When I think of the "American Dream", I think of George and Lenny huddled next to a campfire making grand plans. The idea of being able to "live off the fat of the land" is as American as cold beer and barbecue. It's fulfillment, however, is far less common. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck was writing of an "American Dream" that is all but dead. Like George and Lenny, most farmers never experience the ideal of being self reliant. Ironically, it is here in Thailand, at PunPun Center for Self Reliance, that I see the actualization of an American Dream.
The motto of Jon Jandai, co-founder of PunPun goes : "If it isn't easy, it isn't right." However starting PunPun was anything but easy. When Peggy Reents and Jon (aka Jo) started the project in 2003, they inherited the land from commodity corn farmers. These farmers abandoned the farm when their agricultural practices left it barren. For years afterwards, the owners of the land maintained it by burning anything that grew. The intention was to keep the land clear so it could be sold to new farmers. Instead, they killed not only new growth, but all of the vital micro-organisms needed for planting and growing. Knowing full well, Jo and Peggy purchased the land, with only a scarce smattering of grass spread throughout the nine acre property. Through will, determination and cleverness they turned an un-farmable property into a lush haven, and a center for community empowerment.
To understand why PunPun is so important, some context is necessary. The most crucial thing to farming, after having land to grow on, is having seeds to sew. While many farms are independently owned, they don't usually own the seeds. The seeds for commodity crops (which make up the vast majority of world agriculture) such as, corn, wheat, and soy are owned by large food conglomerates. The farmer buys the seeds from the company. In Thailand, these are patented hybrid seeds that are issued yearly. These hybrid seeds do not grow well without using synthetic fertilizer, also purchased from the food conglomerate. The seeds that these plants produce are of a lesser quality than the originals. They do not yield the volume or quality of produce that the original seed did. Over the course of years this practice ruins the land for other crops: the chemical pesticides and fertilizers used for growing this way are toxic to other plant life. The appeal of high yield, consistent farming lures farmers into a trap. All of a sudden the farmer, who owns the land, has no choice but to grow one crop and buy seeds from one company. And who buys the produce back from the farmer? Who dictates the price? The same company that sold the seeds in the firstplace. PunPun's main focus is on saving heirloom, organic seeds. Heirloom seeds can be saved and reused without any reduction in quality or yield. They give these seeds away for free. They also teach other farmers how to save their seeds. In this context, it's more than just seed saving. It's empowerment for the farmer. It's a return to the natural order of life.
We came to PunPun for a one week course entitled "Food Matters" which mostly consists of gardening, cooking, and seed saving. There is also a one day tutorial on earthen building: making mud bricks, building using mud mortar, and plastering using mud plaster. The concept here is that if you can do these four things on your own, you can be almost completely self reliant. Honestly, it is laughable how easy and fun being self reliant can be. The work schedule for the fifteen or so permanent residents, as well as the cycle of volunteers and course-goers, is at its most strenuous, very mellow. Every meal is a celebration where residents and visitors eat like one family. The food, which is 99% organic and mostly from their gardens, is so tasty that it makes you forget that it is usually vegetarian. After staying on as volunteers for an additional week I realize; it's not an "American Dream" or a "Thai Dream". It's about respect: respect for the earth, for your fellow human, for your work, for your food, for your body, for your mind. PunPun teaches us that we don't need riches to be prosperous; we need each other.