This profile originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Bowdoin magazine.
Bowdoin major: Anthropology/Environmental Studies
Hometown: Basking Ridge, N.J.
Recently: ’08-’10, Alternative Agriculture Network Coordinator, Thailand
Currently: Crew member at Hearty Roots Community Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Tivoli, N.Y.
Job perk: Getting re-engaged with the sustainable agriculture and food justice movement closer to home-there are a lot of inspiring things happening here.
First food in the morning: Coffee-stove-top espresso style, Fair Trade beans!
Ideal pet: Black lab and a flock of chickens
Best meal you ate in Thailand?
Raw beef salad, served with scallions, roasted rice grains, chili, lime and fresh blood – a local delicacy, free range beef!
Craziest weather you witnessed during your time in Thailand?
Downpour for about two days straight during the summer of 2007
Most intense childhood fear?
“Heaven’s gate” chairlift at Sugarbush, Vermont-sobbed the whole ride up (after my first run I got over it).
Goals: Spend the next year or so learning more about sustainable agriculture closer to home by actually practicing it”¦I also am continuing to work with the AAN in Thailand, and will be involved with some important events this fall”¦a TED Talks speaking event in Bangkok in September and attending Slow Food’s Terra Madre conference in Italy in October.
Start: I first got involved with the AAN while studying abroad with CIEE Khon Kaen (in northeastern Thailand, also called Esan). The program was focused on experiential learning: We learned about development by living with villagers, meeting with NGOs, meeting with local government offices/ bureaucrats, business, scholars, activists, etc. The main focus was on the villagers’ perspective”¦We lived with villagers affected by dams, mines, deforestation, AIDS, urban slum communities, and many other issues that make up modern development in the Global South. But the experience of rice farmers who had transitioned away from chemicalintensive agriculture and grew integrated, organic farms was particularly important for me.
How did you get involved with your work in Thailand for the Alternative Agriculture Network, and what did your experience with AAN entail?
I first got involved with the AAN while studying abroad with CIEE Khon Kaen (in northeastern Thailand, also called Esan). The program was focused on experiential learning: We learned about development by living with villagers, meeting with NGOs, meeting with local government offices/bureaucrats, business, scholars, activists, etc. The main focus was on the villagers’ perspective: What was their experience of development? What problems were created? What did development mean to them? These were the questions we sought to learn through. We lived with villagers affected by dams, mines, deforestation, AIDS, urban slum communities, and many other issues that make up modern development in the Global South. But the experience of rice farmers who had transitioned away from chemical-intensive agriculture and grew integrated, organic farms was particularly important for me. I saw that “alternative agriculture” was a genuine solution for small-scale farming families in northeastern Thailand. These farmers were out of debt, were self-reliant and grew safe, high quality food for local consumers. Additionally, their rice is certified organic and fair trade, so they earn a premium price at harvest time and about 50% of their rice is exported to the U.S. and Europe. These farmers had changed their way of thinking about farming and its relationship to the environment, and this formed the basis for a sustainable agriculture movement-not much unlike what we see with local, organic farms in the U.S. There are about 3,000 farmers involved with the AAN in the Esan region.
What were your biggest challenge/s with these experiences in Thailand?
The biggest challenge for me was learning how to work for a local Thai organization. The work culture was so different from jobs I had worked before, whether it was for an international medical relief organization, local land trust, construction, farming, restaurants, etc. It was a different pace, much slower, yet intense and time consuming at the same time. The NGO workers, farmers and organizers I worked with dedicate their lives to their work–there are no days off–but at the same time, are not rushing to get the next task done. It was a challenging dynamic to work with, especially after Bowdoin’s intense, competitive academic environment. Yet I did study [at Bowdoin] environmental studies and anthropology, two departments that give students the space to learn independently and at a reasonable pace. I think that my anthropology background helped me to realize how flexible culture can be and that we can immerse ourselves into the local style of work by paying attention to how people use their time and how time is valued. Here in the U.S. we tend to break time up: for meals, for meetings, for sleeping or telling ourselves we will do something “for the season” or “for the year” before moving on to something new or better. But time is not so easily controlled, and I think many of the people I work with accept that: If we are going to continue this meeting all day, then the time passes before we realize the meeting is over. If we need to take a nap, we unroll a mat and lie down. Maybe Bowdoin didn’t help me face this challenge directly, but I felt good about making the transition after Bowdoin was over.
What organizations were you involved with at Bowdoin, and did any of them prepare you for these challenges in Thailand?
I was involved with the Bowdoin Outing Club, where I helped organize the Telemark ski class, the Bowdoin Organic Garden, the cycling club, and the Community Service Resource Center (not sure what it is called now), and we also had an informal group of Thai-speaking students called “Thai Table” which is still continued today, and basically involved off-campus Thai cooking, speaking, and movie-watching. I think my involvement with community service helped me feel empowered to dedicate myself to working for others, especially given what I saw as a trend in our class to get the best job you could find and start making money. Susie Dorn was a great inspiration and mentor for me.