The Phrao cooperative is a cluster of 6-7 smallholder families and tends to multiple plots of
land, totaling around 50 acres.
Rice is grown during the Monsoon season only. Decisions on who will grow which variety are made within the group. Crop rotation choices are made independently while some farmers own a small orchard.
Over the years several tests have been performed and so far the results have been excellent (and consistent). Find result for each crop year below.
50% of our seeds have been kept aside from the previous harvest while the other half is being exchanged with rice growers at different sites. Yields turn out better this way and rice plants are less prone to disease.
We only grow rice during the Monsoon (and we start actually quite late, around August). Rice growing cycle for heirloom black rice is around 90 days with a nursery time of around 3 weeks.
No synthetic pesticides are being used while we even haven't been spraying any sorf of organic insecticide for a long time. Some years it happens our rice attracts more insects. Then a homemade tobacco leave solution, highly diluted in water, is being sprayed.
When young seedlings are transplanted in the paddies (stage 3), water levels are kept 2" high for another 3 weeks. The lack of oxygen minimizes further weed growth, while existing weed is left untouched and serves as organic matter.
Manure is a combination of chicken and bat dung, and at least once a year a bean variety is grown for nitrogen fixation (crop rotation).
Yet another humbling experience.
We took part in transplanting a section of seedlings with our cooperative. What I've learnt is that farming hurts - your bones, your stomach, it all hurts - that someone is working hard for whatever food you and I get, so choose wisely and always finish your plate.
Then the good thing, the air is crisp, the chicken is free range and after work there is home made whiskey. Wonderful people we work with, I love farming and we gonna be doing this more.
It's been raining harder here in Chiang Mai, the farmers agree.
Each year during summer the heatened up Tibetan Plateau makes trade winds change direction (what is called the Monsoon). These Monsoon winds then start to blow over the the Golf of Thailand, bringing rain and moist air to every corner of Northern Thailand. After some very hot months, seeing these winds opening up the sky, it's awesome.
Lately the Tibetan Plateau gets hotter, probably because of global warming (I am no expert, so don't go after me) and as a result winds have become stronger and there has been not only more rainfall than previous years, the intervals have become very irregular as well.
The good thing is that water shortage in Phrao and Northern Thailand never will be an issue and that yields will remain excellent in this part of the world. On the other hand, some things have to be done differently.
Up until now rice was being dried in the sun, year after year, and it was up to the rice grower's skills to choose the right day to harvest (when the grains' moisture content is around 20%), then he'd decide how long each grain would get a sunbath. Unfortunately with this method, due to irregular rainfall, a consistent moisture content of around 12-14% for every batch of rice can't be guaranteed any longer and we had to move to a drying machine. A tough decision while at the same it's intriguing to witness climate change manifesting itself in such seemingly minor details.
Since 2018 visits to Phrao have become more relaxed.
The previous years we had kept our word - we paid and picked up everything we had agreed upon without interfering with the rice growers' part of the job. Building mutual trust takes time.
We got closer with one particular farmer in the group, khun Boonlerd.
In 2013 Dao and I were invited to join a forest inspection team in Si Lanna national park, led by professor
Supot Boonraeng. About two years later he'd get us in touch with lung Detch, who would become our rice
miller and for whom it almost took as long to get us together with the rice growing cooperative in
So it was 2016 when we were introduced to the people in Phrao. First we would meet khun Ton and his rice, a flavor we had never tasted before.
At the time we had no clue that it is its micro climate - Phrao is a valley surrounded by the mountainous Si Lanna national park, in my view a top 5 breathttaking and under the radar location in Thailand - a (slightly) higher altitude and specific soil acidity that sets Phrao apart.
Khun Ton, a rice farmer from father to son, had been growing organic for about 10 years, his rotation crop being soybean. He maintains a small mango orchard while growing a variety of greens as well. Khun Ton's land totals 10 acres and his produce he sells and exchanges at the local market.
Besides our order, the cooperative's (brown and sticky) rice is mostly eaten by the local community, some served at a respected Chiang Mai Buddhist center and a small portion being sold on the domestic market.
For crop year 2017 we sampled and bought a batch of about 2 tonnes of (milled) heirloom black rice and riceberry. The year after we ordered 6 tonnes of milled heirloom black rice and 2 tonnes of riceberry.