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Bennett Haynes, Beefsteak's Chief of Produce, Returns to Thailand

December 2017

Bennett Haynes, Beefsteak's Chief of Produce, recently spent a few weeks talking to farmers throughout Thailand. Bennett knows a thing or two about farming and about Thailand - he spent three years working with young farmers throughout the country, inspiring him to start his own farm in New Jersey, which he ran for six years. He recently returned to Thailand to meet up with some of the farmers and organizations he used to work with, as well as meet some new ones.

Q: What were you doing in Thailand?

Bennett: I had a few projects going on during my visit. I spent some time with Andrew Shearer, the founder of Farmshelf, an urban farming company that recently got funding from a large Thai company (see a Facebook Live interview HERE). I also spent time with my mentor, Ubon Yoowah, a leader of the Alternative Agriculture Network, and the Sustainable Agriculture Foundation, a small NGO in Bangkok that coordinates farmer organizations throughout the country. Ubon and I traveled around the country meeting up with young farmers who are doing some amazing things - one woman we met started her own sun-dried banana company growing bananas on only a half-acre of land, and we saw the farm of a guy growing vegetables and fruits to sell from a vending machine in Bangkok. 

Q: You've spent time in Thailand in the past, right?

Bennett: That's right - in college I studied abroad there, in the northeast Isaan province. I met Ubon who was incredibly inspriational - he had just come from a Via Campesina meeting in Indonesia, this international group of peasant activists, and we connected about that. Back at college I kept pursuing Thai language so that I could communicate with him, and I ended up getting a Fulbright to go back. I worked there for two more years, improving my Thai and working with a group to set up a new organization called the Young Farmers Network. It's a support network for people around my age who want to become farmers, a movement to motivate and support agricultural projects.

Q: What is the Young Farmers Network like right now?

Bennett: It's really vibrant right now. There are so many young people who are originally from farming families, they grew up on farms with some amount of struggle, but then they went off and got an education and worked in offices throughout their 20s. Now they are realizing that they want to go back home and help the family farm. They're super entrepreneurial and flexible - if something works, great, they'll keep working on it - if not, they'll adjust. It's a very refreshing, very optimistic story. I didn't see a whole lot of that five years ago when I left, but now so many young people want to be connected to their environment, to get their hands dirty, to do something tangible.

Food is unique in that way ... these young farmers are thinking about farming not just as a vocation, but how to take the family farm and plant good food, harvest it, add value to it, find the right chef, the right market, the right restaurant to buy it. It's a very entrepreneurial environment.

Q: What else excited you about farming in Thailand today?

Bennett: There's a huge focus on sustainability all throughout the country, farmers and chefs are being really creative and resourceful. At a market in Chiang Mai I saw farmers bundling their vegetables in banana leaves and bamboo wrap, working with what's available to them on the farm instead of relying on plastic bags and styrofoam. They're working to understand what urban, cosmopolitan buyers are looking for and saying "Yeah, we can do that, we can make this beautiful, attractive packaging."

Another incredibly creative thing that I saw was the making and use of charcoal vinegar, a distillate of charcoal smoke that farmers use as an organic addition to insecticides and compost. It's very symbolic of local-based cooking and farming, using everything, even the waste from fire, to add back to the farm's ecosystem.

DIY culture is really big in Thailand right now - people everywhere want to grow their own gardens, raising succulents and cacti ... it's kind of like hipster culture in the US right now, haha. A lot of young people are making value-added products and selling them at markets, like rice cookies, sun-dried bananas, things like that.

Q: What are some Thai vegetables and fruits that you think are going to gain in popularity?

Bennett: There are some really exciting ones that I think will be big in the next few years, like Moringa and Jackfruit. Moringa is a highly productive "superfood" with a lot of nutritional value, and as a plant it's very sustainable. Jackfruit has this super meaty texture, almost pulled-pork like. It's super filling, delicious, and the fruit itself is beautiful. I also think that bamboo shoots will be big, I ate so many of them when I was there, in salads and curries. Bamboo is infinitely reproducing and does so much to prevent soil erosion, so it's a really important crop.

Q: You also work with José on his home garden. Any thoughts about what you'll grow next year?

Bennett: I brought back some seeds with me that we'll grow in his garden - some beans, corn, moringa, a few crazy eggplants, some rice. We'll see what works in Bethesda! 

Q: Finally ... yellow, green, or red curry?

Bennett: Green. I love it with the different Thai eggplants - there's a larger one that's a little bit sweeter, a smaller one called pea eggplant that's a little bittter, and I like the combination of flavors with green curry, a little bamboo shoot, some little pieces of pumpkin. 

Thanks, Bennett!