Thursday, December 3, 2009

Greening the Yasothon Green Market

During our first unit we travelled to Yasothon to learn about agricultural production in Thailand, and the Yasothon Green Market. The Green Market was initiated by a network of local organic farmers and NGOs. All of the producers are IFOAM organic certified and live in rural communities within 50 kilometers of Yasothon city. The goal of the market is to create a space for producers and consumers to exchange and to provide safe, healthy food to urban consumers.

The Green Market is held every Saturday from 5 a.m. until the vendors sell out, which is usually around 9 a.m. Because all of the vendors live in rural areas outside of the city they have to leave around 2 a.m. to get into the city and set up. Right now there are 27 vendors, but they are always looking to recruit more, or help other farmers switch to growing their food organically. So why is it important to grow food organically? Well if you ask Green Market vendors many of them say that they switched to growing organically for health reasons and because it is better for the environment. Aw, a Green Market vendor, told us, "In my heart I wanted to switch to growing organically. I didn’t want to use any chemicals, those poisons. My produce and rice is safe for me to eat.” Aw is proud that she grows her food organically, and that she is able to provide her customers with safe healthy food. "I feel good, because they (consumers) get to eat the same safe food I do. They get to eat what I eat,” she says.

Many of the Green Market farmers switched to growing organically because they personally experienced health problems from using and consuming chemicals on their crops. Others switched because they knew people who developed lung or other cancers from chemical use. In addition, chemicals leave the soil hard and unproductive and are expensive, leaving farmers with a lot of debt. So why use them? Well there are a variety of reasons. (1) It is easier, organic farming is hard work. (2) Chemically produced crops look better (shinier, bigger, etc.). (3) The government subsidizes chemicals to encourage farmers to use them because they have close ties with national and international chemical companies (conflict of interest? Ya think!). (4) There is a transition period when switching from chemical farming to organic farming where the soil is less productive and the yields are lower because the soil nutrients have been depleted from heavy chemical use. And, finally, (5) you can obtain higher yields of one crop.

BUT, organic farming pays off in many more ways! Farmers that grow organically use integrated agriculture, where they grow many different crops in one area. For example, vegetables can be grown in between the rows of rice. So, although they may have lower rice yields because they do not use chemicals they are able to grow a variety of goods (rice, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, green onions, cilantro, dill, cucumbers, tomatoes, kale, morning glory, bananas, passion fruit, coconuts and sooo much more!). The argument that chemically produced crops yield a greater output per rai is, therefore, flawed because it fails to consider the variety of goods produced on one rai of land.

Additionally, organic food is better for not only consumers, but also the environment. Different crops can naturally enrich the soil, and are therefore used in place of chemicals to replenish soil nutrients after each cropping season. For example, after harvesting his rice P'Ubon will plant beans in his rice paddies because they are nitrogen infusing and naturally enrich the soil. Finally, practicing organic integrated agriculture provides farmers with greater food security because if one crop fails they have many others to fall back on. It also gives them more independence because they do not need to rely on outside sources for any of their food.

Intrigued by the organic movement of the Yasothon farmers, Maina and I returned to Yasothon in early November to establish more personal relationships with the villagers and lay the ground work for a final project with the Green Market. Through discussions with P’Ubon and the Green Market Committee we decided that in order to move the Market forward they needed to cultivate deeper relationships between rural producers and urban consumers. The main challenges of the Green Market are convincing consumers that their products are all organic, educating consumers about why it is important to produce food organically and eat locally, and spreading awareness about the Green Market (which opened in May 2008).

Based on those challenges a group of four of us students, Bennett (a past CIEE student, our translator and an AAN intern that works with the Green Market), the Green Market committee and P'Ubon planned a Green Market awareness campaign and weekend. The purpose of the event was to give the Market more exposure by campaigning in the city, and to educate consumers on the benefits of eating organic and buying locally. The event was this Saturday and it was a big success! Our job as students was to help get the word out and to help give the Market a more unified look.

To get the word out we set up a table at the conventional market around 5 a.m. one morning and gave samples of the indigenous red rice that is sold at the market and passed out information about the market. It was pretty funny to see our Farang (Foreigner) table intermixed with all of the Thai vendors. I remember standing there and glancing to my left where fresh fish and rats were being sold (yuck to the rats)!

To help give the market a more unified look we bought green table cloths to place on all of the vendor tables and we made pamphlets, T-shirts and stickers with the Green Market logo that the four of us students designed. The pamphlets and T-shirts were a huge hit and are something that the Market can use for a long time, which is exciting! In addition to unveiling the T-shirts, pamphlets and logo this weekend the vendors prepared indigenous rice to be sampled, an herbal drink, an herbal salad and brought a hand mill so that customers could try milling the rice by hand. The herbal salad was particularly tasty and I know I had my fair share of samples! The salad is just one of the many local foods that villagers prepare to keep the body healthy. P’ Grieng, the herbal medicine man of the village, told me how each ingredient is good for the body in one way or another, and after eating it I really did feel better.

Looking back, the event this weekend went really well, and I am really happy to of had the opportunity to work with the Green Market and P’Ubon. I was sad when we left Yasothon yesterday because I knew it was the last time I would be back there for a while. The villagers treated me like family and taught me about farming and their way-of-life. They are by far the most good-hearted, wise and honest people that I have ever met and I am truly humbled by them. Living and working with them is an experience that I will never forget and I feel that I am only beginning to understand…

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