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ECHO | Ruth Tshin

A visit to Chiang Mai’s only CSA

In April, troche I took a few friends to visit Chiang Mai’s first community-supported agriculture (CSA) cooperative in the Mae Tha valley, herbal south of the city.  In response to ill health from using chemicals on the farm, neuropathist a few families in this farming community turned to natural food production methods.  Their kids, who were forging careers in the city, decided to quit their jobs and band together to start a CSA, distributing organic food boxes to customers in Chiang Mai.  Mae Tha is a unique community that believes in sustainable practices, from raising chickens to seed saving, and shares their knowledge through homestays, workshops and community events.  Worth a visit.

Read more about their story here, in Robyn and Dave’s article on ZesterDaily.  Read more about Mae Tha on Fair Earth Farm’s site.

Bui runs the year-old seed production operation - she's also former classmates with our co-worker Lue 🙂

Lettuce, eggplant and tomato seeds being cleaned and sorted

Aun is the CSA's spokesperson (unfortunately only his back is shown here!); in front of the organic vegetable plots he manages at his family's farm

Mae Tha Sustainable Cooperative

Organic baby carrots ready to be shipped to Chiang Mai


Myanmar: Day 3 – The last day of training

Originally posted on ECHO Asia’s blog.

We concluded the last day of our seed saving training in Yangon on Friday.  Covering topics of how to store seeds, more about the importance of germination, check and information management, we continued discussions with MBC staff and farmers about linkages between seed saving and sustainable thinking.  Kimberly shared findings from her year-long study of managing pests in stored seeds and I put on my plant biology hat to talk about seeds as living potential and various ways to test seed quality through germination and planting out in soil.  Attendees continued to share their methods for saving and testing seeds with the group.

There is a hunger for practical, income-generating techniques here in Myanmar and we’re privileged to be working with MBC as they continue to promote sustainable approaches with their farmers.

One of our attendees stores onion seeds by letting a candle extinguish inside a closed container to create a light vacuum.

Demonstrating a sack garden, into which herbs and small vegetables can be planted

Myanmar: Day 2

Originally posted on ECHO Asia’s blog.

Today we had more lively discussions as workshop attendees talked about economic barriers to sustainable practices in their communities. Kim taught the difference between annual and perennial plants, phimosis the effects of day-length on growth and details of pollination.  In the afternoon, pestilence I led a discussion about cleaning and drying seeds before our whole group pitched in to clean seeds from local tomatoes, nurse pumpkin, ivy gourd and wax gourd.   So far, we’ve collected up to 15 varieties of seed to plant out at the seedbank, including  corn, bean, and pumpkin from Kayah State, and red sesbania from the Irrawaddy Delta area.

Taking notes during one of our many lively discussions

MBC staff spoke of lack of access to systematic information on sustainable farming practices, which hindered their ability to provide good resources to their communities whose livelihoods are dependent on farming.

Our role is to help farmers recognize how their extensive, local knowledge works within a sustainable farming framework. Seed saving is a basic topic but we talked about it as a tool towards more sustainable practices and household income generation.

Drying seeds on a screen after cleaning

Myanmar: Day 1 – Seed saving training

Originally posted in three parts on ECHO Asia’s blog.

Celebrating 200 years in 2013, allergist Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC) has over 2 million members from 18 different language groups throughout the country.  The Christian Social Service and Development Department (CSSDD) functions like a development organization for its members, many of whom are farmers struggling to maintain their livelihoods amidst high chemical and hybrid seed costs.  As Burma continues to open up to the global market and respond to pressure from China, MBC’s farmers need innovative methods to supplement their income.

In their efforts to continue developing their staff and members’ understanding of sustainable farming practices, MBC graciously invited ECHO Asia to teach seed saving techniques at their headquarters in Yangon this week.  Today, we (Ruth Tshin and Kimberly Duncan) started off a 3 day training session listening to the challenges experienced in their communities.  16 men and 2 women from 5 areas of Myanmar, representing Pwo Karen, Sgaw Karen, Asho Chin, Southern Shan and Mon conventions, were in attendance.  We shared our successes producing open-pollinated seeds using natural methods, as well as lessons learned from our failures from the past 3 years.  Between bouts of power outages, we had lively conversation about local vegetables and seed prices, and ended the first day by distributing seeds from our seedbank.

Burmese farmers are increasingly turning to chemical inputs and hybrid seed for higher-yielding food production in order to meet market demands

MBC staff person from Karen State shares his experiences to the group

Talking plants and seeds, using flash cards of local plants



Cambodia: Agriculture workshop for local NGOs

I travelled to Cambodia at the end of February to help run a Tropical Agriculture workshop for local Khmer NGO staff.  Over 35 people came together to learn about sustainable farming techniques, sale exchange open-pollinated seeds and to network with each another.  We were hosted by an organic cooperative called the Peri-Urban Agriculture Center in Kampong Speu, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and at the Jumpah Center, a children’s home that uses sustainable methods to run its operations (think biogas-powered lights!).

It’s always a privilege to work with local NGO staff who are the un-recognized and tireless agents of change around the world.

Check out more posts about the Cambodia workshop on ECHO Asia’s blog.

Rick (ECHO Asia's director) talking about jack beans as a green manure with a workshop delegate

Many local NGO staff lack adequate access to technical agriculture documents, so we publish a variety of topics in Khmer, Burmese and Thai.

Thida (left - our Khmer partner) translates as Boonsong (right) talks about the cowpea seeds he brought to swap. Boonsong, based in Chiang Mai, is an expert on natural farming methods for pigs

The seed exchange - we brought in a variety of vegetables and nitrogen-fixing green manures

Cencha, general manager of Jumpah Center, with his seeds

Samrit (in pink shirt) tallying organic produce brought in by local farmers to PUAC for distribution to hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh

Women farmers sort through the fresh produce they bring in three times a week

Beautiful greens are sold at hotels and to the few organic outlets in Phnom Penh - allowing farmers to earn above average wages using far less chemicals than conventional methods

Here, there…

It’s been several months since my last posting as I’ve been travelling quite a bit since landing back in Thailand in February.  More posts are coming with photos of my travels and work in Cambodia and Yangon so stay tuned!  Here’s a couple to start with…

Again – many thanks to my supporters as my trips to Phnom Penh and Yangon wouldn’t have been possible without your generosity.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat in February

All hands on deck for the seed cleaning demonstration in Yangon

Seed bank meetings are delicious!

What we’ve eaten at the past three meetings…

Our monthly meetings are spiced up by food cooked by local village chefs (aka friends' grandmas who live 30 minutes away)

Wah dishing out the naam priik (chili paste). The little packages are pork steamed in banana leaf. Winged bean salad (bottom left) in the plate.

Young jack bean pods, ferns, bamboo shoots and leucaena pods - eaten with Lahu chili paste

Mae Sariang-style mohinga (a Burmese dish made from bean powder and banana stem)

Rick in his calm state before the feeding frenzy. This meal was chicken khao soy.

Oh James…Wah and Lue sit pretty while James stuffs his face

Story-telling as a way of “reporting”

Last Wednesday, I sat down with visiting farmers from the delta region of Burma to encourage them to consider story-telling as a way of reporting while troubleshooting issues in the field.   Pressured in the past by well-meaning foreign development workers or rigid project criteria, some farmers think that numbers are the only type of information acceptable.  I’ve watched UHDP staff freeze up during monthly meetings and refuse to talk about on-going research projects because they’re convinced their observations and gut-feelings weren’t valuable.  In my first year working with Kitichai, he repeatedly told me his Zanthoxylum rhesta nursery research was worthless because it wasn’t producing any numerical data.

Stories are natural ways that farmers communicate their observations and well-honed intuition.  Farmer wisdom is actually years of research stored in their minds and orally transmitted, and uses words relating to taste, texture, temperature – words that don’t fit “research language” but are pearls to those smart enough to know the value.   It was fun to see lightbulbs going on with the Burmese farmers when I was telling them to use mundane observations, unexpected results and simple vocabulary to weave a story about a problem they were trying to solve.  And three years later, I was able to produce a report (Zanthoxylum – A Low-Profile Asian Crop with Great Potential) on the challenges of propagating Zanthoxylum tree seedlings in nurseries based on Kitichai’s “worthless” observations that they didn’t like receiving rainfall or standing in puddles of water.

Our first seed catalogue

I completed this labour of love in July and it was recently broadcast to our ECHO Asia network.  I’m thrilled because it’s the first comprehensive listing of our seed bank offerings to send out to people working in the field with poor communities.  And it’s exciting to think of how so many local, order open-pollinated food plants we’ve collected that have the potential to help people grow food or generate income.

Seed catalogue by Common Name