Interview with Charles Lawson by Chelsea Boissonneault
Tell us about the site visit in Thailand for the first Freedom Farm Academy.
I was there for the month of November – I left the states on Halloween and returned on December the 3rd. It was actually my first time leaving the states, so it was quite an experience for me. The farm is in a rural area, but I stayed in a small city close by, called Phan. One weekend I went to downtown Chiang Rai to do tourist things and that was fun.
What was your role in setting up this Freedom Farm Academy location?
I was not involved in the original design, but I did design adjustments once I got on site. The new buildings were in different locations than the design, and I added some new elements after talking with Woody, like an indoor/outdoor horticulture education area and a single family sustainable living demonstration site. I was mostly a consultant, but I also planned the installation and made concept designs for the land additions. Some of the elements were already in place or started before I arrived, like the pond system, a veggie garden, a nursery, and some baby food forests.
What was on the property before, and how was the soil?
The property was previously used for rice production, so a chemical monoculture crop. Dr. Woody, who is the sort of Director of Operations, a Thai native and environmental scientist, has been testing and amending the soil so we had a good base to start with. He used cover crops like sun hemp, many types of nitrogen fixers, grasses, and animal dung to rehabilitate the degraded soil.
What are the goals of this Freedom Farm Academy location?
The main goal of this location is to educate the local Thai people about how to grow food without chemicals. It will also produce food for locals, and act as an agritourism-type resort. The nursery will be expanded over time to produce medicine and food plants, and trees that produce resin used as a biofuel, Dipterocarpus alatus. Once the farm is more mature there will also be a focus on caring for local vaccine-injured children and orphans.
What are the next steps for them?
There is still a lot to be done. There are structures still to be built, including classrooms, a farmstand and guest houses. Swales will be dug soon, with accompanying syntropic plantings, as well as silvopasture for animal grazing. Most of the food forests are still being planted as well.
What are the biggest challenges and the biggest advantages in your opinion for this location for a Freedom Farm Academy?
I would say that both of these questions have the same answer, which is the scale of the huge property, approaching 100 acres. This gives big benefits like endless possibilities and varieties of foods produced, but at the same time it brings a lot of variables that might come up, and the amount of maintenance needed. But it’s all worth it in the end. Also, Dr. Woody is a huge advantage as well – He has dedicated his life to similar projects and this one will be a jewel in the crown of his career. He knows the land, the markets, and the local Thai people well. I wonder whether other Freedom Farm Academies will have someone as unique as Dr. Woody.
Is there anything else you can share about this project?
One of the coolest elements is that Dr. Woody found local staff to work on this project, including a family of three that had nowhere to live, so he built them a hut to live in and gave them meaningful work. What came from that was the idea to have a single family sustainable living demonstration, where visitors will be able to see exactly what it takes to live self-sustainably: growing your own food, using sustainable building materials, and how to harvest solar, rain, and making water drinkable.