A chance meeting with an American expat whose family is in the seed business leads to a behind-the-scenes tour of an organic vegetable farm in Korat province.
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When I moved to Thailand a bit more than six years ago, organic produce was a rare sight. The more western-oriented supermarkets would have small sections – one or two shelves in a single refrigerated display case – featuring lonely looking organic vegetables, often flown in from foreign shores.
Today when I visit the produce section of the market, the organic selection makes up as much as about one-tenth of the available real estate. Many of the organic items are grown in Thailand, although imports are still present. The range of organic produce is wider, too: apples to arugula, okra to onions.
I am pleased that organic produce is gaining traction in the Thai market. I am also confused, though, at the number of “near” or “faux” organic products being sold. With labels like “pesticide safe”, “hygienic”, and “INSERT LABEL HERE” and no clear oversight and regulation, I am never sure just what I can safely eat.
Curious and confused, I took advantage of my recent introduction to Tim Chung, an American who is now living in Thailand to help manage his family’s organic farm and fresh vegetable operations. Tim extended an invitation to visit Adams Organic’s farm in Pak Thong Chai in Nakhon Ratchasima province – about a three-hour drive from Bangkok.
This is one of Adams Organic’s two locations. They also work with more than 20 organic rice farmers in Yasothon province in Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region, to grow organic vegetables in the dry and cool seasons. This works out well because rice does not grow efficiently during those seasons and vegetable production generally dips during the rainy season, which is prime rice-growing time.
Adams Organic started in 2009 as an offshoot of a commercial organic seed producer, AEL, whose roots stretch back more than four decades. According to Tim, they saw a growing demand in Thailand for fresh organic produce so started experimenting with the idea. They now produce about six tons of vegetables each month for retail sale.
The Pak Thong Chai farm is about 30 rai (or 12 acres). The farm grows a variety of organic vegetables, including tomatoes, zucchini, salad greens, melons, squash, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, and shallots. Some of these are grown in open fields and others are grown in net houses.
Net houses are similar to green houses except the sheeting is permeable so its effect is more to keep the insects and other pests out than to regulate the temperature. In addition, the very fine mesh of the netting provides protection from predators (including insects) that would eat crops and potentially carry unwanted diseases. Along with some additional dark sheeting, the nets provide a bit of relief from the strong sunlight and regular rain showers.
To enter the net houses, you step in a box of ground limestone. This helps reduce the risk of soil-borne disease being brought in. There are also sprayers for hand sanitizer. The two sets of double net curtains help restrict the entry of insects.
Another organic pest control methods is the placement of sticky yellow flags, which attract the insects and then trap them once they land.
Additionally, inside the net houses you find plastic containers of sulfur powder. As the sun heats the sulfur, it gives off a gas that repels certain insects and also discourages the growth of microbes and fungus. Despite all those efforts – a testament to how abundant the ranks of insects are – there were still some insects inside the net house, but none that were causing a significant problem to the crops.
An interesting side effect of these efforts to minimize insects is that pollination of the plants has to be done by hand.
In addition to not using pesticides, growing organic also means that you cannot use herbicides. The farm has several techniques to minimize the number of weeds, which are harmful to the crops because they compete for water and nourishment.
Before planting, the freshly plowed fields are covered with black plastic sheeting. In colder climates this would be done to help warm the soil and wake it for a late winter or early spring planting. Here in Thailand, the black plastic super-heats the soil, killing off many of the seeds of other plants that may be in the soil already.
Seedlings of the desired crop are planted in holes cut into the plastic. As the crops grow, the plastic sheeting minimizes the number of competing weeds by cutting off any sunlight to them. Hand-weeding is also necessary while the crops are young. As the crops grow older, though, grasses and less-invasive weeds are allowed to grow side-by-side with the crops.
To conserve water, a drip irrigation system is used. This ensures that the plants receive a regular supply of water that is focused on the area immediately around the plant, reducing waste.
As I learned during the visit, farming is a cyclical practice: the nutrients that you take from the ground must be replaced. In conventional farming, this is done with petroleum-based chemical fertilizers. With organic farming, the cycle is sustained in a variety of ways. For example, fields are planted in a rotating basis to ensure that soil quality is not diminished. For example, fields that grow tomatoes might then be plated with zucchini and then allowed to lie fallow before tomatoes are planted again. Different plants take and return different nutrients to the soil, one reason that the industrial agricultural practice of planting huge expanses with a single crop season after season, so called “mono-crops,” is so damaging.
Additionally, the farm makes its own compost from trimmings and the remnants of plants after the fruits and vegetables are harvested. These trimmings are allowed to ferment and be biodegraded in plastic barrels before being worked back into the fields with organic steer manure. They are in the process of constructing a vermiculture – worm-based – composting system, too.
One of the challenges when growing organic is keeping your fields from being contaminated from outside sources. To counter this, Adams Organic maintains an awareness of what is grown on neighboring farms and ensure that their fields are set back sufficiently from the property borders to maintain the organic quality of their produce.
Our final stop on the tour was the packing house, a small warehouse that includes sanitary processing rooms and a chiller room. Produce is picked almost every day and the workers inspect, trim, and package the vegetables. The packaged vegetables are then stored in the chiller room before being delivered three times a week to Bangkok-area stores by refrigerated truck.
Their produce is available at ten locations of Tops supermarkets, several Foodland locations, and four Gourmet Marketplace locations (associated with the Mall Group). They also have a retail storefront on Soi Saladaeng and they are working towards a CSA or Community Supported Agriculture program where you pay a subscription rate and receive weekly deliveries of the freshest produce.
One of my big questions about organic food in Thailand is the extent to which it is reliably organic. On our trip, we were joined by a US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) certified inspector. Adams Organic is regularly inspected not only by US-licensed inspectors, but also inspectors for the European Union, Japan, and Korea. The inspections occur not because their food is currently exported (all of it is sold within Thailand) but because their original and primary business is growing organic seeds, which are exported for sale.
Tim explained that it is difficult to give a general statement about organic providers in Thailand. The only way to be completely certain is to have your own chemical test kit and test different brands to see for yourself. Of course, that isn’t practicable. Most organic brands use a variety of farmers to provide their produce. The key, he explained, is to have good quality control to ensure all the products are grown by farmers who strictly follow organic practices.
While the market for organics is expanding, the retail price for organics is relatively low compared to Singapore and Hong Kong. This is good news for Thai consumers but creates a challenge for organic farmers. The retail operation is not yet profitable for Adams Organic, but they see this as a long-term project. Proper positioning now will give them the opportunity to develop the market and build a sustainable, profitable business in sustainable, healthy produce.
Many thanks to Tim and the folks at Adams Organic for letting me take a behind-the-scenes look and share it with you. From left to right: Flerida, Tim, me, Ken, and Chow.