But now the landscape was getting scruffier, more hilly. There was more exposed red dirt, and no farms. Where was he taking us?
Ten minutes later we passed a sign for the Starling Farms pepper plantation, and soon bumped to a halt. We’d arrived, our driver indicated, and pointed down the slope. I saw rows of what looked like evenly spaced green towers. As we got closer, we saw that the towers were openwork brick columns, like chimneys, about 10 feet tall. They were wrapped in lush green vines – pepper plants, which in the wild wrap around the trunks of trees. We spotted the green berries, peppercorns, clumped in strings about three inches long. Most of the berries were small and green, but a few – no more than three per clump – were red.
The rows of towers stretched into the distance. We saw a few workers, wearing the typical Khmer head cloths, hoeing among the towers.
“Be careful of the ants,” our driver warned. Leaf-weaver ants can sting, but they also attack other insects. On this certified organic farm, we learned later, further insect control was achieved by soaking in water the leaves of a weed that grows naturally among the plants, and then spraying the concoction on the plants; it’s a natural insect repellent. Workers rub the leaves on their arms to keep biting insects away. All the fertilizer used is organic, too: cow dung, bat guano (from nearby caves), small fish, plant matter – and more of the insect-repelling weeds. The fertilizer is composted anaerobically in big underground pits, then spread on the plants.