Introduction to NEED-Burma
Over the last 10 years of humanitarian work in Myanmar (formerly Burma) Child’s Dream has built a strong network of partner organizations. One of these is NEED-Burma, an organization that educates and trains young Burmese on sustainable agriculture and community based economic development. The organization has built a rigorous training program that they offer to interested Burmese citizens or refugees, in the hope that they will return to their country with the knowledge to be community leaders and influencers.
In 2008, with the help of Child’s Dream, NEED built a school and dormitory on a piece of land about 20 miles outside of Chaing Mai. This land enabled them to begin operating as a living, working farm and fully develop a hands-on training center. Currently the students enrolled in the training center and the majority of the staff lives as a small community on the farm. They have about 4 acres of land, of which 0.5 acres is dedicated to rice paddies.
Every year NEED invites anyone from the network of organization they work with to participate in the annual rice harvesting. The act of harvesting rice is a really big deal in SE Asia and many traditional Thais and Burmese incorporate spiritual services and blessings into the process. Beyond any spiritual connotations, a rice harvest is a communal activity. Often neighbors and families gather together and harvest a specific farmer’s crop all in a group. This is usually followed by a celebration and of course, rice eating. For a crop that is responsible for feeding almost 3 billion people in the world, it is easy to see why the harvest is so important.
So when I heard about the chance to participate and spend a Saturday morning doing something I had definitely never done before, I couldn’t pass it up. I asked Sarah about it and she thought it would be fun as well so we volunteered to come along and help. I received directions to the farm, which had to be the funniest series of directions I had ever read. They included ‘go right at the bus stop”, “DON’T turn at the Futbol field”, and “4 turns after that, go right” Not naming their roads in Thailand has its drawbacks. Nonetheless, we headed out to the farm at about 7:30am on a beautiful Saturday morning.
Getting to Work!
The group had just begun to clear the field when we arrived. We realized right away that we would be doing this old school… We were given a large hooked knife called a sickle and only about 60 seconds of instructions. The process though is incredibly easy. Basically the rice you eat is inside of husks at the end of a grass like plant. The rice plants we were harvesting were about 2-3 feet high. You grab a clump of rice plants and use the sickle to cut the plants about 6-8 inches off the ground. Then, throw the whole thing in a pile, which eventually is brought to another pile. Then do it all over again until you have cleared the whole field.
Once all the rice plants have been brought to a pile, they will be dried and eventually beaten until the husks break. Then, the rice is shaken free and cleaned before its ready to eat. This is obviously the most rudimentary way of harvesting rice and major technological advancements have made the process easier over the years. However, many Asia farms still harvest their rice totally by hand so going through this process really makes you appreciate it more.
Here is more info on the rice harvesting process
There were about 20 people harvesting the first field with us and it ended up taking just short of two hours. Being Asia and all, it was obviously ridiculously hot and harvesting was pretty hard work. Bending down to cut the plants is a killer on your back and those who had done it before said it was worse because the plants had gotten heavy and blown down in a recent storm.
We ended up getting through the second field much quicker as the learning curve improved. We had a lot of fun chatting with the fellow volunteers and learning that many of them were actually students at the NEED farm. Most were from tribal states in Burma and over the last few decades they escaped civil wars and fighting in their villages. Their exodus had first taken them to refugee camps along the border before migrating to Chiang Mai. As the democratization of their county continues, most had a new found hope of returning to their home country and implementing sustainable agriculture techniques.
Once we were all done we took a group photo and passed a random cocktail around the group to celebrate. We then enjoyed a great traditional lunch that the caretakers of the farm had prepared and enjoyed the conversation. It was a great experience and we have a new found appreciation for the rice we eat at every meal.