Final Day: Where do we go from here?

Written by Luke Drachenberg, University of Wisconsin-Madison

As I slide into my seat for the final and homeward flight of my global experience with AFA, it hits me: I’ve just traveled halfway around the world and back again, lived and learned in a new culture, and formed friendships that will last a lifetime. I can picture the places our group has been, the people we met, and the food that (most of us) tried. I think over our visits, among others, to Thanathon Orchard, Pun Pun Organic Farm, Raming Tea Co., and Ichitan Group PCL that gave us a variety of perspectives on agriculture in Thailand and its importance to the economic and political systems of the country. There is no question that this has been a once-in-a-lifetime trip.Royal Project Nong Hoi (54)

On a personal level, I appreciated the fact that this trip pushed me out of my comfort zone. I chose this destination not for its beautiful sights or wonderful food, but rather because I knew the culture I would experience would be radically different than the one I was raised in. Thailand didn’t disappoint; from day one I often felt overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and people we encountered. Everything was different and new. This challenged me in a positive way and made me take a long, hard look at the differences between Thai culture and that of the US. As Henry Rollins once said, a great way to learn about your country is to leave it. After experiencing Thailand, I couldn’t agree more.

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Given the above, one question still remains: where do we go from here? The original 40 Chances program and subsequent Global Fellows trip were based on the premise that each of us has 40 years, or 40 chances, to leave a positive impact on the world. In a press release announcing the program, AFA stated the following: “As the agriculture industry is faced with feeding more people with fewer resources, this next generation of agriculture leaders has many challenges and opportunities. The program’s objective is to give this group of student leaders an edge when it comes time to graduate, equipping them to make significant contributions to agriculture and food related issues.” As we approach graduation and transition into our working careers, the step of where we go from here is clear. We now have been equipped with the skills and ideas to make a difference; it is now up to us to use these skills during our 40 “chances” to make the world a better place.

Day 13: Our Last Day In Thailand

Written by Wes Davis, Purdue University

Today was our last day exploring Thailand and it was quite the adventure! Some of our group spent the day visiting the beach while others toured the Thailand Grand Palace and a well-known outdoor shopping area called JJ Market. Being a fair-skinned redhead, I opted to avoid any chance of sunburn and chose the latter.

We hopped in a taxi around 9:30 and went straight to the Palace. The entire site was inundated with visitors from around the world all there to see the famed Palace. As we entered the gates, we saw the immaculate and ornate building enclosed by a ten-foot wall, much of which contained murals depicting the stories of the Thai gods.

After seeing the Palace, we left the walled complex and saw the queen’s Palace while Jessica met up with a Thai foreign exchange student her family had hosted. We finished our tour and Jessica’s friend took us downtown to grab a bite to eat and shop at JJ Market. On the way, we made a pitstop at a Pokemon event and for many of us, it was a flashback to our childhoods!

When we arrived at the market, it was a shock for us all. The entire place was basically a five acre flea market on steroids. We went in and out of the booths seeing low cost shoes, clothing, collectibles, and gifts from around the world. Several of us walked away with great purchases including our in-country advisor, Keith, who walked away with several nice handmade silk floral shirts.

That evening, we walked a few blocks from our hotel to visit a sky restaurant called Rooftop 409. With a beautiful skyline view in the background, we laughed, talked, and shared our thoughts on the trip as a whole. After our delicious meal, we all headed back to the hotel and many of us pulled all-nighters before leaving for the hotel at 4:00am.

After processing all our luggage and documents, we all said goodbye to our IIE country leader, Kit, and headed toward the gate and the 22 hours of travel that laid between us and the US. Many airline meals, countless naps, and two flights later, we are all back in the states tucked in our beds and trying to shake off the jet lag.

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We are all happy so many of you followed our adventure in Thailand and hope that you were able to see the impact and value this experience has had for us all. More than anything, we have each been given an opportunity to challenge our perspectives and change our approach to things that are different. Not only has the global fellowship given us incredible memories, but it has given us a new lens through which to view and react to the world. Thank you for following our journey. We can’t wait to see you all back in the states!

Day 12: Pulling It All Together

Written by Adam Striegel, Iowa State University

Have you ever had a defining moment of clarity? A moment that for a instant, the world seems to freeze in place as gears inside your head connect the points together in a way they’ve never been connected before.

I had one of those moments while concluding a group presentation of our recommendation reports for improving Thailand’s agricultural systems. Our group at that point had spent about two weeks in-country visiting university and government staff, touring research facilities, as well as large agribusinesses.

The group I was a part of presented on three facets Thailand could improve upon: educational efforts and research, communication, and technology development and infrastructure.

I found the presentations a very useful way to summarize our experience as we soon realized almost every one came to the same conclusions in the recommendation reports. That said, many Global Fellows saw these issues with different “lenses” based off their area of study and life experiences.

This aforementioned moment came in the conclusion of my group’s presentation. We fielded a question from Danielle, a senior at the University of Illinois in Agronomy asking us to clarify how our web-based communication/virtual library website proposition would cater itself to technologically in-adept farmers who may have minimal education.

Chandler, D.J. and I all answered the question, which then led to discussion amongst the other Fellows. I stood at the front of the room and watched as this discussion “pop corned” around the room from Global Fellow to Global Fellow. I watched as each individual’s contribution to the discussion added to the group’s understanding of this issue. Ag Business, Ag finance, Animal Science and Agronomy. The Global Fellows come from a very diverse background, and over these past 4 years have added immense value to our experience in AFA and in college.

I said it then in the conference room, and I will say it again now.

This is AFA. This is what AFA is about.

Day 11: Sometimes We are Challenged

Written by Danielle Cooney, University of Illinois

It’s funny how 12 days can change so much of your personal perspective and yet at the same time feel like hardly anything has changed at all. With such a short trip as the one we are on it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement, new ideas and thoughts and how easy it is to paint a beautiful picture of an amazing, problem and challenge-free experience. However, sometimes it just isn’t so and it’s how you react to the situation that shows the development and maturation that comes with travel and, at least for me, today I hit the wall of frustration in the culture shock development curve.

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Before I share our day’s adventures I want to share two quotes that helped me push through and challenge myself to find the value in today’s experiences.

“If you are 22, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them-wherever you go.”

-Anthony Bourdain

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

This was our first morning in Bangkok, and boy was it a challenge to get up. Not only did we have a very lovely hotel suite with a very comfy bed, but it was also very muggy and rainy. Making for a perfect day to crawl back in and enjoy the comforts of the hotel. Additionally at this point, most of us are facing the challenge of missing our families and friends and wanting to be connected to wifi to chat with them longer than a few short exchanges. However, we had an adventure waiting for us to experience so persevere, we did.

This first stop was at a temple ruin in Ayuthaya. At this temple not only did you get to walk up the original bricks (kind of nerve wracking as they were well worn, steep, and grooved out, everyone watch your step!) but we also watched individuals buying gold foil to drop down into some sort of well and to also stick pieces on the Buddha structures.

The second stop was a similar temple ruin but from the result of an attack by the Burmese; seeing the remains of a beautiful site be completely destroyed by a fire.

Here lied yet another challenge: continuing to understand and respect the significance of another culture and religion. Through experiencing many different interactions with locals and different Temples we are beginning to piece together and attempting to understand what the religion holds important as well as the values and traditions associated. We are at a point where it is easy to say “I don’t care about this religion any more, it’s not mine, I don’t believe the values and I don’t understand the significance of looking at another one. The weather is so hot and humid in Bangkok. I don’t want to be here” and brush aside the experience. Yes, I was guilty of this, but it’s the going back and pushing to understand why the Thai view it as important.  It’s understanding the history and significance behind the challenge they faced in establishing their country and structure. It’s understanding the foundation that governs the current actions, what they view as important and how that impacts choices they might make regarding agriculture and millions of Thai people. It’s growing outside of your comfort zone and finding value in an experience even when it’s frustrating.

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Our next adventure was the floating markets and a lunch stop. What an interesting place. All the markets are on docks and some of the vendors and our cooks actually sat in boats and prepared our meal. The food was great and some of us tried some new things. One interesting thing was sitting on the ground eating off the equivalent of a coffee table. Again came the challenge of the language barrier, trying to ask what had been ordered and then my tables confusion when we realized that food and drink were paid for separately to two different waitresses. Great food, but certainly annoying to try and figure out while still remaining civil and respectful to our server trying to do their job as best they can.

The final stop of the trip was a bottled tea company. From our initial view and entrance into the company it had a very “Google like” appearance and atmosphere while boasting slogans of green environmentally friendly production. We learned that the next day was national children’s day and the company was preparing for the event where they would host local children. We then viewed a very impressive video on the output and maximization of production and market. The company’s smart start seemed to achieve and easily enter the market. Then came the factory tour. This was sure to be exciting because of the highly mechanized process that came with the company, as it only employs 200 people but can produce 600 bottles/min.

What started out as a great learning experience module, great views of the mechanized system and a really cool experience quickly became a challenge that none of us had anticipated facing: the prevalent misunderstanding of conventional and organic agriculture. Similar stories of misrepresentation of agriculture and facts we know are just not quite as accurate as the picture they are portrayed as but ones that support the foundation of some of the company’s beliefs. We had to have enough maturity to remain composed and open to what information was being shared while still thinking how we could possible bridge this communication and misinformation. We wanted to embrace and fully experiences the intensity and complexity of such a mechanized and efficient process so we continued on with the experience.

One of the interesting points was understating how they created thin and more environmentally friendly bottles for the tea and experiencing the warehouse.  Surprisingly, the warehouse keeps enough inventory for only seven days before it is distributed. The only way to really describe this mechanized system is like the door system in the Monsters Inc movie!  It was absolutely incredible to watch and view. Finally, an interactive game explaining a new product and a learning module developed for interactive student learning.  We sampled a fruit punch green tea. It was pretty good and sugary coming from a non-tea drinker.

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Finally, most of us rode the sky tram to a mall market and found dinner here. We were faced with the ever-growing temptation, challenge and choice of food versus shopping and then continue on to Thai food versus American.  I know this is a small bump in the road and if I continue to persevere I can learn a lot, if not more by being challenged this way. Looking forward to the last few days of our trip and experiences, be reunited with our other Fellows and learn about their perspectives and then see our families and friends. See you soon!

Day 10: Royal Project in Review

Written by Jessica Blosberg, University of Minnesota

As we flew away from Chiang Mai and rose above the cloud level this afternoon, my breath was taken away at how beautiful the sunset was. My mind started wander, and I kept thinking about how blessed we are. What an experience it has been to be exploring such a beautiful country, learning about agriculture, and spending time with some of our greatest friends from across the USA?  During our time in Chiang Mai and Fang, we were introduced to agricultural methods and concepts many of us had never dreamed of before, or had only seen in pictures. Personally, I was excited to learn about rice and tea production, as I have not been able to study them in-depth and up close until this trip.

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The concept of the Royal Projects in Thailand is something I have dreamed of, but have not seen in action, and when I have, it has not been successful. Thailand’s King started the Royal Projects in 1969 and has devoted much time and money to seeing it through, making sure the hills tribe people of northern Thailand have opportunities for good quality of life as much as farmers in the lowlands, or citizens whom reside in the cities. Our visit this morning took us to the Nong Hoi Royal Project Development Center. They are in the highlands of northern Thailand, which allows them to focus on growing crops that are more suitable for higher altitudes, rather than growing common low-altitude crops or tree crops. Strawberries, grapes, raspberries, mulberries, lettuce, plums, chilis, and bell peppers are a few of the crops grown in this area. These are cash crops in Thailand. One unique part of the Royal Projects is how dedicated they are to environmental conservation. For example, this area is 4,000 rai, which is equivalent to about 1,581 acres. Due to surrounding forests, and the Royal Projects intending to not promote deforestation, this area is not expected to grow.

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Nong Hoi Royal Project research plots.  New seeds are tested for success rates in the region before release for use by farmers of the project.

The Nong Hoi Royal Project community consists of 150 families, and approximately 520 people. Farmers are provided seed by the Royal Projects, and are expected to grow the crop, and then sell it back to the group. At the development center, the crops are trimmed, washed, and stored until they can be sent to a processing center for packaging and shipping to consumers and stores. The whole Royal Projects program works together across 38 locations in the northern provinces of Thailand. It was started by the King, and he has visited many of the farms and visited with farmers and villagers over the years, but it has been continued by the people who respect and look up to him.

The original purpose of the Royal Projects was to replace poppy crops (opium) with cash crops that produce food, in order to help people in the highlands in the northern part of Thailand. It has since been successful, and continues to provide communities with more profitable and comfortable lifestyles. The new crops that replaced the poppies have brought in more, or an equal amount of income, meaning that farmers have had a good incentive to switch to not supporting the opium supply. Along with alternative, more useful crops, education, healthcare, and community-building have been focuses of the Royal Projects and the improvements they bring to the tribespeople. Overall, I have been impressed by the Royal Projects. They have been successful, are globally recognized, have programs in other countries modeled after their success, and give a very positive impression of the Thai culture and its progress to making lives better for its people.

Day 9: Government and Tea Time!

Written by Colleen Smith, Cornell University 

After returning to Chiang Mai last night, we settled back into the city life with a dinner out at an American style restaurant. This morning we were up and ready for another day of learning about Thai agriculture. Our first stop was to the Office of Agriculture Research and Development Region 1. This center is one of eight regional offices in the northern Chiang Mai province of Thailand. The office has seven key responsibilities to the agriculturalists of the region. Firstly, they conduct plant research and development projects on crops that are grown in the area including fruits such as longan, litchi, tangerine, mango and pummelo as well as coffee, potato and cabbage. Secondly, they test agricultural technology that could be compatible with the climate and conditions in hopes to find useful solutions for farmers to implement in the field. Next, they provide testing and certifications of inputs including soil, water, fertilizers and chemicals. Additionally, they seek to distribute agricultural information to extension officers, farmers and private companies. Lastly, they represent the Department of Agriculture and work closely with other regional offices. Currently, the center has 22 work plans, 33 projects and 106 experiments underway.

This office is also responsible for certifying and monitoring post harvest handling and packaging facilities. They seek to ensure that these operations are safe and in accordance with Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP). GMP establishes standards for cleanliness, quality control, labeling, storage and record keeping. If a packing house is compliant with these conditions, they meet the minimum requirements for export. However, most importing countries require additional, more stringent approval. Some of the challenges facing Thai agriculture,as identified by the director of this center, are relaying the learnings of research through extension to the farmer, a decrease in the amount of Thai students wanting to study agriculture and a lack accurate record keeping.

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After this insightful stop, we went to visit the Royal Project Produce Center.. There are 7 groups of products that are packaged through the facility: vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers, grains, fish and livestock, and processed foods. All the food that is packaged there comes from farmers who work through the Royal Project. The Royal Project determines what is grown each year and distributes seeds to the farmers. The farmers then grow the produce organically, harvest the crop and deliver it to collection centers. From there, the Royal Project collects the produce for packaging. The farmer will generally be paid for the crop within three days. The product undergoes strict testing for pesticide and chemical residue. If the traces are found, the farmer will not be paid and the product is destroyed. Every product will have a corresponding barcode to ensure trace-ability back to the exact farm which it was produced. If a new farmer wishes to join the Royal Project, they undergo a testing of their soil and water and if residual chemicals are found in the ground, they will have to plant a grass for a few years in order to wait for the chemicals to be removed from the soil. This grass is harvested for weaving but will not yield the same margin as vegetables for consumption will. The waste from the packing plant is sold to livestock producers as a byproduct feed. This was a great stop to expand our knowledge of the Royal Project’s vertical integration.

Lastly, we stopped at Raming Tea company, the oldest and largest tea producer in Thailand. This company has been in business since 1941 and they currently produce on 1200 hectares of mountain land in the Chiang Mai region. The tea is harvested by experienced hill-tribe pluckers. This company is USDA organic certified and exported 20 tons to the USA in 2015. Vietnam is the biggest competitor in this area of the world. They are able to export 900,000 tons/ year whereas Thailand exports about 50,000tons. Raming strives to produce high quality organic teas and utilizes both internal and external marketing approaches. It was great to see another example of large scale agribusiness in Thailand.

All in all, today was a fun, insightful day. Thank you for reading about our adventures!

Day 7-8: Ban Rai Gong King Home Stay

Written by Jenica Hagler, Washington State University

“The happiest people don’t have the best of everything, but they make the best of everything they have.”

Today was an amazing experience for the Ethiopia students in Thailand at our homestay in Ban Rai Gong King, but before I can begin to describe the day’s activities, I need to begin with a disclaimer: there is absolutely no way that this day can accurately be captured in words and pictures. The emotions that were felt, the senses that were activated, the lessons that were learned, and the memories that were made are too incredible and unique to try to replicate, however, I do hope that this will give you a brief glance at our experience.

We began the day with an early rooster-crowing-rise-and-shine at 6:00am for a bike ride. Despite the hesitation caused by the combination of exhaustion and uncertainty, all were bright-eyed and ready to go, and as we left the village, the cool air lifted everyone’s spirits. We rode our bikes for a few minutes before parking our bikes near a small hill, climbing to the top, and witnessing a spectacular sunrise together. On our way back to the village we stopped to visit our first temple and learn about the way locals worship, contribute, and participate in the religion.

Our host family, Ma and Pa Luang, and other village members prepared another amazing meal for breakfast (we were treated to their famous chicken curry the night before) and we proceeded to the introductory program. Ma Luang explained how the village works together to provide essential medical, physical, agricultural, and financial services to the village members with the leadership of the elected council. The homestay experience is just one little part of the village’s goal and mission to sustainably improve their quality of life and share their findings with others. They choose to provide the homestay opportunity to bring in tourism income that will benefit their community through savings funds, loans, and medical and education stipends. The village members focus on health through herbal treatments including herbal massages and a fitness center for the village members to use. They also try to improve the quality of life by focusing on healthy food. One interesting point that we learned during this introduction was that the village no longer utilizes chemicals in their food production after bad experiences with sickness, and I think it is unfortunate to see this belief trending across the globe due to lack of pesticide application education and understanding. Hopefully during our time here and in our reflections, we can try to shed a positive light on utilizing both sides of agriculture production.

Our program began with a visit to a nearby village that focused on pottery as their specialty. Each family crafted one-of-a-kind pottery to sell at the local shop, and they were proud to label all of their pottery as traditional handmade art made without the use of electrical pottery wheels. One of the women we interacted with had been making pottery for 55 years! She carefully spun and formed about 22 beautiful vases per 8-hour work day. I was blown away by the happiness and contentment that this woman exhibited in her simple life. She was so purposeful in her hard work as she used her talent to support her family, and I can only hope that one day I can live out my passion in this manner.

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After another delicious lunch meal, we traveled to the village’s massage and fitness center. We were treated to traditional Thai massages, sauna, and the village’s unique healing fire massage. Yes, I said fire massage! (This was a technique which utilized heat, pressure, and herbal remedies to combat sickness and injury.) The afternoon was an amazing luxury and opportunity to relax, but it was also a specialized look into their traditions and lifestyle. We learned that these special services are reserved only for village members and guests, and while we were there, several community members came to utilize the facilities. I am inspired by their focus on healthy lifestyle and promoting wellness throughout their entire community.

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The community members have full time jobs in the city, but they volunteer their time as masseuses, farmers, tour guides, cooks, etc. to serve the village. After our time at the massage center, we assisted with vegetable transplanting in a local garden that was owned and operated by a village member who used his extra free time to raise crops. We also learned that our fire masseuse was only able to do massages by appointment because he tended to a herd of cattle, as well. I love the way that they use what they have to their best ability and dedicate their free time to bettering their quality of life.

Finally, the capstone to our amazing day in the village was a special dinner hosted by the community. They only hold large gatherings like this for their overseas guests and community occasions, so we all felt very honored and fortunate as the guests of honor. The food was incredible, but the excitement, high spirits, and attitudes of all of the attendees was really the part that will forever stick out in my mind. One of the younger boys in the village had recently won the Mr. Thailand Speech award, and he surprised us with a perfectly spoken English welcome,ollowed by many beautiful traditional Northern Thai dances. We were heartily welcomed to participate and enjoyed an evening of laughter with some of the kindest people I have ever met.

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To say that the experience was phenomenal and unforgettable would truly be an understatement. The opportunity to live in the village for a couple days and experience their culture was a blessing, and I hope that I can try to be as welcoming, kind, generous, health-oriented, giving, and simple as the village members are. One of the village’s mottos was to live with what they have, and I believe they are living out their mission in every aspect of their lives. From the pottery woman to our host family to the dancers, every person we met showed true contentment from a hard-working, purposeful life within their means. As we return to busy lives back in the States, I hope we can remember the joy and laughter of our interactions with the village members and be absolutely happy for the blessings we already have.