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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



Below are a few pictures from my trip showing the Cambodian adaptation of the STRAW BALE GARDENS® method. To explain how important this method of growing can be to this population, it is key to first understand a few important things about Cambodia and the issues they face in providing year-round food supplies 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 farm families own and till 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 arrive.  Beginning in September and persisting for about three months or until late in November, it rains daily.  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, the drought comes and there is no rain for the next three months.  This means essentially no water to irrigate crops which often see 100+ Fahrenheit temperatures every day during this time. There are few wells available, and most are not capable of irrigating a large area.  This combination of weather and climate issues is the root cause for an unsustainable food production and storage system for all 12 months each year.


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, have created a plan to help individual farmers become more self-sufficient and their farms more sustainable.  The goal is to extend their growing season throughout the flood season and the drought season without interruption.

DIG A HOLE:  The first step is to use a large backhoe to dig a large hole, 15-20′ deep, 30-40′ long and 30-40′ wide somewhere on the farmers 2.5-acre plot.  The excavated soil is piled up next to the giant hole 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.

BALES ABOVE THE FLOOD LEVEL:  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 dries 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 can help to alleviate.  Farmers could generate an additional income source if they had a market to sell or utilize this straw in a better way.

HAND MADE RICE STRAW BALES:  The locals do not have mechanical balers, so they must make the bales by hand using a homemade wooden baler.    The straw bale garden will allow the farmer to grow crops even during the flood period, especially since the straw bales provide excellent drainage capacity and easily drain away excess moisture, so daily rainfall isn’t a problem.  Crops thrive, including dietary necessities that until now they have not been able to grow, and instead they have relied upon outside government and other charitable organizations for food.  Starches such as potatoes, squash, pumpkins, 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.

WATER ACCESS CONTINUES DURING THE DROUGHT PERIOD:  When the drought season comes, those deep holes left by the backhoe remain filled with flood water and ground water that seeps into the holes.  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.

FLOATING GARDEN:  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.

WE CANNOT SIMPLY MAIL OUT LITERATURE:  Pol Pot (1925-1998) and his communist Khmer Rouge movement led Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, about 1.5 million Cambodians out of a total population of 7 to 8 million died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork.  Many of the poor farmers who lived through this period cannot read or write, so 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 attended my classroom presentations, and will go back and teach their local farmers these techniques.


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.  The problem is this, the 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.  The ability to control a population through their stomach and keep the population under their thumbs is as old as man.  This solution, our solution, using a hole in the ground and the STRAW BALE GARDENS™ method, does the job of helping these people to feed themselves so much better.  Not only does it prevent hunger it also allows the population to stand up to the government if needed, and avoid ever being at the mercy of others for food.


What is the best organic source of nitrogen to condition my bales? Can I just use manure?

Feb 25 2015

I like to uBM418se 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 s07810__62877.1407758361.1280.1280trong 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 donSBG2TracyWalsh67-XL‘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.


What side of the bale goes up? What if my strings are on that side?

Feb 25 2015

We prefer to have the cut side of the bale facing IMG_2824up.  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 oIMG_1539n 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.


What about mold on the bales, isn’t mold bad?

Feb 25 2015

No, mold is simply one of the tools mother nature uses to decompose organic substrates.  Mold growing inside a confined space, where we breath in the conceIMG_4190ntrated spores, is very potentially harmful.  Absolutely mold growing in your home is not healthy.  Plants growing in a bale with mold on it are completely unaffected and actually benefit from the mold as mold is a decomposer, helping to break down the substrate into soil.  Plants don’t breathe in and out like we do, so the mold doesn’t affect them at all.  Mold growing on a bale will usually be attacked and consumed by the bacteria present in the bale shortly after it gets established.  If a gardener has serious allergies to mold, then I would recommend wearing gloves, and a mask when gardening period, with bales or regular soil.  If allergies are bad enough then maybe gardening in general just isn’t for you, stay indoors where your less likely to suffer any encounters with mold spores.   Soil generally contains lots of mold spores as well, as does most air outdoors in the summer.  The concentration is much lower than indoor air can be in a moldy house however and the lower concentration of spores is typically never a concern fGorgonzolaCheeseor most people.  I would not recommend eating vegetable leaves with mold on them, for instance if a lettuce leaf came into contact and was smeared with mold prior to harvesting it, then I would suggest washing it well before consuming it.   We eat moldy cheese all the time, they even charge extra for the moldiest of cheeses.  Most mold itself is pretty harmless, but less than tasty to eat.   Think about your straw bales like cheese, the moldier the better.  Stop worrying about what you assume is going to go so terribly wrong with your Straw Bale Garden, and just get started.  You’ll see that most of these concerns you have about moldy bales are completely unwarranted in the end.


Bales are so expensive how can this be an economical way to garden?

Feb 25 2015


The most expensive input cost in any traditional soil garden is LABOR.  Your time to weed, water, weed, plant, weed, harvest, weed, water, weed and pull weeds adds up.  If you had to pay yourself for the hours you put into your garden, you’d soon see how much money goes into a traditional soil garden.  Straw bale gardening eliminates the vast majority of weeding, and if set up properly, also eliminates watering by hand as well.  A simple hose end digital timer turns the water to an irrigation drip system or soaker hose on and off with a preprogrammed schedule eliminating the need to stand around holding a water hose for half an hour every day.  As the bales go through the conditioning process it is very common for them to heat up and this heating process sterilizes any viable weed seeds inside the bales, rendering any potentially viable seeds inert and unable to germinate.  You may invest in bales, but you’ll also free yourself from your second job this summer, and spend your time doing something more productive and enjoyable, instead of weeding and watering your garden.


Using or our website you might find a farmer direct source for bales making them less expensive.  Always ask if the farmer has any wet bales, because wet straw bales are completely useless to a farmer planning to use straw as livestock bedding material.  Those bales that were rained on are likely to be on sale for a discount price.  Shop in the fall, because if a farmer has to store the bales after they come directly off the field in the fall, he will likely want to charge more for them in the spring.  Fall bales are normally easier to find, less expensive, and will begin to condition a little bit if you leave them outside in the weather over the winter.


In the newest book I have written “Straw Bale Gardens Complete” you will find a step-by-step method for assembling a simple lever system, I call the BaleMaker3000, which you can use to compress and make your own bales.  The material you can use to make your own bales can be any compostable organic material from your property.  Grass clippings, leaves, tree and bush trimmings, garden trimmings, vegetable peelings from the kitchen, weeds pulled from other areas, flowers that have expired, etc.  Literally any organic matter that would normally go into a compost bin, can now be used to make bales for your garden.  If you have straw bales from last year’s garden and they are half decomposed, you can use them in the new bales as well.  Pile everything into a 40 quart plastic or rubber storage bin, use the BaleMaker3000 to squish down the material tightly into the tub, then tie it up with strings pre-positioned in bin.  Drag the bin to the location you want your new bale, dump it over, and wrap it with chicken wire.  Staple the chicken wire on a 2×2 about 24″ long with a sharpened end.  Twist the 2×2 until the chicken wire squeezes the new little bale you made nice and tight, now pound the 2×2 into the ground to hold the wire in the compressed position.SBG2TracyWalsh05-XL SBG2TracyWalsh35-XLTracyWalsh065-XL     TracyWalsh089-XLTracyWalsh092-XLTracyWalsh100-XLTracyWalsh096-XLTracyWalsh104-XL