Visiting Adams Organic Farm in Thailand

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.

Full video here; story follows:

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.


How Does My Garden Grow – Pt 4: First Harvest

With the US Thanksgiving holiday just a few days away, it seems fully appropriate that I was able to recently celebrate my first harvest from my balcony garden.  It was a limited harvest – one beet, one radish, and two cherry tomatoes – but at least it is a start, right?  For those of you who have missed my videos, I filmed and edited a new one to mark this momentous occasion.


The harvest was a small one, but I was excited with it nonetheless.  On the left is a golden beet, on the right is a type of heirloom radish called a watermelon radish.  It is supposed to have a light green skin with a pink interior.  The skin was kind of a pinkish white instead.  Behind the two roots are my carrots which are slowly growing.


Raindrops on the leaves of my third tomato plant.  Once we hit the start of October – the end of rainy season – the weather rapidly changed.  We’ve had significant rainfall only two or three times since then and my south-facing balcony has been bathed in direct sunlight for about 7 hours a day.  The plants have definitely enjoyed the sun, although I’ve had to be diligent about watering.


One curious thing is that my tomato plants – both cherry and beefsteak – have had a problem with pollination.  So far only two fruits have grown.  I’ve not seen any bees around my plants but according to my online research, tomato plants are self-pollinating.  One technique recommended in some videos is to give the plants a good shake to encourage the pollinating.  So far that hasn’t seemed to help.  Plenty of blossoms come and go, but few ever become fruit.


And there they are, my two cherry tomatoes.  Organic, homegrown, and mighty tasty.  Now if I could just get a few more of them off my plant, which is nearly three meters tall!


Inside of the watermelon radish.  It had a nice flavor, less sharp than the conventional red radishes you see at the market.


Golden beet.  I have only seen red beets sold in Thailand so was very excited to have golden beets.  What I’ve decided, though, is that root vegetables are a poor use of limited container space.  I need to focus on vertical plants – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc. – where I can get more yield per square meter of soil.  Of course, I guess the tomato plants haven’t really panned out yet, have they?

Here’s the video of the autumn 2011 harvest.


The healthy salad I made from mostly store-bought vegetables and my few container garden vegetables.  The shredded golden beet is on top, some sauteed beet greens, and the radish.  Success!  Stay tuned for more gardening developments.

Previous entries on this subject:

How Does My Garden Grow – Part 1: Defying Gravity 
How Does My Garden Grow – Part 2: A Move to the Sunny Side
How Does My Garden Grow – Part 3: Back to Seedlings

Eating at the Chia Tai Agricultural Fair

It isn’t enough to just go and see the fruits and vegetables being grown in the Chia Tai demonstration gardens.  You have to eat them, too!

It turns out that they weren’t too happy when I attempted to pull a carrot out of the ground and see how it tasted.  Instead, security suggested I head over to the food tents to satisfy any hunger pangs.

Sure enough, amidst the rows and rows of processed foods manufactured and sold by parent company CP Foods (they audaciously sell their label of frozen entrees called CP Fresh Mart, which you could select from a freezer case then they would microwave them for you on the spot – not a hundred steps away from acres and acres of fresh produce!), there was actually a few stalls selling freshly-prepared food items.

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I counted three items for sale made from (presumably) local produce: steamed pumpkin buns, pumpkin donuts, and steamed corn on the cob.


The pumpkin buns, made from a yeast dough in a process described in the video below, were light and tasty and I could have easily eaten a dozen of them.  The pumpkin donuts, below, were even more amazing.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a lighter, less oily donut.  Krispy Kreme take note!


Here’s a two-minute video that will tell you all about it.

Hope you enjoy.

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.


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. 


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:


“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?


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.


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.


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:


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.


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