Suan Lahu, meaning "Lahu Garden", is a stretch of sloped land, eighty rai (30 acres, 12 hectares) in size, located in the highlands of Chiang Rai province in Northern Thailand. The mountainous terrain’s most recent manifestation is as a coffee plantation and indigenous community farm. Sixty rai are planted with Arabica coffee and fruit trees; twenty rai remain forested. Community members from the two neighboring Lahu villages oversee the farm and coffee production. Our farming approach is to develop and use organic, sustainable and traditional cultivation methods, in order to offer a greener alternative to the heavy chemical use that has dominated agricultural practices in the region in the last decades.
Two kinds of Arabica coffee grow on the slopes of Suan Lahu – ‘typica’ an heirloom coffee varietal originally brought out of Ethiopia in the 16th century, and ‘catimor’, a cross between Caturra coffee from Brazil and a coffee varietal from Timor. We started out in 2009 with 7000 trees scattered across the cleared land. Each rainy season we will plant up to a 1000 seedlings, including planting in the forest where there is good shade and rich soil. The Farm is 1000 meters above sea level so the air is still tropical but cooler: since we amend the soil with organic material at the end of each harvest season, the conditions are promising for producing coffee beans with a rich and distinctive flavor. We have had good feedback so far. Roasters from as far off as Seattle and Frankfurt have commented that our coffee is ‘mild, yet aromatic’, ‘unique’, ‘a delicacy’ and simply ‘really good’. It is heartening to know that in these early days our efforts are producing results.
We harvest our coffee from October to January in the dry winter season in Northern Thailand. The coffee cherries are picked when they are at their sweetest and then de-hulled. After sitting overnight the remaining parchment is then thoroughly washed and then laid out to dry in the arid mountain air. Drying can take up to two weeks. Once dry, the parchment can be stored. In order to get to the green beans the parchment layer is removed, the green beans are then hand sorted before roasting.
As the new year begins, the harvest is completed and the trees can rest. Organic matter is applied to the soil to keep the ground cooler during the hot season, and so that when the rains start in March and April nutrients will seep into the root system and feed the trees as they begin to blossom and bear fruit again.
Fruits and Tea Trees
In addition to coffee, we grow lychee, avocado, persimmon and tea. By diversifying with fruit trees we can offer seasonal produce and, as they grow, they provide shade to the coffee. The tea trees were on the land previously but removed when the coffee was first planted. Our approach is to not cut back the trees that survive but rather keep and nurture them. Lahu people are, in fact, tea drinkers so it makes sense to have tea for local consumption. The transition to organic farming and cultivation is quite labor intensive particularly at the beginning. In order to transition away from potent agro-chemical we must apply large amounts of mulch and organic matter, and the coffee trees must be coaxed and encouraged give up their dependence on synthetic nutrients. One way to organically amend and enrich the fertilizer is through vermicompost, using worms to enrich the soil with micro-organisms. We built our worms their own little house and feed them fruit and vegetable waste. Worms are amazing creatures because their castings, a fancy name for worm scat, is significantly richer in microbial activity then what they originally ate and they also improve water holding capacity which is important for getting through the dry summer months. We collect the liquid byproduct, as well, which can be diluted and sprayed on the leaves to nourish them.
A corn patch provides food for chickens and pigs whose manure, when processed is another fertilizer source rich in nutrients. By preparing a meter thick bed of rice husks and soil in the pig pen, and adding EMs (effective microorganisms), the manure collects and is turned in as the pigs trample and forage about. Once a year we can take the decomposed material and use it as fertilizer. Since pigs are an integral part of Lahu culture both in rituals and as source of sustenance our approach to having them at Suan Lahu is in keeping with our philosophy of combining traditional practices and trying out new ideas.