Leah Olson sweats it out after a long day of farming.

A Walk in the Farmer's Shoes

Leah Olson sweats it out after a long day of farming.

Leah Olson sweats it out after a long day of farming.

[cap]I[/cap]n thirty seconds it was all over. Or so she thought. Her heart was pounding out of her chest, her body sweating from a hard day’s work. She stood there paralyzed. The machete had thrust its way into the pig’s ribs, making the difference between life and death a matter of moments. The 100-pound pig had stopped convulsing, but blood continued to pour out of its nose and sides. I’m going to faint, she thought as she recalled what had just happened: Leah Olson had just witnessed her first animal slaughter.

To her, it all seemed worlds away from the life she had left in Oregon where her relationship with meat was confined to the local grocery store, post-slaughter and pre-wrapped. As an Oregonian, this was the defining moment of her travels to Thailand, learning about organic farming via volunteering through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program, WWOOF.

Curiosity, a desire to travel, and a limited budget sparked Olson’s interest in becoming a member of the international movement to share more sustainable ways of living. The exchange of labor for food, accommodation, and the opportunity to learn about organic living provided the perfect opportunity for Olson to continue her excursions through Asia. Summer vacation provided the ideal time for the eye-opening experience that lasted seven weeks on two diverse farms in Thailand.

Leah Olson sits down to a completely organic Thai dinner.

Leah Olson sits down to a completely organic Thai dinner.

For the first six weeks, Olson found herself on a farm in Bang Phra, one and a half hours southeast of Bangkok. An American named Neil Willmann and his Thai wife Su owned the farm. A typical day began at 8 a.m., when Olson, her boyfriend, and the handful of other WWOOFers would awake from their slumber on the wood floor of Neil’s home, tired after the previous day’s work and social hours that lasted into the night.

On the farm, Olson built chicken houses and duck ponds, planted rice, harvested vegetables, gathered eggs and cut grass.  She learned about soil while others built aquaponics, a recirculating environment for the cultivation of plants and aquatic animals. In essence, she learned a new way of life.

“It was grunge day in and day out,” Olson recalls. “I have never sweated so much or worked so hard.”

By noon it was time to congregate in the outdoor kitchen to prepare the fresh food. Piban, Su’s sister and a mother to everyone on the farm, cooked the Thai food that Olson soon looked forward to at every meal. Food was different every day and changed with the seasons.

Olson enjoyed green Thai curry made with rich coconut milk from the market, vegetables from the farm, and an abundance of spicy curry. She ate papaya salad – shredded green papaya, fish sauce, dried shrimp, peanuts, chilies and lime juice – with steamed sticky rice, a specialty of Northeastern Thailand. Curry dishes, soups, and stir fries often supplemented meals. For Olson, it was a new experience to hand pick, cook, and eat the fresh food all within an hour’s time.

The farmers saved every food scrap to compost in large black rubber tires to be used as soil. Every few days, Olson had to put on gloves, and, using a shovel, turn the waste in the tires. She wouldn’t let the nine-inch centipedes and maggots, or the snakes hiding in the tires’ inner rims, stop her from fulfilling her duty on the farm. Sometimes, these duties lasted for 12 hours a day. Though the work left her exhausted and sweaty, Olson reflects on her work with only a positive attitude.

Organic farmers plant rice in Thailand. Courtesy of Leah Olson.

Organic farmers plant rice in Thailand.

“The whole thing has changed me,” Olson says of her experience. “I am now so interested in the economy of food. [It’s] amazing how people don’t think about it when at the most basic level it’s what we’re putting into our bodies.”

This view was further shaped by what Olson considers the greatest accomplishment of her trip – witnessing the raising, slaughtering, and cooking of the pig. This occurred during her last week with WWOOF on a farmed owned by Alia, a Burmese refugee. Though initially shocked, speechless, and sick to her stomach, Olson soon had an epiphany.

“I eat meat every day,” she says. If anyone is wrong, it’s me. I don’t know what it’s like to eat an animal and raise it every day.”

Once Olson’s heart slowed and her nerves calmed, she was able to help carry the lifeless pig by its arms and legs and disregard her blood-streaked clothing. But the slaughter was nothing close to over.

The farmers used a machete and blowtorch to remove the hairs from the pig before the organs were removed, one by one. Olson couldn’t help but take video of the pig being butchered, which further defined the line of cultural difference between Olson and the farmers as they laughed at her astonishment. But she was only panicked inside; she didn’t want to seem too foreign.

True to the farmers’ belief that nothing should go to waste, they used almost every part of the pig for the feast that night. Pig covered the entire table—bone, fat, brain, blood, skin, and intestine were supplemented by a “miscellaneous meat stew.” And Olson ate it all, even the chewy intestines.

Provided with the opportunity to see food from an organic and natural perspective, Olson’s views on food have certainly changed since her excursion abroad. She strongly believes that everyone should watch an animal slaughter if they are going to eat meat. Americans are so disconnected from the process that they are unaware of the distaste and respect that accompanies raising and killing animals for food.

Ducks roam freely around the organic farm. Photo courtesy of Leah Olson.

Ducks roam freely around the organic farm.

“I will never look at pork the same way again. Ever,” Olson declares.

She doesn’t eat pork anymore. The sight of it leads to visions of the graphic slaughter and reminders her of the horrendous smell of the pig’s pen. She still eats meat, just not from grocery stores whose suppliers largely remain a mystery.

Olson is now an advocate for eating organic food grown locally. Though the movement toward organic food continues, Olson doesn’t believe anyone can grasp the concept by just buying local. To really understand the word “organic,” she had to walk in the farmer’s shoes.

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