How did Cambodian rice farmers react to a 6’4″, 280 pound American guy trying to convince them to grow vegetables in Straw Bales?
Above 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.
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. 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.
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Wow, Joel, you are ONTO SOMETHING! Teaching the Cambodian farmers to straw bale garden atop the clay plateaus (and watering from the government-dug ponds) was amazing in itself, but the bamboo rafts are GENIUS! You’ve earned enough good karma for a thousand years! This is my first year of straw bale gardening, after reading your book, and although I’m just now planting it is obviously going to be easier on my senior bones than all that goes with “dirt farming.” You have a LOT to be proud of, and have changed individuals’ and communities’ lives, and now a whole country’s food problem! Keep up the good work!
You must be very excited to see what is happening in Cambodia. A great project,
I hope it can be expanded across Asia Joel. And quickly
God bless You Joel
Rory ( North London , England )
This is so amazing! I would to see this being done in Africa
We do have projects in Africa already, it is amazing to see the results we are acheiving there as well.
Very interesting. I like the idea of raised gardening due to arthritis , do the bales completely crumble away? I woukd like this if I can get bales delivered. How much nitrogen per bale?
The gardens on bamboo rafts is a VERY good idea, somewhat reminiscent of the permanent floating gardens of the Aztecs. Here’s a link;
These were called “chinampas” and variations of the technique are still being used in that area today.
We are located outside of Taos NM at 8400ft with a short growing season, so we decided to start with 12 bales. The nitrogen fertilizer I ordered didn’t arrive & I am at a loss for what to do to get the bales composting? I was wondering if Schultz All Purpose liquid plant food might do the trick? It’s 10% nitrogen 15% phosphate .010%soluble potash 0.05% manganese &.0.05% zinc? It is a concentrate but don’t know if it is strong enough to get any microbial action started? Could I combine it with a horse manure tea? We’ve always gardened in soil, so this is all new to us. Beautiful job around planet using your holistic approach. Thanks, Pete
I love that you’re doing philanthropy! I just finished reading your book and I am excited to try method. I live in PA where there is abundant plants as well as rich soil. But the idea bag this can be using in a float area!!! Fantastic.