Trip to Chia Tai Agricultural Fair

Thailand_Kanchanaburi Last Saturday Tawn and I made a trip up to Kanchanaburi province to attend an agricultural fair.  Kanchanaburi is about 150 km northwest of Khrungthep – roughly a two and a half hour drive if you include a stop to stretch your legs.

Kanchanaburi is one of the largest provinces in the kingdom.  Nestled along the border with Myanmar, the province is mountainous and is home to the famous “bridge over the River Kwai“, part of a 400 km railway built by the Japanese Empire during World War II using POWs and conscripted Asian laborers at the cost of more than a hundred thousand of lives.

Two interesting notes about the bridge over the River Kwai:

First, the movie starring Alec Guinness was an awful bastardization of history.  A much more accurate telling of the story and glimpse of the person played by Guinness can be had by reading Peter Davies’ 1991 book The Man Behind The Bridge: Colonel Toosey and the River Kwai.  

Second, the Anglicization of the name of the river (“Kwai”) is terrible, too.  The Thai name rhymes with “way” not “why”.  Make note of that next time you’re talking with friends about this topic.  You’ll be certain to come across as a know-it-all.

Trivial tidbits aside, we arrived at the Chia Tai test gardens just outside Kanchanaburi town in marvelous time, among the first few hundred people to carve parking spaces out of the dirt shoulders of the two lane highway 323.

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Sponsored by Chia Tai, the largest producer of seeds in Thailand and a part of the CP Foods conglomerate, the fair is a biennial opportunity to open the test gardens’ gates and let the public explore many of the four hundred different types of fruits, vegetables and flowers that Chia Tai sells seeds for. 

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P1130555 With the still cool (relatively) winter weather, some twenty thousand visitors come each weekend day to explore the vast gardens, pavilions and greenhouses, taking pictures, admiring many unfamiliar varieties, seeing demonstrations, signing up for “harvest your own” tours of the gardens, and buying seeds and fresh produce for their own consumption.

There were plenty of families enjoying the fair and a good number of students running around with workbooks, completing homework assignments.  These two boys (left) were charged with writing down as many different types of fruits and vegetables as they could find. 

By the time we found them, they looked to have already found more than two dozen different varieties, all of which seemed to have grown to gargantuan size.  Maybe this was just a matter of the rich volcanic soil of the province, maybe they had been allowed to grow past the normal point of maturity, or maybe there was just a lot of nitrogen-rich fertilizer in the soil – who knows?  But the gardens will certainly lush.

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Above, Tawn tries his hat on one of the head-sized hanging gourds.  Above that, an homage to the River Kwai railroad, replete with a cargo of fresh vegetables.

P1130616 A row of greenhouses was open for inspection.  Unlike most greenhouses I’m familiar with, which are designed to keep temperatures warmer, these had the opposite purpose: to cool the vegetables.  A huge radiator was built into one end of the buildings with water circulating down corrugated metal fins.  At the other end of the greenhouses were large fans, sucking air from the north side of the building, through the radiator and then out the south side.

Needless to say, the greenhouses were quite popular with the crowd as even though it was winter, standing out in the midday sun was still pretty warm.  Left, two children pose with some of the “wart” covered gourds.

The greenhouses were each dedicated to a different type of vegetable or fruit: melons in one, gourds in a another, pumpkins in a third.  The pumpkin greenhouse had an interesting range of colors and shapes.

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In the watermelon greenhouse, there was a large display educating visitors about the development cycle of watermelons.  In addition to a half-dozen different varieties of watermelon, we were told in no uncertain terms:

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“Please read this… read then have understanding.  We do not use GMO [genetically modified organisms].  We do not have anything dangerous.”

They read my mind.  I’m inherently suspicious of food conglomerates (and pretty much any other sort of conglomerate) as I think their mission is more about profits, efficiency and productivity over biodiversity and food safety.  But who can argue with such a frank statement as the one printed above?

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In one of the educational halls, though, I found this exhibit about the different types of fertilizers Chia Tai sells.  It seemed to confirm my fears: grow monocultures on your farms and slowly deplete the natural health of your soil, ensuring you grow dependent on the use of our fertilizers.

The general public, home gardeners, were not the target audience for the agricultural fair.  We saw busloads and busloads of people arriving from around the Kingdom: farmers, agricultural cooperatives, students studying land management and agriculture from various technical schools and universities, and development organizations such as the Population and Community Development Association, for which Tawn’s father has worked for many years.

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The buses are worth mentioning.  They are decked out in all sorts of wild paint schemes, blaring with music, lacking proper air conditioning – karaoke parlors on wheels.  And they arrived, one after the other, from all corners of the country.

It is easy to be skeptical about Chia Tai’s intentions.  But as I looked around the test gardens, I saw many varieties of vegetables and fruits that are not normally available at the corner market.  Certainly, no heirloom tomatoes to be found, but enough varieties of other fruits and vegetables to encourage farmers to expand the diversity of what they grow, to develop new markets and pique the Thai consumers’ interest in new and different fresh foods.

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This being Thailand, there was plenty of fun to be had.  Not only nonstop blaring announcements and music, but raffles, games of skills and chance, picture taking opportunities, heart-shaped watermelons (grown in a box) and vegetable carving galore.

Vegetable carving is actually a traditional Thai craft.  Here it was taken in some unusual directions.  Funny note about the penguin playing football, below.  A mother brought her toddler over to see the carvings and said, in Thai, “Look, a football.”  The toddler then promptly kicked the “ball” and it rolled away.  The shocked mother promptly scolded her child, “No, no, it isn’t a real football!”  Poor child – probably wishes mum would make up her mind.

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And, since this is Thailand, of course we had the requisite “We Love the King” carving:

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We had seen all we needed to see by lunchtime and after having some food – more on that in another entry – we bought some souvenir melons and then turned the car’s nose back towards the City of Angels.

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Here’s a 4-minute story about the trip.  I hope you enjoy it.

46 thoughts on “Trip to Chia Tai Agricultural Fair

  1. The celebration is beginning! My mother called me to let me know that friends of hers got tickets and are attending in D.C. She was just happy to be going to a party. I have to work but will try to catch it on the news – Maybe the boss will let up set up the TV and watch on breaks/lunch/whenever…

  2. the fruit craving is interesting, and if I saw the football just on the side walk rather than the fair, I would have given it a kick too…hahahah

  3. Very nice garden. I’m the opposite haha… I’m for any kind of genetically modified/selected organisms. Honestly, it has been done in so many years. Farmers selectively breed the largest organisms, and over time, it has a genetic bias to them. It’s just that now we have the technology to either clone, or actually modify their genomes, which essentially speed up the selection process but the concept is still the same. Putting in vitamin A in rice for regions that have serious problems of vitamin A deficiency which leads to blindness and death, that’s a great thing. And yes it’s about profits, efficiency, and productivity but isn’t all business? And it’s not like safety is ignored. There has no known GMO that’s dangerous. As for biodiversity, I don’t think that the unaltered products will ever go away, so we can leave it to those. And just FYI, there are a lot more GMO in the market circulating than people know. I guess what you don’t see ain’t there eh? πŸ™‚

  4. Watermelon carving, that is so cool.  I need to try that next summer.  About the fertilizer, the use rabbits’, I was worrying seeing human figure on the bag.  Never mind.  I assume people do not use them for indoor plants.  πŸ™‚

  5. Very interesting entry. It’s sometimes difficult to weed through the corporate model to know what the true goal is, but I think it is usually how to make a profit first, other concerns second.

  6. What a fun excursion. That gourd next to Tawn is huge! The hybrid pumpkin looks very interesting. Did they grow it like that on purpose? How did the melons taste?

  7. @yang1815 – Andy, let me clarify that it isn’t the GMO that concerns me.  I’m comfortable that there is significant oversight and that what’s being done is beneficial and potential harmful effects are well-considered.  I also recognize that GMO’s are already very present in our diets and to good effect, such as the golden rice example.
    My concerns about food industry conglomerates are about how they shape monocultures, decreasing crop biodiversity and trapping farmers into a vicious cycle of running farms in a way that requires increased reliance on pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers to improve productivity.  This is a spiral that ultimately is harmful for the food supply and its consumers.

  8. @curry69curry – Actually, I suspect Chia Tai may never do it, but there is a bit of an organic farming business here.  How well it is overseen is another question, but I can get a range of organic, mostly local veggies at my supermarket.

  9. @minhaners – I think the heart pumpkins are grown in a type of box.  They also produce square pumpkins.  Very popular with the Japanese for some reason…  As for taste, I don’t know.  We didn’t get to sample those particular ones but I would imagine they taste similar to conventionally-shaped watermelons.

  10. @Wangium – Melons grow from vines – absent a framework or trellis, they spread across the ground.  But if you want to do the work, you can grow them in the air.  You just need to tie nets around the melons so they don’t fall off and smash on the ground.

  11. @christao408 – Sorry, I mis-understood you then. I don’t like that sign haha… Anyways, I think what you’re talking about then would be more of a movement towards “organic” produces if I understand you correctly. With which, I totally agree with you. There are many studies surfacing in the recent years demonstrating the harmful (more specifically, carcinogenic) effects of these chemicals which have farmed many farmers. And that demonstrates a lack of understanding of products being used as well as a lack of regulation and testing by the government and the industry in general, which just pisses me off too. Although I do not know anyone in person that has been affected by them, I do know farmers that are still using some of the chemicals that are known to be dangerous. And yes, I have told them the “potential” effects but their answer to me is they have to use them. Anyways, it is a spiral, a bad one. However, I believe one of the ways to “wean them off” of the chemicals would be to create GMOs that do not require as much chemicals. I believe such GMOs are being developed and tested and hopefully that will reduce the farmers’ reliance on these harmful chemicals. We can all hope can’t we?

  12. @yang1815 – We’re in agreement, although I’m less concerned about organic in terms of specific licensing and terminology, and more concerned about eating locally and sustainably.  Organic goods that have been shipped 1500 miles from a huge factory farm are better because there are no pesticides or herbicides, but they’re still not really any good for the environment or much better for the consumers.
    I trust that your educational pursuits are in line with genetic engineering and that’s why your hackles were raised by the GMO sign?

  13. @christao408 – Ah ha! I prefer local produce over organic any day just like you said. I personally don’t really believe in the whole organic thing anyway. How can you ensure that the water you use does not contain any level of hormone/chemicals unless you use distilled water which is very costly. Anyways, you’re on the right track. I’m in the field of mammalian genetics. πŸ™‚

  14. @yang1815 – Guess I won’t be planting any of the results of your research then.  But if you could come up with a four-legged chicken, that would help resolve the high demand for drumsticks at my sister’s house.  =)

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