by Justin Murphy
At the time the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) awarded Tidal Creek Co-op with an opportunity for a Tidal Creek employee to go on a trip to Thailand with a fair-trade company, called Alter Eco US, I wasn’t yet an employee of the store. But just before I joined Tidal Creek, the person who won the trip left the store for opportunities elsewhere. And mere days after my first shift, the trip was raffled among the remaining employees of Tidal Creek, and it turned out that I would be the one to go. A year later I found myself on a flight to Bangkok to meet with company CEO Mathieu Senard and his broker David Byrnes as I discovered fair-trade at its source.
From Bangkok we flew to Ubon Ratchathani, where we would meet Tristan Lecomte’s family and the driver for the rest of our trip. Lecomte was the founder of the original Alter Eco in France. He now resides in Thailand and focuses on his reforestation non-profit, Pur Projet. The next morning, the eight of us waited in the hotel parking lot to meet members of the Surin Rice Fund Cooperative who would lead us to Surin.
By looking at their facilities it’s no surprise that the nearly 400 small-scale farmers at the co-op have been certified fair-trade for almost 10 years. Having their own mill cuts down on costs and enables them to pay farmers more for unpolished rice paddy. They use the mill to process and grade the rice, then package it in a small building next door. Each step in this process has been added as a way to increase self-sustainability of the co-op, whose loyal members often sell rice to the co-op despite higher price offers elsewhere.
A gas-powered combine was a rare sight during harvest as hand-harvesting is the popular method of collecting organic rice. Workers line the fields of chest high grains and slice their way across, tying the rice in bundles to dry beside the fields for a few days before threshing. As we drove past farmers’ houses, each had their own blue tarp with the same familiar rice paddy that had been threshed, or beaten, to dry.
While in Surin, Lecomte showed us how one of his reforestation projects did more than offset carbon emissions. Lecomte’s organization purchases trees and seedlings that are then planted and used to benefit local economies. In this case, the local women used one project to fund chicken coops and hoop houses where children could learn a trade after school. Inspired by her enthusiasm, Senard and Byrnes invested enough to start a few additional mushroom houses.
From Surin, we drove North to Yasothon, and another Lecomte project. This forest had been cut down years earlier by the Thai government in an effort to grow Eucalyptus for profit. This destroyed the soil and soon local foliage was dying, leaving nothing but Eucalyptus. A monk who lived in the forest started a campaign to cut down the Eucalyptus, and replant local trees. Lecomte is furthering his cause by donating trees to the area. While in Yasothon, we planted some fruit trees around the temple of the forest monk with the help of an organization of local farmers.
We returned to Ubon and met, Montri Kosanlawat, founder of the Progressive Farmers Association (PFA), who led us to his nearby training facility. Boasting over 4,000 members, the PFA began 25 years ago as a way to teach farmers how to grow and market their rice. Their outreach in the community also includes a vested interest in reforestation. They have found that rubber trees grow well in the area, allowing farmers to grow them for latex.
I was stirred awake in my cabin by the tapping sound of a hammer and chisel as a local farmer was moving from tree to tree outside, stripping a thin layer of bark so that he could collect the latex that would run from the open wound. After Montri served us cold fruit and a bowl of warm rice soup, we climbed into the back of a few pick-up trucks and headed to the farms.
Lecomte is working with the PFA to teach farmers about carbon neutrality and how it can effectively be used to market rice. We ride from farm to farm where trees are growing in the rows that separate the fields. He believes that this method of agro-forestry offers a symbiotic relationship in which the trees yield compostable material for the organic rice. Some farmers even grow fruit-bearing trees along fields for family consumption.
When we returned to the training facility, a class was taking place, and Montri used the opportunity to let Lecomte, Senard and Byrnes address the farmers. Lecomte presented the idea of offsetting rice production with reforestation, which peaked interest, as farmers were anxious to find a better way to market their rice.
As we said our goodbyes and departed Ubon, Lecomte and Senard were off to see another Pur Projet, Byrnes headed back to business in New York, and I would shortly return to Tidal Creek. We all had different destinations, but with the same goal: to spread the practice of growing organically and to create a fair and responsible food system.
While we were in Surin, we were blessed with the opportunity to meet the monk who founded Surin Rice Fund Cooperative nearly 15 years ago. In the short conversation that we had, Lecomte asked him, “What is the most important piece of advice that you can give us in our pursuit to grow organically?” The monk, in calm lines and nods, explained that the best we could do is to set an example for others who will then follow. But Byrnes had to pry.
Organic rice isn’t as cheap as most rice on the shelf of an American supermarket. Fair-trade rice is often even more expensive. Byrnes explains to the monk that we face conflict on a daily basis when trying to sell organically grown, fair-trade products, especially when there are so many cheaper alternatives. “How do we deal with this conflict?” he asks.
The monk nods and responds, assuring him that conflict comes from within and that looking at others as sources of conflict only serves to cloud ones vision.