Yea, the weather was a bit unusual…

We may have mentioned it in passing to some of you or maybe even somewhere in the depths of our musing here, but as near as I can figure we can’t say it enough. Signs of human impact on the world’s weather systems seem clear to us from our travels. While our evidence and stories remain anecdotal at best, I think they still need to be shared. Every voice on this issue should be heard. 

Two days ago in the NY Times, an Op-Ed piece by a farmer, Jack Hedin, out of Rushford, MN, shared his observations on weather patterns and their detrimental effect of an extreme nature over the past 3 years in a piece entitled ‘An Almanac of Extreme Weather’. This piece hits home here as we work towards opening a store and later small farm ourselves in the coming months to years. I highly recommend his piece if only to provoke some discussion on more thoughts on shaping our food systems here in United States. As conversations in and around the politics of food and sustainability in smaller farms gets more and more divisive with some posing it as a selectively ‘elite problem’ I want to suggest that soon, we may all be at the mercy of far greater issues beyond food price heading right down to food scarcity brought on by increasing extreme weather conditions around the world. Smaller farms that work towards sustainable practices, I’d argue are very much our hope for changing the weather systems to something more positive, if we can grow the base and add farmers that are interested in this. 

An unseasonably cool early summer in Northern Thailand

One of our first stops of our travels, landed us in a little known province of Northern Thailand called Isaan. There we were lead by Jo Jandai and Peggy Reents of Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance on a tour a famers that were working their land by paying attention and working to sustain their local ecological systems and have limited negative impact to these ecological systems they’re a part of and in turn were making positive impacts on their community. In our brief ‘Sustainability Study’ saw evidence of micro-climates that were preserving indigenous plants and animal life on farms such as Paw Jo’s, whose farm stood out in the sun drenched drought stricken fields of the Thai summer like an Oasis in the desert. And it literally was. Paw Jo had noticed that on his land he had a pond, a forest and the cultivated areas of land that he’d been using for a number of years and rather than clearing the land where the pond or forest sit he’d decided to let them stay and instead plant near and amongst these indigenous features. The pond and forest, being on his land, adjacent to his cleared and cultivated area acted as a barrier to pest and disease. At every turn of conversation he would chime in something about his garden and land as his medicine. And his strong hands, healthy body and clear eyes and sense of humor all spoke loudly in support of these claims. Take a look at the man Paw Jo and a few glances at his farmland and gardens.

Paw Jo, watching a few birds fly in over his test ‘dry-season’ red rice crop.

Paw Jo

Looking out from the entrance over his pond and into part of his forest.


The Pond and Forest Protect and Provide

A look across a neighbor’s farm over to Paw Jo’s in the background.


It Sticks Out

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Shades of Green

We’ve spoken with loads of people about Ireland and they all say “It’s really green!” Having come off a week of traveling there and visiting with friends we can confirm the rumors are true, it is really green! Of course there is more to Ireland than shades of green, but one of the things that really drew me into the place while we were there was being surrounded by it all the time.

As you may have noticed a running theme in our travels, we really have utilized our friend and family network on this trip. Down to the wire it has been the case. We’ve moved legs of the trip around, changed direction, got new ideas about things to do, and really remained flexible. Well, we made friends with a lovely woman from Northern Italy named Alice on the Sustainability Study Trip in Thailand. Alice having read our post about us visiting Francesco in Italy dropped us an email saying how nice it sounded to visit with him again and it was a shame we weren’t heading to Ireland on this trip as she had space and time at the moment to show us around a bit. Well, we emailed her right back and told her we probably could make it happen since we had recently finished our time on the farm in Turkey and were looking forward to a bit of a cooler climate.

Besides not putting Ireland on our original agenda, since it was geared towards mostly Asia based traveling, Ireland had never really crossed our minds as a place to visit. Way back I have Scottish roots, but as far as I can recollect, NO Irish. Tracie even remarked on our way back to Germany, that it had never really even crossed her mind as a place to travel. The thing we both knew was whenever Ireland has come up the recollection that it is a really green place always sends visions of rolling hills, spring rivers and frolicking sheep through the head. One month after scorching hot temperatures in Turkey and a “yes, please” wasn’t so hard to come up with to Alice’s invitation to come visit.

It turns out, Alice’s boyfriend, Paul hails from a small West Cork Village and knows a crap load of fun and interesting facts about Ireland and Cork County, where they live and we spent the bulk of our time traveling around with them. You could spend weeks just in Cork County and not see or do everything that sounds even a hint interesting.

Alice and Paul know the skinny on all things about food in the area and in just a few days time, in between seeing the countryside and stuffing our faces we were starting to feel that the country was so rich it deserves another three or four visits. “Mom would love Ireland.” became the mantra. So, Mom we have to come back with you and show you around.

Early on in our travels Tracie’s sister Lannie had sent us a link from The New York Times’ website about an interesting sounding farm and restaurant called Ballymaloe, “Reclaiming Ireland’s Culinary Heritage, One Roast Lamb or Sponge Cake at a Time”

Ballymaloe and Darina Allen are to Ireland what Alice Waters is to the United States both have all but single handedly lead the movements in their respective country to save the food cultures of their countries. Alice lead the flag and brought Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food movement to the U.S. And Darina heads it up in Ireland.

We skimed over the article and said amongst ourselves, “wow, cool…too bad we don’t know anyone in Ireland…” and headed into Singapore and then Thailand. Eventually, over conversation at lunch or dinner one day, Ballymaloe came up and we asked her if she knew where it was. She said it was near her home in Ireland. We put that in the back of our mind and somehow, when Alice suggested we come visit, it came rushing back. Ballymaloe was one of the last places we visited with Alice, but one of our favorites.

It’s not the easiest place to find. Signs appear and dissapear and the Irish roads are meant to be navigated only by locals like Paul. But Paul was bringing home the bacon and Alice an Italian ex-pat and two Americans were left to find our way. When we were nearly there we took an accidental detour to explore the glimpse of what appeared to be a lighthouse and seashore rising up out of the barley fields. We head down the road to investigate.

The Beach of Ballycotton

After being mesmerized by the lovely view of the shore and lighthouse, we felt a bit lost so we pulled over and asked a young man working in a lawn near the road. He sent us in the right direction and after another stop and request for directions we were on our way.

The road down to the Ballymaloe House, restaurant and cafe took us through a long green abutted driveway, over a small cattle guard into view of the Ballymaloe House a Norman Castle from around 1450. A Castle as a restaurant and hotel overlooking a stunning view of Ireland’s rolling hills and dales. Not a bad place to spend a few days or share a nice lunch and with grumbling bellies we set off for their cafe, tucked behind a general store loaded with Irish goods and a cook’s dream of culinary tools and resources.

The menu, a chalkboard of the days specials hadn’t even been posted and we sat patiently, placing our drink order, to see what delights awaited. Just behind our table the counter struggled with a load of homemade goodies. Alice settled for a sampling of those while Tracie and I opted for more savory options. Hers was a salad of Smoked Mackerel over a bed of freshly picked field greens and mine was the most elegant rendition of a quiche, a Leek and Cheddar tart, I’ve ever had. That’s right Thomas, Ireland has kicked your ass.

My tart quivered with Irish cream, milk and the finest farmhouse cheddar with rustic perfectly braised stalks of leeks careening into every fork full. At Ballymaloe, I could tell, it’s all about the ingredients. I was delighted to see Chef Keller’s Bouchon cookbook resting in their bookstore and chuckled to myself seeing how the finest and freshest ingredients could trump even the most revered chef’s attempt at the best quiche in the world.

Tracie’s salad held forth more subtle surprises as the flakes of locally caught and smoked mackerel crumpled into the greens which were delightfully evenly dressed and seasoned simply with oil and lemon. Alice’s sampling of desserts disappeared before I had a chance to nibble so we settled for a few for ourselves.

As usual my first pick was ordered by my lovely wife so I settled for simplicity in a cake, a cupcake topped with a fresh field strawberry. Coming from the home of the cupcake battlefields brought a little bit of New York back as I sunk my teeth into a slightly drier than I’d have preferred attempt of a vanilla cupcake. Perfection in one thing a day is good enough for me and the best cupcakes back home would be there waiting to fill the void left that day. Tracie’s apricot vanilla custard was as much a quivering success at a pie as my own tart and we all left with full bellies and warm hearts as we headed down the road to check out the Ballymaloe Cookery School, Garden and Farm.

In Ireland, signs lie. Ours said that the farm and cookery school were only a two miles down the road. The road was a narrow meandering jaunt that was peppered with cars swerving to avoid us as we tried our best to stay out of there way. Tracie and Alice plodded ahead as I lingered behind snapping off a few nice looks at the farms and fields that smashed us up against the road.

By the time we reached our destination, we had taken on the dull headed worn fatigue of those that have bitten off more than they can chew and grabbed a bit to drink before we paid the small fare and headed to explore the lovely English styled gardens and impressive organic greenhouse.

Legs tired from the “two mile walk” we managed a ride from a lovely couple visiting from Los Angeles, U.S.A. And winced and held our breath as the gentleman meandered from left to right forgetting from time to time that the Irish drive on the left. As oft repeated, we said to ourselves as we drove away “My mom would really love Ireland.”

Ballymaloe House, Farm and Cookery School



Everyone’s a Designer

A few months ago I had been reevaluating my understanding of what the practice of design is. I had been so focused on the web for the past couple of years that it was hard for me to see beyond the pixels – usability, elegance, web standards, etc etc. After attending the Better World by Design conference in September I realized that many of the projects I was interested in were collaborative, contextual initiatives that were focused on a process rather than just the end result, and some had nothing whatsoever to do with the web. I was totally lamenting my lack of skills and knowledge in other mediums because it seemed like so many of the presenters had such specialized knowledge. Then I sort of shelved all this thinking because I was like, dude, we're going on a trip!

But! Once we got going of course I couldn't stop thinking about design. Some of the things that I've seen on this trip now have me completely convinced that everyone can be a designer – if I just tweak what my definition of design is.  It's not about years of schooling, in fact it's quite the opposite. It's really about jumping in, trying things out and learning from mistakes. It's about knowing a little something about everything – from physics to plumbing to chicken wrangling to business basics – or asking somebody who knows about it or reading up on it. It's taking your resources – whether it's skills, people, materials, knowledge – and figuring out a process to serve some kind of purpose. It takes creativity to mix those things together and to see constraints as a positive aspect. And  it's being honest with yourself about the success of a process, and figuring out where you can make improvements or even to start all over again.

We saw ingenious solutions for dealing with water, from capture to storage to irrigation to filtering to making it hot, and they were created with a minimum of technology and parts so that maintenance can be easily done by many people. Various composting processes take advantage of the climate or properties of different microorganisms. I could see the design evolution of the earthen buildings at Pun Pun, where successful features like termite-proof concrete foundations and spaces under the eaves for air circulation have been incorporated, and formulas for exterior finishes have been refined over time. It's also been helpful to have other community projects that I've visited in the past like Bulungula to compare with to see how specific environmental and cultural conditions impacted the solution to similar problems.

Gaining experience doesn't have to take a lifetime, either. A short tutorial with a morning practical of building adobe bricks, and then plastering and painting a bench in an afternoon, made building so much more approachable, tangible and possible. It seems like the key is to have hands-on workshops where people can get a taste for a particular process and then they can take it as far as they want, and to constantly circulate people back into the community to share new techniques and successful methods.

You can't discount the power of collaboration in this definition of design either. Nobody knows everything, and it's so much better to share that knowledge; people who are new to it may have some great insights into a process because they're fresh to it. And above all a successful project is dependent upon possessing complete confidence that everyone you're working with is one hundred percent capable of being a great designer. 



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.