How did Cambodian rice farmers react to a 6’4″, 280 pound American guy trying to convince them to grow vegetables in Straw Bales?Mar 10 2017
Here are a few pictures from my trip to Cambodia this year, showing the Cambodian adaptation of the STRAW BALE GARDENS® method. It is key to first understand a few important things about Cambodia and the issues they face in providing food for their population. Cambodia is a very big producer of rice, it is grown in rice paddies all over the countryside. The rice harvest is usually done in July/August and most farmers own and farm about 2.5 acres of land. Approximately 75% of the population still works in agricultural production. The biggest agricultural production difficulty comes each fall when the floods come. Arriving in September and staying for about three months or until later in November, during this time most of the country is ten feet under water, and thus growing anything during this time is traditionally impossible. Once the flood water recedes, then the drought comes and there is no rain for the next three months. This means essentially no water to water crops which see 100+ Farenheit temperatures every day during this time. There are few wells available, and most are not capable of irrigating a large area.
The Korean Trade Partners (KOTRA) and several Non-Governmental Organizations who have a significant presence in Cambodia and provide much assistance to the agriculture industry in Cambodia, has created a plan to help individual farmers become more self-sufficient and their farms more sustainable. The first step is to use a large backhoe to dig a large hole, deep, long and wide somewhere on the farmers 2.5 acre plot. The excavated soil gets piled up to create an artificial plateau. The soil excavated is not conducive to production of plants, it is heavy clay, and once packed down cannot easily be turned. This plateau area provides a great location, above the flood water level, where the farmer can set up a straw bale garden. Straw is plentiful, because the plentiful summer rice fields produce a large amount of chaff after harvest. Currently most farmers simply burn the empty fields after the straw dried out, and this causes a great deal of pollution in the air and CO2 release into the atmosphere. This is a problem, and a big one which the STRAW BALE GARDENS® method. Farmers could generate an additional income source if they had a market to sell or utilize this straw in a better way. Another problem hindering this is they do not have mechanical balers, so they must make the bales by hand using a homemade baler. Many of the poor farmers cannot read or write so in order to teach them the STRAW BALE GARDENS® method, it must be done in person, by example, so that is what we are doing. The people from local Non-Governmental Organizations, as well as regional agriculture specialists from Cambodia were at the classroom presentations, and will go back and teach their local farmers the techniques. The straw bale garden will allow the farmer to grow crops even during the flood period, especially since the straw bales are great at draining away excess moisture, so daily rainfall isn’t a problem. Crops thrive, including dietary necessities that until now they have relied upon outside government and other charitable organizations to provide. Starches such as potatoes, squash, cucumbers, and other legumes like green beans and peas, and many other crops are now able to grow year around in the tropical climate of Cambodia. When the dry season comes, those deep holes left by the backhoe are then filled with flood water and ground water that seeps in. It is non-potable water, but can be used to irrigate crops, and this allows the straw bales to be watered even during the dry season and continue to produce.
For those who cannot dig a deep hole, there is another great option and that is to build a garden that will float. We have endeavored to build a large platform of bamboo or other material that is buoyant and will support the weight of a bale of straw which is also going to be soaked in water. When the floods arrive the garden floats up with the flood water, then down again when the rains leave. It is a simple way to use the plentiful supply of bamboo that surrounds them everywhere, to make these floating gardens.
FEEDING THE HUNGRY:
We have all heard it asked a million times “why can’t we solve the problem of world hunger?” and the best answer most people arrive at is to send grain or food from one part of the planet to another. Then those people with guns and power take the charitable gifts meant for the people, and divide them up to the hungry populations as they see fit, making those with guns even more powerful, and keeping the population under their thumbs. This solution, our solution, using a hole in the ground and the STRAW BALE GARDENS™ method, does the job so much better. Allows individuals to feed themselves and keeps them from being at the mercy of others for food.
I like to use blood meal as an organic nitrogen source for conditioning the bales. Another option that works well is feather meal. Whatever source is used, it should have a minimum of 5% active nitrogen content. Manure will just not work quickly enough, it doesn’t have enough concentration of active nitrogen. With manure it becomes physically impossible to drive enough material into the bale to feed the bacteria enough nitrogen to allow them to colonize the bale. The only exception to this no manure rule is with chicken manure that has been collected without any bedding material or wood shavings mixed in. The manure must be composted for a short 6-12 week period and covered during this time to avoid having rain leach the nitrogen content from the manure. Use this chicken manure in combination with a known concentration such as blood meal or feather meal, and the chicken manure can prove effective and strong enough in nitrogen concentration to achieve the objective of feeding enough nitrogen to grow bacteria quickly inside the bales. DO NOT USE any other manures, they are simply not high enough in nitrogen content and the bales will not condition quickly enough to be ready for planting in the 18 day period of time we are allowing for this to happen. If you want to add a nice layer of weed seeds to your bale surface just use some horse manure or cow manure on top of your bales. Compost has less than 1% nitrogen content, compost tea has less than 1% nitrogen, so don‘t try to condition the bales using either one. Fish emulsion is great but not economical to use in large quantities for bale conditioning, it also stinks horribly. My suggestion for anyone who wants to do Straw Bale Gardening organically is to stick with blood meal or feather meal. One tip is to use a sharp stick or pipe to make holes in the bales when you apply the blood meal, so it works quickly down into the interior. This trick will make the blood meal available to the bacteria more quickly and it will keep the smell at a manageable level. The blood meal will stink a bit like dead animals, since it is made from the blood of dead animals I guess this kind of makes sense doesn’t it. Look for blood meal at a farm supply store where a large bag will cost much less per pound than a small bag at a garden center. You will need a large amount to do the job, and don’t skimp on the amount you apply or your plants will suffer.
We prefer to have the cut side of the bale facing up. The open stem ends allow easier penetration of the granular fertilizer and the water is better able to carry the fertilizer into the bales that way. But if the cut side isn’t up, it isn’t a deal breaker, it may just take a bit more time to work the fertilizer in. I think it is important to keep the strings on the sides of the bales. If the strings are made of sisal or hemp twine, this is really key, as if the natural fiber is touching the soil it will likely decompose and break, allowing the bale to loose its compression and even fall apart. One key to the quick decomposition of the straw and the conditioning is that the bales must be compressed. If the straw is loose or not well compressed it will decompose much more slowly, possibly too slowly for our purposes. If the strings are running along the top side of the bales, and you are stabbing into the bales with a sharp planting trowel to make holes for planting bedding plants, it is likely that a string could easily be cut. If that were to happen it would be important to retie that string as tightly as possible. Most bale makers, or balers, will make bales with two distinct sides, the cut side, where a knife simply shears off the straw stalks on one side and the other end of the bale is folded over inside the baler. It is easy to see the difference, and any farm kid who ever stacked bales on a baling rack knows the difference is distinct. If you pick up the bales with the cut side bouncing against your leg when you stack them, it hurts, and you’ll have a serious rash on that leg before you know it. If you are a city kid, then you might not realize there is a difference, but once you see another bale, you will see the difference, so remember to put the cut side up. If by chance the cut side is also a side with the strings, then turn the bale to keep the strings on the sides of the bale. You’ll also see that the strings on the side help to hold the poly tents from the straw bale greenhouse covers in place.