Saturday, September 7, 2013

Harvest Time - Cassava

Lao Loum Farmers Harvesting Cassava In Isaan

The weather here in Northeast Thailand, Isaan, has become rather monotonous - hot (90-95F), humid, heavily overcast, and often wet.  The monsoonal rains that we have been experiencing since May will end next month.

Earlier this week we drove out into the countryside.  The day was heavily overcast but was dry.  We were not on a photographic expedition or foray.  Duang had been suffering for a couple of days with a stiff neck and shoulder.  Although I was willing to take her to the Army Hospital to see a doctor about it, Duang preferred to seek a traditional cure for her suffering. We had gone out to Tahsang Village two days earlier where Duang had gone a special massage treatment from one of the village women who had a reputation for helping people.  The massage did not give Duang much relief.

Undeterred by her failed experience with massage therapy, Duang wanted to go into the countryside to one of her aunt's home.  This aunt has a very good reputation of helping people who have various aches and pains.

Despite it not being an optimal day for photography, I brought along my photography backpack as I normally do when we head out into the countryside.  Although the weather or even the lighting may not be great, there usually is something interesting or unique to photograph.  This trip was no different.

This aunt lives in a very small village somewhere out in the countryside.  I dutifully followed Duang's instructions for the route out to the village.  To get there we drove almost to Ban Tahsang (Tahsang Village) and took a small road off of the local farm road.  Eventually we ended up driving across a small dam and then across some levees followed by narrow blacktop roads, narrow concrete roads, some roads that were heavily eroded, and even some heavily damaged dirt roads on our journey out to the village.  No matter the construction or state of the roads, they shared one common condition;  there was more water buffalo shit on the roads than other vehicles.

Out in the countryside, water buffalo as well as cattle are "free range".  Early in the morning the animals are driven, well more like walked, out of their pens in the villages to forage the countryside until late afternoon when they return to their pens typically adjacent to the owner's house. The animals are tended by a lone man or woman who follows them as they eat the thriving vegetation wherever they find it.  Unlike American westerns where the herds have hundreds or even thousands of animals, the herds in Isaan are small - typically three to five animals.  The largest herd that I have encountered was twelve animals.

Cassava Tubers Awaiting Gathering
Duang got her massage from her aunt with instructions to return for another treatment on Sunday.  We then headed back home along the same route we had traveled earlier.  Along the way we came upon some farmers harvesting cassava - a photographic opportunity.

What is cassava?  Cassava, Manihot esculenta, which is also known as manioc and mandioca, is a woody shrub originally from South America that has a starchy tuberous edible root.  The edible root is very much like a potato.  It is more fibrous and more mushy than a potato prepared the same way.  Cassava.  Unlike the potato, it is important to properly prepare cassava.  There are two varieties of cassava, sweet and bitter.  The bitter variety is typically used for industrial purposes. The sweet variety is the kind most likely to be eaten by people.  Both varieties can expose people to cyanide if not properly prepared.  The bitter kind has 50 times the concentration of cyanide compounds than the sweet.  Proper preparation of the sweet variety involves peeling and boiling the tuber ensuring to throw the water away.  the industrial variety needs to be soaked in water for 18 to 24 hours.

When the root is dried to a powdery or pearl type extract is known as Tapioca. Cassava can be eaten as "french fries", "potato chips", or "boiled potatoes".  In Brasil the tuber is dried, powdered, fried with butter, packaged and sold as "Manioc Flour" or "Farofel"  It is sprinkled on meat or beans for flavor and to thicken the consistency of the dish.

Cassava is a good source of carbohydrates but a poor source of protein for people.  It is grown because it does not require fertile soil or a great deal of water.  The cassava shrub is also very drought resistant.  Because it can grow in poor soil and without a great deal of water, cassava is a natural choice for a cash crop here in Isaan.  It is called "mahn falang" by the Lao Loum farmers.  Cassava is used in rotation with sugar cane.  Of the three cash crops of rice, sugar cane, and cassava, cassava brings the least amount of money to the farmers.
Gathering Up Cassava Roots Exposed By Previous Day's Plowing
The first step in the harvesting of cassava, is to cut down the woody stalks.  Later the stalks will have their leaves and branches removed.  The bare stalks will then be bagged up and removed to the farmer's home.  At the farmer's home either underneath the shade of a large tree or under the protection of a corrugated metal shelter, the villagers will chop the stalks into approximately 25mm (10 inch) pieces.  After soaking in water the stalks will be stuck in the prepared ground to commence the next crop.

The second step in harvesting the cassava, is to plow the field to expose the elongated tuberous roots.  The plow pulls the root clusters up from the ground and leaves them on top of the soil for the farmers to collect.  The farmers are working against the clock to harvest the tubers.  Since the farmers are paid by the weight of the delivered crop, they need to get the tubers to the nearby processing plant as soon as possible to avoid weight loss due to dehydration.  The crop also starts to deteriorate quickly too so speed is of the essence.  Since they had exposed the tubers the evening before, the farmers that we encountered were working hard to gather up all the roots and get them to the processing plant that night.

Cutting Up The Tuber Cluster To Save Space

As you will see throughout the fields of Isaan, men and women work side by side pretty much equally sharing the divisions of labor.  Most of the people are working their family land.  If the family needs extra help, they typically hire neighbors or friends - the minimum wage has been raised from 150 Baht ($5 USD) to 300 Baht ($10 USD).  Employers also feed their workers two meals a day along with supplying beer and Lao Lao (moonshine whiskey) at the last meal of the day.

Tossing Cassava Roots Into the Farm Truck
After taking many photographs and Duang having a good conversation with the farmers as I photographed them, we got back into our truck for the ride to Kumphawapi to get the truck washed.  It has been a long time and too many muddy roads since the last time the truck had been washed.

Moving Down the Line to the Next Bunch of Roots

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