Slowly but surely, but really quite quickly, a food movement has taken hold. Part of this movement is the demand from the foodies and hipsters of the world to know where their chicken comes from. Is it from Illinois? Iowa? What did it eat? Did it have friends? What was its name? Can we visit the farm? While not many people take it to the extreme and actually visit the farm that their food comes from, we happened to have the opportunity; and we took it.
Being in SE Asia, we’ve eaten a lot of rice. And although at home we may not give a second thought to the blood, sweat, and tears that go into growing and harvesting those tiny morsels of deliciousness it’s really hard to ignore it here. Rice paddies spill out in front of you as soon as you leave any city and reach the countryside. Rice farming goes way back. Every day you can see the conical hatted farmers in their fields- sowing their seeds, fussing with their rice shoots, reaping their crop.
While in Luang Prabang we had the chance to visit the Living Land Farm on the outskirts of town. It’s a relatively new venture started by two brothers with a long family history of farming. But these guys are of the new generation. Turning a profession that leaves most living barely above the poverty line into a program that’s pushing them into the towns elite. The farm sells the best organic produce to the top restaurants in town and spends most mornings educating tourists on rice farming while charging each person what would equate to a weeks pay for the average farmer.
The program takes you through each stage of growing rice.
Prepping the Land
First step is to plough the fields. Fill the paddies with the right amount of water and put your tractor to work prepping the soil for new seedlings. Traditionally, this is done with a water buffalo. For most farmers this has a two-fold benefit: 1) Buffalos are way cheaper than a real tractor. Under $1000 compared to up to 10x that amount for a tractor. 2) Buffalos provide fertilizer. That’s right. These friendly beasts are a rice farmer’s best friend.
Our water buffalo for the day was named Suzuki. There’s another on site that we didn’t get to meet named Yamaha.
While the farmers are busy prepping the paddies, one section of the farm is closed off for germination of this season’s harvest. Lumped close together these young seedlings are nurtured until they are ready for the next step, transplanting.
Here’s where the pain begins. The seedlings that are properly germinated are picked by hand and transplanted to their final home. Arched over, ankle deep in the mud we planted each seed, one by one, 20cm apart, in a nice little row. Well at least it started in a nice little row. The guide laughed at us a little bit as we are hard at work and mentioned that most of the time he has to re-do what had been done by the day’s visitors. We tried. We’re told this process takes a minimum of 240 man hours of back-breaking work for each hectare of rice.
Once the rice has dried out it’s time to harvest. A sickle, which you can find for sale in any market in town, is the tool of the trade here. Harvesting is also a plant by plant operation. Each individual shoot is sickled by itself. Take hold of the plant, place the sickle at the base of the plant, and pull to cut. Once you have a handful of these you have your first bundle. Use one of the plants to tie around the bundle in your hand. Now repeat until you’re finished harvesting the field.
Now that you have your bundles of rice it’s time to remove the seeds. Something to the likes of a nunchuk are involved in this process, alone with something that looks like a cornhole board without the hole and the party game. Put the rice stalk bundle in the nunchuk and then beat the bundle (with the seeds facing down) on the board. This will send the rice flying off the stalks and onto a mat. Once you’ve completed this with all your harvested rice you fan any of the remaining stalks off the rice pile with a rice dance and song (pictured).
The rice in the current form still has the husk on it. You’ll notice it’s brown in the picture and not white like the grains we are used to seeing. Removing the husk is a two step process. A scoop of rice gets put into a stone bowl in the ground. Then using your foot and a lever contraption with a stone at the end, you push the lever up and down to ‘beat’ the husk off the rice. For one batch this takes about 40 minutes. Yikes. After all that your rice and your husk are still living in the same place and they need to be separated. This involves a highly skilled technique of flipping the rice around in a tray and blowing the grains out. Apparently, if you’re a woman and don’t know how to do this, then no one will want to marry you.
And that’s it. Hours of our hard work and we were left with just a few cups of rice. Enough to feed a few of us, which is exactly what happened. The day ends with a few snacks: some sticky rice (with a buffalo skin chili paste for dipping), sweets made from rice flour, and some sugar cane juice to wash it all down. It was a pleasant day on the farm where we learned a lot about the work ethic of rice farmers. If there’s anything we can do to thank them for all their work it’s this: next time you order rice with a meal, you better eat every last morsel on that plate. We will.