Last Wednesday, we piled into a car and headed out to a neighboring village for the dedication of ASRI’s new organic farming learning center. George, normally bound to clinic duties, even came along. It’s hard to pass up a ride in a car (AIR CONDITIONING!), but he claims to have been interested in the actual event.
Either way, I was happy for him to have the opportunity to see the other side of ASRI. At the center, an airy building bordering an expanse of rice paddies, organic farmers will come together to discuss best practices, learn new skills, and socialize.
For many farmers in Sukadana, growing organically is new and foreign. Traditionally, most agriculture here has been ‘slash-and-burn’: farmers burn patches of forest each year to fertilize the soil, and then abandon a plot of farmed land after only a few seasons. Slash-and-burn agriculture is an unfeasible strategy here (and in most places), given the increasing population density and conservation threats facing the remaining forest.
ASRI works with farmers to introduce sustainable methods of agricultural production: maintaining and renewing soil quality, replacing expensive and poisonous fertilizers with cheap and locally available alternatives, and increasing yields through responsible management.
At the dedication, a few hundred plastic chairs lined an empty plot of land in front of the center. Only about half of the invited three hundred guests attended, but given that many of the invites were extended as formal courtesies and the event took place during work hours, ASRI conservation staffers were pleased with the turnout.
After a breakfast of sticky rice rolls and shrimp pancakes, we settled in, our chairs sinking a few inches into the soft soil. A warm breeze carried competing scents of manure and cigarette smoke. We sang the national anthem, recited the organic farming cheer, and listened to a number of speeches. The funniest, a government official – referred to as the first lady of the province – who spoke ad nauseam about the importance of manure while the audience gradually devolved into distracted conversations.
The center itself, a vision in fresh chartreuse green paint, was bedecked with seedlings, festive bows, and a daisy chain for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Not to brag here, but I channeled my inner Stacy Donahue (shout-out to Momahue!) and led the charge in the arts and crafts department: making hundreds of loops for the daisy chain, exhausting the better part of a roll of double-sided tape to fashion dozens of loopy bows, and wrapping a pair of scissors with green ribbon and a beaded tassel for extra flair.
As we ate, new farmers were ceremonially welcomed to the program with bags of organic rice and manure. While not yet available for retail sale, the organic rice program holds a lot of promise. Rice, as I’ve mentioned before, is the foundation of every meal here. A transition to organic rice would have lasting implications for human and environmental health in Sukadana, and I hope to see the program grow over the coming seasons.