Growing organic rice is a very frustrating and delicate matter. Snails and insects eat your crop. Freshwater crabs cut the stems for fun. Weeds grow up, stealing the much needed sunlight and soil nutrients away from your future food supply. The tools you have to combat this are limited. Rice is not an aquatic plant, as so many of us have come to believe by watching movies. It actually grows better with less water. Cutting back on water also helps to thwart the snails and crabs. But the armies of weeds! They thrive when the waters go down. This is why the paddies are kept flooded. Even the then weeds still find a way.
Because the weeds grow much quicker than rice, they quickly overtake the crop. In response to this invasion, action must be taken. The question is how to go about it. Squatting in a rice field and plucking out weeds is hard on the back and harder on the wallet because it will take a lot of manpower to do this. We have a manual weed eater that works like a push mower, but the design is flawed: the axel is too wide and it causes collateral damage by breaking the rice shoots as it is pushed between the rows.
This is when you are thankful that your farm manager is a free thinker. Sak Chai, the farm manager, grabbed a piece of 2×6, secured it to a handle and hammered some nails into the bottom. “I think this will make weeding easier”, he says in his musical speech (he is a Karen tribesman who speaks Thai and English as well). He climbs down into the paddy and the war against weeds begins to turn. Sak Chai, the warrior poet, enters the fray causing the once ambiguous rice rows to begin to reform, leaving floating, de-rooted weeds in his wake.
All the while, I’m learning the hard lesson of how difficult weeding by hand can be on the back. He lets me take a turn and I am once again reminded of the strength of a farmer; something I have not yet fully realized in myself. I can barely push the weeder half the width of the paddy. “This is heavy Sak Chai.” He just laughs. I tell him that we could make it lighter and he tells me that I can make one for myself if I want to after lunch.
He isn’t joking. He supplies the materials, but he makes me do all the work. Another reminder of how durable the Thai and hill tribe farmers are as I become winded after using the machete to shape the wood. In the end, my tool is about half the weight and is much shorter than Sak Chai’s. The nails are smaller as well and angled differently in order to undercut the roots of the weeds. “I do not think this will work,” says Sak Chai. “It is too small, I think.” Undaunted, I take it into the paddy and take my place in the ranks. Success is quickly achieved. With the new design I am able to work much longer and with more precision so as not to accidentally kill the rice I’m trying to save.
I laugh when I think that we are literally winning a war on weeds with a couple of boards with nails in them. It saves both time and money. The ideas are so simple. But these are the kinds of ideas we are looking for: simple, replicable, and affordable.
One of the first goals of the farm was to demonstrate how to organically produce rice, something that few attempt to do in Thailand. With ideas like these, we are a few steps closer to achieving this goal. And with a few more good ideas, we will be better equipped to spread the Good News of natural farming to our neighbors and encourage others toward a more healthy tomorrow.