Phrao, a valley surrounded by the mountains of Si Lanna National Park, is one of Chiang Mai's rural
districts, about 60 miles north of the main city.
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.
Rice seeds are soaked in water for 2 days. This makes a seed root and shoot.
Once (densely) planted in the nursery (1" high garden beds), the main shoot
continues to grow while about 4-5 leaves emerge.
On day 20 seedlings are transplanted, bundles of 2-3 plants are placed in a small hole, every 10-15".
Secondary shoots come out and many leaves follow. Mature plants grow about 2
ft high. Meanwhile on microbiology level the reproductive stage kicks in.
About 5-6 weeks after transplanting the first grains show up. It takes another
5 weeks for the grains to get firm, with a moisture content around 20%
No synthetic pesticides are being used while we even haven't been spraying organic insecticides 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 functioning as organic matter.
Fertilizer is a combination of chicken and bat dung, while at least once a year a bean variety is grown for nitrogen fixation.
blog - August 22, 2020
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.
Mobile phone video, part 1. Phrao, August 22, 2020
Mobile phone video, part 2. Phrao, August 22, 2020
Vegetative (tillering) stage on day 25. Dao weeding among rice plants with multiple secondary shoots.
What matters at this stage is to see healthy shades of green. Phrao, Sept 12, 2020
Flowering stage on day 40, young, immature black rice grains. Phrao, Sept 25, 2020
At Boonlerd's rice fields. About one more month before we can harvest. Phrao, Oct 10, 2020.
Dao and Boonlerd. Phrao, Oct 10, 2020
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,
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.
Phrao's surroundings never let down. Young transplanted black rice seedlings. August 27, 2019
Dao and khun Boonlerd at the nursery. 18 days old seedling, which were transplanted 3 days
later. Nursery is next to the fields on the picture above.
Early on, a few shoots and leaves. In order to kill weed on the paddies, water levels are
maintained up to 2". Weed is left untouched and functions as organic matter. Phrao, August
Tillering (vegetative) stage. After day 20, no more water is actively added to the paddies.
Lush green leaves, that is what you want to see. If tip and sides color yellow-whitish,
chlorotic, that's a sign of nutrient deficiency. Phrao, September 19, 2019.
Flowering stage. Phrao, October, 18, 2019.
Mature black rice grains. Phrao, October, 29, 2019.
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.
Khun Boonlerd and Dao inspecting his fields. Impressed to witness such a healthy,
biodiverse ecosystem. Birds and ladybugs everywhere! Phrao, November 9, 2018.
Our rice, firm grains with a moisture content around 20-25%. Ready for harvest. Phrao,
November 9, 2018.
The same fields as the photo below 3 months later at the end of the Monsoon. Ready for harvest. Yields
turned out around 1.7 tonnes per acre. Phrao, November 9, 2018.
An experiment, a different technique with less water was used. 4-days old transplants (transplanted on a
dry field whilewater was added 7 days later). Phrao, August 2018
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, that was a flavor we had never tasted before. At the time we had no clue that it is the micro
climate - Phrao is a valley surrounded by Si Lanna national park and a top 10 breathttaking location in
Thailand - the (slightly) higher altitude and a specific soil acidity that sets Phrao apart.
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.
Phrao is a small community, they all know each other. During our first timid visits, everyone stops by
to say hello. We are being checked out.
Our second visit on November 8, 2016. Our first photos, sort of iconic for us. Khun Thon shows his rice,
ready for harvest, to Dao.
Our miller, a pillar in our organization.
Heirloom black rice
khun Ton's black rice seeds, nicely stored for next year. December 2016, Phrao.