Rural Training Center, Thailand (RTC-Thailand)

RTC-TH Programs: S.O.S.---Save Our Soil

Dec 18, 2009

We?’ve received a number of inquiries following the posting of the various RTC-TH (Rural Training Center-Thailand) program logos. There were inquiries from some familiar with us who didn?’t realize the number of programs beyond REEEPP (Rural Environmental Education Enhancement Pilot Program). And there were many inquiries from people who were not so familiar with us that ?“stumbled?” across the website.
This is the start of a series of ?“news?” articles to give a bit more information about the various RTC-TH programs. We hope this will answer the many recent e-mails and give readers more insight to the comprehensive and integrated nature of the RTC-TH self-sufficiency and sustainability efforts for small rural family farms.

The RTC-TH was, is, and probably will always be ?“a work in progress.?” This is wholly consistent with the idea of ?“learning being a life-long process.?” Some lessons evolved into the programs listed in the logos summary PDF. The lessons originated from the various Geography courses Mr. Lee (RTC-TH co-founder) taught over a span of 29 years. The Summer 1999 Thailand Volunteer Project was the first community-based environmental education effort in he made in rural Thailand (in Chiang Rai Province). The success of that effort ultimately evolved into the present RTC-TH.
REEEPP was the first RTC-TH program to be implemented in Nan Province, our current base of operations. It has been reported in-depth on the website (see past postings in the PDF section). Many REEEPP lessons were adapted from the 1999-2003 community training efforts in Chiang Rai. From 2004 onward, new lessons were adapted from various Geography lessons, and some new ones created to suit the needs perceived from the Nan Province experiences.
The current programs were developed to meet specific needs. Much later, they were grouped into the framework presented in the logos summary PDF document. So when you look at that document, SOIL came AFTER the smaller lessons/programs such as SOW, SOS, etc.
SOS (Save Our Soil) is perhaps the start of it all. It was the main topic of the 1999-2003 effort in Chiang Rai. Soil erosion is a natural on-going process that cannot be stopped. It can be slowed or reduced, but it is inevitable. Without soil, farmers can?’t really farm. In the Geographic Systems Model (the core conceptual model for all RTC-TH lessons), soil erosion involves all environmental spheres. Soil is formed in the Lithosphere. It is affected by the heat and moisture from the Atmosphere and Hydrosphere. Biological components also play a role.
So here?’s a brief intro to some of the basics involved in the SOS lessons. Soil erosion begins with the land surface. The surface is characterized by its slope. Slope measurements involve both the vertical angle (up or down from horizontal) and its horizontal angle (orientation to a compass direction). The relationship and interaction of gravity and friction are the key forces that determine the movement of soil on slopes.
Rock composition (the original rocks in the area) and how they weather (break down) due to the heat, moisture, and biological activity creates the soil. The soil particles will move down the slope and collect in low lying areas under the influence of gravity-friction and mostly moving water.
SOS teaches farmers to measure vertical slope angles using ?“home-made?” no tech/low tech (hence low cost) tools. We use ?“off the shelf?” items as much as possible. Many times the items are readily available on the farm already. Steeper slopes will be more prone to soil erosion than gentler slopes or flatter land. The RTC-TH guidelines call for different planting practices for different slopes. Steep slopes ( to ) should be terraced and planted with fruit trees, for example. Gentle slopes ( to ) can be used for?…?… Flat land is the easiest to use and may not have as much soil erosion in Nan Province. However, flooding and deposition could be problems resulting in burying a field with mud and silt.
Measuring the horizontal angle (compass direction) of the slope is done with either a magnetic compass or based on local knowledge of the cardinal directions (e.g. North, South, etc). This is affects the soil temperature due to sun angle which can change through the year. Season storms and winds also affect how much moisture will be available, as running water flowing down a slope is a critical soil erosion factor.
Bare exposed soil is very susceptible to soil erosion. It starts with the impact of a rain drop. The RTC-TH uses a hands-on method to show the difference between the impact of rain drops bare soil and mulch covered soil. When farmers see how the soil particles are loosened by rain drops, they understand the value of mulch. They are encouraged NOT to burn grass and other ?“waste?” cuttings. The mulch also improves soil moisture retention and improves the habitat for soil organisms. All of this ?“strengthens?” the soil to resist soil erosion.
Terracing on steep slopes is facilitated by knowing how to measure slope angles. That skill can be used to mark the terrace boundaries for excavation. When properly mulched, water is kept on the slope and in the soil longer. As the soil improves, it is better able to support crops without the need for synthetic agricultural chemicals.
Other hands on lessons teach farmers to systematically describe soil color, measure soil texture (soil particle size), soil structure (an important measure of the ability of water and roots to move through soil as well as for the soil to resist erosion), and soil chemistry (an indication of the health of the soil to support life---soil organisms and crops). Keeping records of these measurements are important for effective farm management. Analysis of changes over time are important indicators of sustainability of the farm. These are often subtle. Most farmers trust things to their memory and may not detect the subtle changes over time. When it becomes obvious, it is often too late.
RTC-TH training began as direct hands-on training in the field of self-selected volunteers. With the demonstration farm in Na Fa, the training is informal. It often involves the work crew hired for the day. We believe in self-selection as the prime indicator for successful potential learning. The demonstration farm is our way to live what we teach. A typical day-hired worker is also provided with lunch and / or dinner depending on how the work flow goes. From past experience, we have had workers tell us they passed up other jobs knowing / hoping we were going to need workers. They commented specifically about the quality of the food from our farm used to prepare their meals. And by working for us, they essentially get paid and learn about our methods at the same time. Seeing and tasting the results of our sustainable agriculture methods, is far better than us talking about sustainable methods and self-sufficiency. They take the knowledge and skills with them and are free to apply them on their farm any way they like?….for self-sufficiency / sustainability or for commercial agriculture. The choice is theirs to make.
Critics can argue that we have outside money to pour into our farm. That is true, but needs some further thought. The money spent on the farm was done mainly to set it up for demonstration/training purposes. In our case, the money meant a faster set up time than if we stuck to the format of the limited resources of the typical farmer. Our priority was to get up to speed so as to provide the real life demonstration and work experience opportunities for farmers in the area. Money was not spent to make the farm commercially viable as a profit making business. We are not farming to make a profit. So we are not competing with local farmers. We are content to ?“break even?” economically. Our main goals are to be satisfied with having enough, and helping, through education, to empower others to do the same. If they chose to strive for a profit, we wish them the best of luck. However, we remain committed to the choice of self-sufficiency and sustainability BEFORE profit. So we continue our REEEPP efforts in the elementary school and the informal training at the demonstration farm. [Note: We still consider conducting community training for groups off the farm. Watch for a report on an recent effort in Chiang Rai this past summer.]
SOS is directly interconnected to other programs (e.g. SOW---Save Our Water, BUGS---Biodiversity Ultimately Gives Sustainability, to name a few). Watch for the SOW article in the near future.

[Note: This was a brief description of SOS. For the lessons to be meaningful, they are all adapted to local site conditions prior to training. A typical scenario for off-farm training involves time to pre-view the area for the training (about ?½ to 1 day prior to the training). This lets us tailor the lessons to be as site specific as possible. Relevance is critical to making the lessons useful. Thus, there isn?’t a ?“standard?” lesson booklet as such. Included with the training is the ?“teach back?” model. This encourages the participants to share the knowledge with others, just as we are freely sharing our knowledge with them. Payment for the training consists of covering our costs to get to and from the training site, and room/board for the duration of the training. Although we are not a formal / legal non-profit organization, we conduct ourselves in that manner. We are not doing this to make a profit. This is primarily a ?“give back to the community?” activity.

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