the farmer doesn’t use herbicides; the uniform rows of tall rice stalks indicate machinery and fertilizer. I watch U stare out the window as he drives, observing the rice fields. I know that he is calculating, analyzing the crops, but for me, the rice fields are simply hypnotizing.
When we arrive home, I try to read U’s rice. The fields are beautifully parceled into different types: black rice, low sugar rice, and scented rice. U and Pom, after studying organic agriculture, are intentional in everything they do on their farm. U chooses to plant his rice using a mix of old methods. He plants small patches by hand, ensuring a high yield for saving seeds, and other fields he plants by a simple scattering method. The rice is high quality and high yield, but without large machinery, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizer, it takes a lot of time and work to maintain.
Pom focuses on the health of their soil, in the rice fields and in their vegetable garden. The couple literally brews fertilizers for their own soil. They ferment organic materials, like fish from their pond, and combine it with samples from their soil, multiplying the local microorganisms. The anaerobic bacteria in the compost, similar to the probiotics people add to their diet to aid digestion, help break up their compact soil and encourage biotic diversity. Combining the fermented liquid with different compostable materials, like rice husks, coconut waste, and rice bran, Pom and U add the concoction back into the rice fields and vegetable gardens.
All of their hard work leads to an incredible product: high-quality rice that is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Pom and U grow unusual varieties of rice that are not found in an average market. To sell their product, they ask their customers to make an investment in the farm. Customers pay for a year of rice in advance and receive their kilos in monthly deliveries. This model allows the farmers to secure funding for the season, before they plant, and the customers receive their investment back in rice. A similar business model known as a CSA (community supported agriculture) share has been successful for small farmers in the United States as well, allowing them to pay their upfront costs before their product is ready to sell.
Pom and U are not officially certified organic farmers, nor do they brand or beautify their packaging. Their business is based on selling a good product, and everything depends on personal relationships. To start their business, Pom and U gave away hundreds of kilos of their rice. Potential customers were able to try its taste, smell, and texture, and, like me, they were convinced that the rice was the best they had ever eaten. Their business has grown by word of mouth, and loyal personal relationships, ever since.
Pom and U believe in their product, and they believe in their work. From them, I learn about the expanding organic scene in Thailand, growing in response to many of the same large forces as in America. I am finding the same commitment to land stewardship in Thailand that I found in small towns in the American midwest. The Thai are increasingly concerned about their health and their environment, and in many of our conversations, I recognize parallel trends in both our countries.
Pom and U see their land as a resource for good food, and a good life. And, as we are learning in America and around the world, good food and a good life are not such separate ideas. After all, as Pom frequently reminded me, in southeast Asia, rice is life.