By Darryl Sanchez

I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps as soon as I turned 18. I wasn’t ready for college and didn’t have the discipline and motivation to really do anything at that point in my life. The Marine Corps has a great way of tearing a person down to build them back up. For the first time in my life I had direction. I was pushed outside my comfort zone and learned to deal with a lot of hardships. I learned how to be a follower first, then how to be a leader. In my service I had the opportunity to learn useful skills and to travel to many places. I was deployed to Afghanistan, working in various capacities – as a clerk, a guard, and flying in V-22 Ospreys to pick up and detain prisoners of war. It was a thrilling, eye-opening experience.

After four years in the Corps, I was admitted to Amherst College where I began my study of Economics. My experiences in the service got me interested in working in developing communities. Seeing the way the Afghans lived, in their poor, conflict-riddled communities, made me realize that I could do a lot to help, using my skills wherever they can be useful. I chose Warm Heart because of the variety of interesting projects – public health, sustainability, education – where I could apply the skills and experience I attained in the Corps.

But I never realized how much the skills I learned in the military could be useful for a grassroots NGO like Warm Heart. You don’t just learn how to fight and shoot in the military. Camaraderie, teamwork, responsibility and leadership are fostered in the most junior privates. Many of us take these attributes to the civilian world and they form the core of our work ethic and moral code.

Upon my arrival at Warm Heart, Michael first gave me a thorough lecture on biochar, which I’d never heard of before. It was all I could do to keep up with the information that was being thrown at me. Eventually things started to click. (For more information about biochar, visit the Biochar page and Gordon Hirst’s blog Project Earth, Wind and Fire).

In addition to helping teach English and joining in on Public Health visits, Michael then asked me to write a report on the timber and pulp/paper industry in Thailand. This industry is known to create excess biomass wastes which are disposed negligently into drinking water sources. I profiled selected Thai companies to assess the degree that they are aware of their negative impacts on the environment and local communities and what they are doing about it. The goal was to identify which companies would be receptive towards turning their biomass wastes into biochar.  Currently fellow volunteer Chen and I are researching further on these companies as well as the fertilizer and pesticide industries in Thailand.

Next I was sent to work on our Experimental Farm. Michael needed someone who’s not afraid to get dirty and who can keep things organized in performing biochar testing. This is the second year of testing. (For details of the first year, go to last year’s volunteer Laura Checa’s blog Biochar Testing on the Experiemental Farm


Long Khot Experimental Farm

My first task was to mix the fertilizer to be spread on the 35 plots of farmer Sem’s land using biochar, diatomite, cow manure, pig pee, NPK and urea. It was hard work, especially since I had to be very precise in the weights of biochar, diatomite and manure. Things were further complicated by the weather during rainy season and Sem’s unpredictable schedule but I eventually managed to finish ahead of time. Most of the time I was accompanied by my faithful companion, the leprosy-riddled dog Bernie.


Lung Ti gives me thumbs up after we pour buckets of pig pee together

As I worked during those weeks, I thought about how my military training had prepared me for my work on the Experimental Farm. In addition to being able to handle the physical work, I made sure that I did things the right way without taking shortcuts. Ultimately the success or failure of the experiment depended on my ability to follow instructions


Me mixing biochar, cow manure and pig pee

When the fertilizer mixes were ready, I was joined by Aom, Lung Ti, P’Jiang and others and we headed up to Sem’s farm. There was a lot of reorganizing as we shifted the bags of fertilizer from one position to another making sure that we put the right mix in the right plot. That took a whole day: again, hard work, but important and well worth the effort.

Lunch time and a well-deserved break before going back to the grind

That day I thought about how interesting the way we worked together was. I didn’t speak a word of Thai, and many of the Thais didn’t speak a lick of English. Despite the language barrier we worked splendidly together as a team. We lifted bags, moved them around, re-marked them, and spread them in the plots. Everyone was on the same wavelength and we were all committed to doing the job right. It was a collective mindset and group cohesion that I had not had since leaving the military. The sun was hot and unforgiving, but we were in good spirits despite how tired we all felt.


Warm Heart staffer Aom, one of the smartest people I’ve met, waves at the camera

When we finished, P’Jiang handed out bottles of beer and chips. Morale was high and there was lots of laughing and joking. Ah yes, booze at the end of the day, just like how it was when I was on active duty!


Nothing like a cold beer at the end of a long, hot day!

I’d never worked on a farm before. I now realize how hard the work is, both physically as well as mentally.  You must be motivated, determined and disciplined to be a successful farmer. Since everything depends on the weather, you must also be flexible and ready to adapt. You can’t just till the land whenever you feel like it. If you don’t get a move on, the farm gives you nothing, meaning no profits and then possibly starvation. A farmer needs to be a self-starter and autonomous, once again qualities which are inculcated in the military.


Farmer Sem, his wife Khem, Aom and yours truly

Teamwork and group cohesion are also necessary. Now we just have to observe the results of the experiments and compare them with last year’s data to see how this year’s yields compare. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first experience working in agriculture. I’ve gained new skills and have gotten a better understanding of how biochar works and how farming in Thailand can be improved.

We don’t know yet whether our experiments will have a lasting impact, either positive or negative, large or small.  But I believe the importance is in the attempt.


Bernie the dog faithfully kept me company while I worked

(Darryl Sanchez spent his summer at Warm Heart)