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How did Cambodian farmers react to a 6’4″, 280 pound American guy trying to convince them to grow vegetables in bales of rice straw?

One of the most unexpected and memorable experiences of my life was a trip to Cambodia in 2016. 

I was invited to travel halfway around the world from my home state of Minnesota to that tropical country in Southeast Asia, to share information about the Straw Bale Gardens™ method.

It was humbling and heartwarming to see how the horticultural innovation that was inspired by a moment of simple frustration standing in my suburban backyard, is now having an impact on people living so far away, in a part of the world I never dreamed I would be able to visit when I was a little boy growing up on the family farm.

I hope you enjoy seeing some photos from my trip, and learning a bit more about how Straw Bale Gardening is a solution for the specific challenges faced by Cambodian farmers related to terrain and seasonal weather patterns.

PROBLEM DEFINED:

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. 

Sunset over rice paddy in Cambodia

Cambodia is a very big producer of rice. The countryside is filled with beautiful, bountiful rice paddies. 

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 several 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 couple 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, little electricity and most farmers 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. Especially for essential fresh vegetables, providing much of the complex nutrients need for growing children.

SOLUTION:

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. Once rain subsides, within a short time air is able to once again enter the draining bales and keep the roots of vegetable plants viable, unlike the soggy soil at this time of year, which rots the roots of most things planted in the muck.

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 grown 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.

It’s been amazing to see the Straw Bale Gardening movement spread around the globe, to places as different from my hometown of Worthington, Minnesota as Cambodia, Switzerland and Tanzania.

Instructor teaching in a straw bale garden in cambodia

Whatever their location or circumstances, each individual gardener has a different story for how this method has had an impact on their life. Each one of those stories always brings me a fresh moment of amazement, gratitude and hope.

In many ways, I’m still just a Minnesota farm kid at heart. But somehow, by solving my own backyard gardening problem, I ended up with an enormous “family” of Straw Bale Gardeners around the world. It’s really quite incredible.

And I want you to know that every one of you, and every one of your stories, means the world to me.

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to share it with others.

You can also learn more about how Straw Bale Gardening can be part of the solution to world hunger by watching Joel’s TedX talk.

Got a comment or gardening story of your own to share with Joel? Please share it below!

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