by Gabe LePage
Simone Weil, in her book A Need for Roots, highlights the value of anything that preserves common knowledge. Any cooperative, community, culture, or tradition that preserves common memory and sense of identity is to her intrinsically valuable. These corporate memories help us remember who we are and root us.
Driving in the car on Monday to visit the Mae Tha Organic Cooperative with P'Toh and Ed, we passed through the hills and the forest. P'Toh commented that in Asia, people know where to find food in the forest. The common knowledge of native edibles is not lost, where we observed that knowledge in North America is not nearly as widely shared. The US is after all a country of immigrants. We have not had as much time to learn the land and know what it has to offer.
The Mae Tha Organic Cooperative is now being run by the second and third generations. It's roots are in an NGO that worked in the community in the 1980s. The NGO built up the social capital and left some infrastructure--a few office buildings. Local community leaders took it from there. Particularly, two men championed sustainable agriculture and forestry and worked together to form a cooperative. The cooperative now has over 600 members and helps members with trainings, access to markets, and a CSA.
We arrived at Mae Tha and were greeted by a woman beaming with confidence. She works with Green Net, a Thai Social Enterprise that partners with growers across the country to save local seed varieties and support organic agriculture. She is the daughter of the man who started the sustainable agriculture cooperative, and as an employee of Green Net, continues to work with that cooperative.
It was time for lunch and she took us into their cafe. We ate, saw products produced by local farmers, and bought coffee and organic cake. They were selling organic t-shirts, passion fruit juice, cheese and dairy products, peanut snacks, and teas. As a network, they have managed to turn their agricultural products into added value products that they can sell both in their own community and nearby cities. The Thai stir fry was delicious.
When I asked her what she enjoyed most, she said that it was the training and sharing information. They have become a platform for students and farmers to learn organic practices and how to add value to their products. The day before we came, they had their first ever agricultural festival where they gave workshops in yogurt production and other agricultural activities. They often give tours to visitors.
She took us to her home and farm where we got to meet her father and mother. Her mother was out weeding the vegetable beds in the hot sun. Her father is suffering from cancer and was resting in the shade of the house. She showed us her seed productions plots, greenhouses, compost production, and stingless bees. I was struck by a large amount of Chaya throughout the farm that they originally received from ECHO. She said they wanted to grow more perennials to reduce labor, as "you only have to plant once and harvest for a lifetime." They are able to sell Chaya in the organic market in Chiang Mai.
She said that she had a different style than her mother, but clearly she had learned from both her parents. They are together capturing a pool of knowledge from their own heritage and gathering plants and information from partners like ECHO. Now they share it with the next generation and anyone else who wants to stop by.