The hidden ones are best.

Ten days after arriving at Değirmen Farm, the day we are leaving in fact, we take a walk with Tarik, the farm manager, and the agricultural students. The afternoon was a hot one and we had been lounging around since lunch hoping to see something else besides the hours we had already spent toiling in the fields. And it was the hottest time of the day, too hot for our old bodies we decided. Much to our delight our hopes would bear fruit.

I had a suspicion that Tarik and the group were spending the majority of the day talking about techniques and methods used on the farm because after we came back to the staging area. We had seen Tarik and the students returning from the fields with a bag of soil, so after lunch I asked them what the bag of soil was all about.  

Turns out that the group had spent the morning learning about how Tarik tests and monitors the soil and the bag of soil was to be taken to the University for analysis. We didn’t learn how Tarik tests his soil or what the group learned as a whole that day as our Turkish and their English just weren’t that good. But it got me thinking I could at least tag along on the rest of their excursions that day and see what I could gain from watching. When I saw the group head to the fields I knew it was our last chance.

We headed out to the vegetable fields that are just beyond the staging barn (draw a map of the farm). We had been to this area of the farm a few times. We’d harvested zucchini (kabak) and cherry tomatoes there just a few days before. This field sits between another vegetable field, divided by a row of fruit and nut trees  to the left (southwest) and grapevines and fig trees to the right (northeast). The rows that we harvested were between what looked like rows of vegetables gone to seed and weeds to the left and beyond the fruit trees and other vegetable field and the fig trees to the right.

One day when we’d nearly exacerbated the supply of zucchini from the main weeded rows I noticed that there were some in the weeds. I poked my head and hands in there and retrieved a nice one and noticed that there were other plants mixed in. It wasn’t the usual organized group of vegetables that I’d become accustomed to. I saw tomatoes, eggplant and melons. I thought they were abandoned and put it in the back of my mind to ask about it when I found a chance. The Turkish beckoning of “Gel! Gel! Wine!” turned me back from further investigations that day. So, when we headed directly into that field with Tarik and his students I got excited.

Up until that moment I had started to lose faith that the farm wasn’t interested in finding alternative ways of growing vegetables and that they were primarily focused on increasing yields of their organic fields from some fairly traditional and conventional practices. While Değirmen Farm is certified organic and obviously following biological ideas and processes for raising fruits, vegetables, grains and animals,  they sow large fields of the same vegetable. They have nice organized rows and try to maintain that through tilling, hoeing and weeding. They don’t really use straw to cover the earth. They irrigate all their rows with drip hoses. The use lots and lots of heavy machinery. They use hired hands that they work very very hard and I doubt pay very much.  It is a 300 Hectare farm. I just counted 103 fruit and vegetables that they grow on the farm and that doesn’t even include the products they produce from those.

Backbreaking Work

What they grow…

In general, while in awe of their production output, I was starting to think they weren’t looking or researching into any of the methods that we had seen in use or read about in theory during our travels. I was getting judgmental and thinking that our visit was never going to yield us any new information about organic farming. I was thinking that was it was a nice reality check on what the work on a farm can really be like, it isn’t at all like anything I would want to do myself. Nor will it ever be, but at least it could use some ideas I cared about.

Then Tarik started picking tomatoes and passing them around. Not ten feet away were organized staked and tied traditional rows of cherry tomatoes, but right here in front of me was this snaking mess in four feet of weeds and somewhere in there he had plucked these delicious orbs and handed them to us. I bit into one. Sweet, sunny, tender, light snap, melting flesh. I looked at Ebru, one of the agricultural students, and said “It’s better than those…” and pointed to the regular rows. She looked at me seeming to not understand. “The same…” she said. “No, they’re different…taste again…hold on…” So, I walked over to the regular organic rows of tomatoes and found the ripest one I could find. Then I walked over to the buried treasures and found one of comparable size and color. I didn’t have a knife so I bit it in two and handed her the rest. I did the same with the other. I told her to taste them side by side. She smiled. It is better. Wow.

Heirloom Varieties of Tomatoes

Hungarian Variety

This is what I’d been looking for. Did I have to go half away around the world to find it? No, in fact I’d first seen it back in California nearly 6 years ago at Bob Cannard’s farm in Petaluma, California. Beautiful, perfect vegetables growing amidst the weeds. What a concept I’d thought back then and proceeded to spend the next six years cooking my brains out unable to find that delight in taste in the basic form again. So, finding it here in Turkey after several weeks of working in what seemed to be very conventional ways of growing organic vegetables I found my hope and delight again.

It turns out that this was Tarik’s experimental field. He was testing new seeds and new techniques, his lab to test ideas for future plans for the farm. Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought. In this field he had at least eight varieties of tomatoes, several varieties of zucchini, coriander, melons, cape gooseberries, tomatillos, and more than I could find out from my limited Turkish. Tomatillos for God Sake I said. Tarik asked me what I knew about them and what we do with them and I tried my best to explain through our little phrasebook, his dictionary, and Ebru’s limited translation ability how to make a Salsa Verde (need to write my recipe up for that eh?). He was growing something he didn’t even know how to use. That is adventurous and the kind of risk taking that could lead to good things.

We walked back to the staging barn and I took a few photos of the varieties of tomatoes and Tarik began sorting them and splitting them open to seed save. Here we had the end of our trip and it wasn’t by speaking the same language that we ultimately figured out some of the most interesting workings of Tarik and the Değirmen farm, it was simply by observing. Only by paying a little more close attention did we discover that even in Turkey farmers are looking for new and different ways of producing organic vegetables. No one thinks they have it right. No one settles for what they are doing. As a farmer, you are constantly looking at your fields, your yields and your practices to see what works.

Tarik Seed Saving

That’s why it is so surprising to me still that all around the globe farmers continue to turn to big businesses and large universities to tell them what works in their fields. Sure they have lots of money and land to conduct vast experiments and intensive research on increasing yields. But the real knowledge comes from working in the field and paying attention to what you do and how the land responds to your actions and what yields the best result for your farm. After several weeks I hadn’t seen any evidence of Tarik doing this in the fields of Değirmen farms. From the field workers’ perspective, their method was still very hard and intensive on the worker and the land. Working on the farm is backbreaking and seemed like there was no hope for change on this farm.

But after seeing that one test patch of vegetables I know Tarik is headed down a hopeful path. I can envision that there is hope even on large scale organic farms to do something different, something that can make healthier food, richer soil and open doors to new kinds of work on the farm.

Seeds drying

After our jaunt out to the fields Tarik let me walk through his seed saving storage area and showed me the variety of seeds that they saved and some of the Organic “products” they use on the vegetables to ward off pests and increase fertility. I saw a bottle that I’d seen dumped into a large water tank and sprayed on the fields earlier in the week and asked what it was. He rifled through his dictionary to no avail. He said a word that sounded sort of like “..neem?” Yes. Neem. Neem was and is used in some farm by nearly every organic farmer I’ve ever met. One farmer in Thailand chopped the leaves of the living plant and mixed it directly into the composting process to ward off pests.

Next, he handed me a cryovac’d package of pepper seeds and said “ take, we trade…” Of course, even on a farm as large as the Değirmen farm, the farmer recognizes there are other ways, other seeds, other places and other things to learn and the best way to do that is by sharing and trading knowledge. Full circle from Jo’s field in Northern Thailand we come back to the same idea, that diversity benefits from conservation and conservation arises out of the desire and will to see another species grow and thrive and foremost to pay attention to what is going on in the world around you. Farmers like these are saving the world one seed at a time.  We look forward to adding our seeds to the world.


Sustainability Study Trip Part I

So you’re probably thinking, “geez, they haven’t been blogging much, what’s the deal?” We cut the internet umbilical cord and have been staying in rural communities in Thailand for the past two and a half weeks and have had an amazing time. We were really fortunate to have found a sustainability study trip (yay power of the internet!) that focused on talking directly with farmers and communities who are involved and practicing the principles of sustainability and self-reliance. It’s something that we’ve both been interested in for a long time and have wanted to learn more about it. Of course I can’t forget to mention the people who organized the trip, Jo Jandai and Peggy Reents. They’ve been very active in the earthen building movement in Thailand and started Pun Pun farm a few years ago (more about that later). They’ve been the most gracious hosts and teachers, and we’ve gotten a deep cultural perspective on Thailand that wouldn’t have been possible without them.

The trip started off in a rural village called Ban See Than in northeastern Thailand, close to Yasothon. The area is very flat, and at this time of year it’s hot and dry. The air feels thick from all the smoke that people create from burning vegetation in the dry season, and the sun feels like a leaden weight in the sky in the middle of the afternoon. It’s a province that mostly subsists on farming, and traditionally people don’t grow much in the dry season. Empty rice fields of cracked earth stretch as far as the eye can see.

Many farmers have jumped on the monocropping boat, where they buy seed and fertilizer for a single crop from big agribusiness. The seed may be cheap and the yield good the first year, but each consecutive year the farmer needs more and more fertilizer to get the same yield while the prices for seed and fertilizer skyrocket. The farmers then get caught up in a cycle of debt that’s impossible for them to get out of, and the fertility of their soil plummets. Often their children move to the big city to look for work to support the family because the farm income is not enough, and soon many villages are only comprised of old people and babies. It’s a familiar story in the United States that’s already played out in small towns across the country.

But the farmers and communities that we visited have rejected the monocropping model, are doing things in a radically different way and have proven the success of these methods without a doubt. From single farmers to communities of five hundred, they’ve decided to follow organic and permaculture methods that call for diversity in crops and building the fertility in the soil over a long period of time. In addition, they’re self reliant in many aspects – meaning that they build their own homes, grow food and medicinal herbs for themselves and make various products for sale. They also earn income through running training sessions to teach other farmers these methods so they can move away from the monocropping model.

One farmer we visited, Paw Jo, has created an oasis out of his land and is a great example of this new model. He set up a large pond to water his crops throughout the dry season and to provide fish to eat. He’s also kept part of the forest on his land, so he’s able to gather wood when he needs and can retreat into it when the heat is too much. He has a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs growing so that he can provide food for his family without needing to spend money at the market. He produces so much that his wife often goes to the market to sell the excess, thus bringing in additional income. And there is so much to do around the farm that his children don’t need to move to the big city to find work.

We also found that people who have turned to this new model of self-reliance have done it for many different reasons. Some, including Paw Jo, had left their villages and worked in the big city for a while and found it draining, and they wanted to try a different way of living. Others, like the Santi Asoke or the people involved in the forest temple were doing it for religious reasons and are following the precepts of Buddhism. They have also formed networks of like-minded individuals to help spread new techniques, like a new rice-sowing method that takes twenty minutes instead of a whole day. Regardless of the reason for turning to self-reliance and permaculture, all of these groups and individuals are involved in education for the community in spreading the viability of these ideas and that it’s actually easier than most people think it is.

We also discussed the reason why there is a lot of momentum in this particularly in Thailand, which I found to be fascinating. It has something to do with the character of the country and the financial crisis that had happened back in the late 90s. Thailand is a developing nation, it’s between a traditional rural culture and the fast and glitzy Western consumer model. When the Asian stock market crashed, a lot of people in Thailand lost their jobs in the city and a lot of money. Instead of despairing, many people returned home to their villages and realized that maybe Western-style living is not all it’s cracked up to be. So there is the recent memory of the crash. There is also the sense that Thailand is independent and that it was never colonized, and that Thai people are very proud of that and want to be independent.

There is so much more that I want to say about our experience but I won’t cram it all into one blog post! So more about the second part of the study trip in another post.