Rural Training Center, Thailand (RTC-Thailand)

Reflections

Jun 20, 2009

[Editor?’s Note: More than three months ago, a series of electrical surges knocked out our computers. To date, we have not been able to recover all of reports that were in progress. This newsletter is our first publication since the power surge. We apologize for not being able to update the website until now. It is hard to find good tech support in rural Thailand.]

The start of the New Year is a good time to pause and reflect. Looking back at the past year gives us a perspective on our plans for the future.

In the RTC-TH we can celebrate new year 3 times each year: western, Chinese, and Thai occurring about Jan, February, and April respectively. So we have 4 months of the new calendar year to reflect. That should give us a good perspective on where we have been vs. where we wanted to be.

Our goal has been to support the King?’s Theory and implement a self-sufficient and sustainable small rural Thai family farm. We had a head start. Saifon?’s family farm has essentially been, from the start, a subsistence farm. Her father, Tan Suttisan, read, studied, and began implementing the King?’s Theory of self-sufficient agriculture in the late 1970s. The RTC-TH was conceived in 1999. It was actually co-founded in 2004, and we began programs aimed at improving food self-sufficiency / security, water management, and developing energy independence. Once these are established on our family farm, we have a firm foundation for our community-based education program. Then the task shifts to getting others to do the same. After all, it is a well-known fact that teaching by example is an effective approach.

So, at the end of our 2008 and start of 2009 period of reflection, where do we stand?
Food security: Our policy has been to reduce off-farm expenditures for food while increasing our ability to grow what we eat on our own farm.
Past: We are close to 90% self-sufficient in food.
Present: Improvements are being made in terms of increasing the diversity of produce and livestock on the farm. We will be increasing livestock activities to include chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys. The fish ponds will continue as usual but we are considering adding another variety of catfish. We also plan to expand our plant diversity by acquiring more nectar and host plans for local pollinators. Plans also call for additional food plants for the family and livestock. At the same time, we plan to produce as much livestock feed on the farm. Other equipment on our planned acquisition list is a small rice milling machine so we can process our own rice.
Update: Just before going to press, the following items were completed.
?• Turkeys: 8 chicks were added to the farm livestock inventory.
?• Geese: 7 geese, (2 large, 5 medium) were added to the livestock inventory.
?• New plants acquired: 2 different giant mango saplings (CM Hong Tong and Ngam muang ya); 2 types of grapes (Black Opal and native Thai grape); coffee seedlings (Arabica CM #80); pomelo, super short banana, Mak Phrao Kra Ti (high meat content coconut), Oranges (Chinese, Sai nam peng/Chokun, Som khaew wan), Ma fai geen (a Chinese fruit), 2 kinds of Thai medical herbs (Pak tam pueng and Hu suah, and seeds for a green manure (Por Tueng), Hong Kong Chinese broccoli, and Sisaket papaya. These will be planted in very soon.

Water management: Our policy has been to reduce off-farm expenditures on water purchases while increasing rainwater harvesting / storage and soil moisture retention.
Past: We built 5 new water tanks and put gutters on 2 buildings.
Present: We recently added 2 new rainwater catchment ponds, deepened 2 of the existing ponds, and will be adding sheet metal covers to all water tanks. Mulching and composting will continue and probably be expanded in our efforts to improve soil moisture retention. We are planning to buy a chipper / shredder to make mulch from our tree cuttings and pruning residues. Efforts on the upper terraces will emphasize tree planting, mulching, and composting. We are planning on implementing rainwater harvesting on the Hill Top parcel where we planted Jatropha curcas. We also see the need to initiate research to identify/acquire and experiment growing crops that can endure warmer growing temperatures while using less water. We hope to set up a recording weather station on the farm as part of our G.R.O.W. program (Getting Real On-farm Weather). The data will be used in our G.R.A.S.S. program (Getting Real Assessment StatisticS) for numerically assessing the effectiveness of our water resource management plans.
Update: As we go to press, we completed planting on 2200 teak seedlings on the upper terraces. This effort contributes to improving the watershed for the farm and provides a long term ?“savings account?” for wood that can be used in construction on the farm or possible sale for income. This was also planned as a ?“low maintenance?” activity to reduce the work load on the farm. Gutters were installed on farm building next to the middle fish pond to fill the 2 water tanks. The overflow goes to the middle pond. And as luck would have it, at the end of the day the gutters were installed, a heavy evening down pour hit. Those of you who have visited the farm might recall that water from the pig shed near the middle fish pond contributed seriously eroded that side of the fish pond. Now the water is being stored and the erosion problem mitigated.

Energy Independence: Our policy has been to reduce off-farm energy/fuel expenditures while using more renewable energy/fuel resources.
Past: Brainstorming resulted in focusing our efforts in developing alternate bio-diesel oil from Jatropha curcas to generate our own electricity. This would also fuel our own Jatropha SVO engines on farm vehicles, water pumps, etc.). We will also continue to examine bio-gas digesters, and expand small scale solar PV battery charging capacity.
Present: We plan to relocate the free Thai government demonstration solar PV panel. The present site has shading problems that decrease the efficiency of the panel. We are also planning additional small solar PV battery charging capability as a demonstration project in support of amateur radio equipment. Also in the planning stage is a Jatropha SVO powered farm vehicle, locally called an Etan. Other solar projects in development and planning: passive solar hot water heating, solar cooking, solar water distillation (to purify the rainwater harvested on the farm). We plan to expand our planting of Jatropha in anticipation of increased SVO bio diesel on our farm. We also have plans to make an integrated charcoal kiln / oven / food dryer. This will enable us to produce charcoal (bamboo charcoal in particular) as another source of low carbon footprint renewable alternative supplementary cooking fuel to back up our solar cooking efforts.
Update: We began an all-electric vehicle project with C-FEE (Clean Fuel Energy Enterprise Co. Ltd). We have selected their Super Jaab model to be modified for use as the RTC-TH demonstration alternate energy and Emergency Communications (EmComm) vehicle. Charging will be a combination of household 220 VAC line power and Jatropha SVO powered generator. Radio batteries on the vehicle will also have a solar PV (photo voltaic) panel recharging option. We will also have a trailer to match the Super Jaab. The idea is to have a mobile station for emergency deployment. Once on site, the trailer would serve as a field base station and the Super Jaab can then be detached for local EmComm scouting. C-FEE has agreed to work with us to modify the vehicle as a proto-type development project at a reduced price for the vehicle. The integrated approach of an electric vehicle, recharging by our own Jatropha SVO produced fuel, and providing EmComm capability as a community service is another demonstration of our personal commitment to the long term sustainability of rural Thai communities and small rural family farms.

Our commitment to these 3 primary goals is strengthened by the deepening global financial crisis. As the Thai economy slips into recession, more and more workers are under employed (move to part-time status) or unemployed. As earnings decline, so do tax revenues. Government spending to stimulate the economy is borrowed money. The government is encouraging easy loan terms so get people to buy more. Ironically, the financial industry is being very strict on credit as more and more workers lose their jobs and ability to repay loans. The harsh reality is the common people have less ability to pay for the necessities of life. Those in the city face a declining quality of life. Most people are avoiding more debt. Those on the farm have the potential for food security IF they are growing food for their family rather than cash crops which may or may not be sold for profit in the uncertainties of today?’s markets.

Modern life is deeply tied in electricity. Having light at night is a major psychological factor of modern life. In our home, we heat water for bathing and cooking (e.g. hot water pot, microwave, convection oven, rice cooker, coffee maker, etc.), pump water from the well, and refrigerate food. When fueling up the truck, electricity is doing the work at the gas station. Those are the basics or necessities. Then there are various technologies of convenience: cell phones, telephones, computers, TV, radio, electric iron for our clothes, hair dryer, and various other electronic gadgets. Rising energy consumption and costs are a fact of life.

The coming monsoon rainy season this past week resulted in several power outages. In the last 24-hours, electric power was cut 4 times! This was a sample of what may come in the future due to peak oil or rising utility prices that puts the cost of electricity out of reach of common families. It served to add urgency to our plans to implement our energy independence program.

Small rural family farms are caught between a rock and a hard spot. Incomes are declining and debts are harder to pay off (and in some cases growing). Though consumer prices are down, so is the ability to pay for goods. Out of necessity, families may be forced to turn back to subsistence farming. But debt looms over their heads causing many to try to find ways to earn cash. If some had pursued Jatropha curcas and used Jatropha SVO to generate electricity for their farm, any surplus could be sold to the Thai government as a source of income. But this plan takes at least 2-3 years lead time. It may be difficult for individual families to do, but in groups or as a village, they might have a better chance to pursue this option.

The overall conclusion of our reflections was to keep on our path for self-sufficiency and sustainability.

Food security: For the moment, we are well on our way to food self-sufficiency. Increased food security can be better achieved by stock piling food reserves. The immediate goal is for a 2 week emergency. Once this is achieved, we will increase our reserves for longer time spans incrementally.

Water security: The current rainy season will help us to know the adequacy of our water resource management plans. Experiments in solar water distillation need to be conducted and completed so our solar water distillation capacity will meet our food security needs.

Energy independence: This may be the most difficult goal to achieve. So a more reasonable goal may be to severely reduce our off-farm energy dependence. We need to move on to implement Phase 2 of our Jatropha operations to processing the seeds to produce our Jatropha SVO diesel fuel. At the same time, we need to being preparing for Phase 3 to generate our own electricity.

Self-sufficiency and sustainability are moving targets only because the world changes dynamically. We don?’t expect to achieve any or all of these goals 100%. But we will strive to get as close as possible. We are determined to reduce off-farm expenses as much as we can to demonstrate the economic viability of a self-sufficient farm. We feel sustainability will be adequately demonstrated when our farm can continue to exists year after year with a minimum cash input from off-farm resources. The real challenge is to demonstrate the ?“minimum?” cash required could be generated by a self-sufficient and sustainable small rural family farm.

PS. Detractors can say we had sufficient start-up cash to pay off debts and create a self-sufficient and sustainable family farm. However, we have often demonstrated effective low-cost ways small rural families can reduce off-farm purchases and expenses in order to pay off their debts and to boot strap themselves to a level of self-sufficiency as a firm foundation for their future. To date, we haven?’t charged for any of the training we provide to the community and for our continuing support of REEEPP at Ban Na Fa Elementary School. We strongly feel the payback for our community-based education is the empowerment of small rural farm families in our area to strive for self-sufficiency and the overall viability of our community.

PS2: A recent international report in June 2009 indicated that 1 billion people are suffering from malnutrition (based on a 2000 calorie/day threshold). The implication is that critical food shortages can result in social unrest that could destabilize governments. The malnutrition is more critical in developing nations were children and the elderly are especially vulnerable. Malnutrition has been linked with weakening the immune system leading to diseases that claim lives in addition to starvation.

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