I get anxious just thinking about the next generation of farmers in Thailand - from the many conversations I’ve had with young people here, “no one” wants or expects to become a farmer when they finish school or stop working in their current job. And parents discourage their children (especially daughters) from working in the fields under the hot sun. Despite it’s significant economic development, Thailand is still an agricultural society. Our network tries to hold the belief that the younger generation, now working in factories or urban industries, actually wants to go home and farm their parent’s land. But until that happens, it’s natural for farmers to be doubtful. Jong, the 55 year-old organic farmer-poet who lives in my village, often says things like “We are the last generation of farmers.” Youth are also becoming food illiterate – they don’t know how to eat seasonal, indigenous plants that form the basis of a diverse food tradition. The bitter, sour and strong smelling foods that older generations love are increasingly replaced by MSG-laced and chemical-sprayed ingredients from local markets. Fast food places – KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Dairy Queen – are the cool places to go on dates. Not that youth should be forced to “eat their vegetables” at all meals, but how can we preserve local food culture and promote farming as a sustainable career?
Our network’s research conference, ‘Sustainable Agriculture Development in A Time of Crisis,’ was an opportunity to discuss both these issues. The conference featured several large seminars on the status of the global food crisis, the organic foods market and policy development for sustainable agriculture. There were also small, breakout sessions focusing on a range of topics – slow food in Thailand, local green markets, compost and soil improvement, and importantly, the “new generation” and sustainable agriculture. While my Thai skills don’t make me a great public speaker, I got my basic message across – If we are going to dedicate ourselves to working for a better food system, we need to also learn how to grow food ourselves. When I started working here in the spring of 2008, I almost immediately realized my dilettante-ness and set out to learn “how to be a Thai farmer.” I’m still not any good, but I’ve learned a lot. Yet many of my friends, the young activists and NGOs who are local to northeastern Thailand - many of whom are genuinely committed to supporting villagers’ livelihoods and community development – lack agricultural skills and knowledge.
What is so important about the Greenhorns’ activism is that it’s actually part of a movement creating a new food system. Young people taking matters into their own hands. Sayan, a young farmer/NGO friend from mountainous Chiang Rai, who also spoke in the “young farmers” seminar, talked about wanting to develop a strategy for the next generation and creating an organization for passing on agricultural knowledge. He also highlighted the value of sustainable agriculture at the community, societal and international levels. Jong, my farmer-poet neighbor, also went to the Bangkok conference and happened to sit in on the young generation seminar. During the exchange following our presentations he said, speaking to all the young people in the room, “I’m afraid that your degree will be a degree to leave your parents.” Young Thai people concerned about social and environmental issues are faced with a number of challenges – how do we work for positive social change in local communities while building our own skills to become competent farmers, foresters and fisherfolk? I think my friend’s concept to create an organization for passing on agricultural knowledge could help take these challenges on…and I think our network is getting ready to support this process.
Bennett Haynes has worked with the Alternative Agriculture Network – Esan (AAN) since 2008. As a student, he became involved with the network’s Fair Trade rice campaign and returned to work for Surin Farmers Support during his first year after graduation from college. In Surin, Bennett organized an organic farming curriculum for a local community school. Since then, he was been researching the Esan region’s “Food Ways” and working with the Yasothon Green Market to strengthen relationships with local consumers. He grows a garden in Kudchum district, Yasothon and sells vegetables at the Green Market (when sufficient enough to sell!) and has learned a diversity of things from the farmers in the local network. This May, Bennett will return home to the U.S. to work at Hearty Roots Community Farm, an organic CSA farm with over 400 members. In the future, Bennett plans to continue working together with the AAN and help support the international movement for sustainable agriculture.