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.


Bruce’s Visit – Part 2

To recap the bulk of the rest of Bruce’s visit, we had a very busy several days as I played tour guide and tried to show him several different slices of our life in the kingdom:

Floating Market

After the year and a half of volunteering as an English teacher at Bangkhonthiinai village, I became very familiar with Samut Songkhram province – Thailand’s smallest – and especially the weekend nighttime floating market in the town of Amphawa.  My debt of gratitude to Ajarn Yai, the former director of the school, is deep as she has been a gracious host anytime I have guests to bring to the floating market.


P1100431Ajarn Yai arranged and paid for a canal and river tour in the late afternoon, following a route that took us several kilometers down the Mae Khlong River and then cutting back through the smaller canals until we returned to the market area in Amphawa.


It was a fascinating opportunity to show Bruce “life by the water” – a fixture of central Thailand and an important cultural touchstone as so many references in language (and even driving habits!) can be traced back to Thais’ relationship with bodies of water.

Since Ajarn Yai insisted on paying for the boat ride, Tawn and I insisted on paying for dinner afterwards at a riverside restaurant.  Not without a big fight, though: “I’m your big sister!” she protested, pointing to Thai custom that the puu yai – senior person – pay for dinner.

As I’ve explained to her several times, I can’t let her pay every time we have a guest in town; that’s not fair to her.  Of course, “fair” is a very different concept in my mind than in hers.  For Ajarn Yai, “fair” will be when we finally take her to the United States for a visit.

Road Trip – Ayuthaya

Long before Bruce arrived, we had discussed a road trip to Thailand’s wine country –  Nakhon Ratchasimaa province, also known as Korat.  Yes, we do have a small wine industry and as we found out, they produce some decent wine.


We started out in Ayuthaya, the second capital of the Kingdom of Siam.  Located about ninety minutes north of Khrungthep, the city is full of ruins including a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Our first stop was Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, above and right, on the south side of the city.  Quieter than many of the other temples, it was famous as a place for meditation and still houses a large community of monks and nuns.  The large chedi or stupa is still intact and you can climb it for quite a view.


After lunch and a stop at the Ayuthaya Historical Study Center, a decent museum that helps put the ancient city into context, complete with scale models of how the city looked before it was ransacked by the Burmese in 1767, we headed to see some of the ruins.

In the 17th Century, the city had a million inhabitants and strong trade relations with the Dutch, Portuguese, English, French, Chinese and Japanese.  Many Western visitors remarked how illustrious the city was, with the temples and many palace buildings decorated in the same fashion in which Khrungthep’s Grand Palace is.

Back out into the warm pre-thunderstorm afternoon, we visited Wat Phra Si Sanphet, once the largest temple in Ayuthaya.  This is the famous one with a trio of large chedis still standing in a row down the center of the park.  The surrounding walls have tumbled down, whether a result of the Burmese cannon fire or just a matter of time and weather.

There were surprisingly few visitors and Bruce was able to film a lot of video footage on his new camera while Ken and I tried to remain in the shade of the magnolia trees.  Afterwards, we stopped at a nearby market to watch the making of roti sai mai – a dessert popular among the Thai Muslim population with thin pandan leaf flavored crepes are stuffed with spun palm sugar – and, of course, to eat some.


Our last stop in Ayuthaya was the elephant kraal.  North of the city, this is where the wild elephants were herded so ones could be selected for use in battle.

Today, it is where the elephants that visitors ride at the historical park are housed, bathed and fed.  Run by a pair of farang women, there is a program where guests can stay several days in cottages and learn more about the elephants while helping out with the chores.

We arrived at feeding time, with a pair of elephants unloading pickup trucks full of grass and bringing it to the other elephants.  For the most part, it looks like the grass is ground up before being served to the elephants, using a cement mixer as a gigantic food processor.  The elephants that were doing the heavy lifting occasionally snagged a few blades as a snack, having to be urged back to work by their mahouts, or guides.


A baby elephant gets a shower while playing around and trying to drink the water.

Road Trip – Pak Chong

We continued to the northeast of Ayuthaya about two hours, arriving in the small town of Pak Chong shortly after dark.  Pak Chong is the first city you reach in Nakhon Ratchasimaa province and serves as the gateway to Khao Yai National Park, Thailand’s oldest and second largest.  Pak Chong at sunrise:


We found a relatively new tourist class hotel.  It was clean and the beds were comfortable, so for 700 baht a night (about US$20) it seemed like a pretty good deal.  This far outside of the big cities, I think our options are limited.  The receptionist suggested a really nice restaurants that is located on the banks of a small river.  Decorated along the lines of a Cracker Barrel restaurant, the restaurant served pretty good northeastern Thai food, although the grilled chicken was a bit tough.

Khao Yai National Park

Tuesday morning we started out early and drove the hour up to Khao Yai National Park.  We were afforded gorgeous views and lots of lush foliage.


From a view point looking north back towards Pak Chong.

There is a lot of wildlife in the park, including a herd of 200-300 wild elephants.  While we didn’t see any elephants, we did encounter several other animals including a few monkeys and deer.


At one stop, there is a salt lick that “Friends of the Park” – a volunteer organization – created so that animals would have a place to eat their minerals in good view of the road.  The salt lick is shown above and below is the accompanying warning sight at the viewing point.


It reads, “Do not walk to the Salt Lick – you smell bad to wildlife.”  Ain’t that the truth?

After stopping at the interpretive center we decided to take a short walk behind the center to see a waterfall.  Our information was bad and we ended up taking the long way around.


Imagine, if you will, that the interpretive center was at noon on a clock face.  We started walking along the trail, only to eventually discover that the waterfall was at the eleven o’clock position, which we could have easily accessed if we had walked the opposite direction!

The trail was overgrown and in places, completely veered off into uncharted territory.  Along the way, we discovered a bit more of the local fauna than we wanted to: leeches.  Here’s a view of the leeches we acquired and the larger ones we managed to avoid.


Mostly small but those things really have a strong grip.  One burrowed through my sock and was pretty firmly attached to my leg.  Five days later, I still have a purple welt from where its mouth was.


The further we went, the more precarious the trail became.  To be certain, the forest there is beautiful and cool, but if we hadn’t heard the sound of a waterfall in the distance, I think we would have turned back.

We arrived at the waterfall and were terribly underwhelmed.  There are probably several in the park that were much more spectacular, because this one was more of a large rapids than anything else.  As waterfalls go, I think the Erawan Falls in Kanchanaburi province are much nicer, especially as I didn’t encounter any leeches there.


Sadly, Bruce was the most affected by nature, suffering at least a dozen leech bites and having to pull them from between his toes.  Let this be a lesson to all of us: no shorts and sandals when you are in a national park.  On our way in to the park, we saw several truckloads of tourists who had these leg warmer type of padding around their legs, even though they had long pants on.  I thought perhaps they were protection for snake bites but realize now that they were designed to keep leeches off you.

Tough way to learn the lesson but glad we know that for next time.


After Bruce had had enough of nature we headed down the mountain to search out a pair of wineries.  They were pretty easily found and, sure enough, as you get up into that region and drive down some of the two-lane roads, you could easily imagine that you are in Sonoma County, the Barossa Valley, or another wine producing region.


Above, vineyards at PB Winery.  The higher-end shiraz was pretty decent, albeit pricey.  The lower-end shiraz had the bouquet of molasses and was so young as to be nearly illegal.  The drive is pretty, though, and it was interesting to see what this nascent wine region is producing.

P1100535 By this point in the afternoon, we were hitting some rain and decided to make one last stop before heading back to the Big Mango.  Our destination was Chokchai Farms, a large cattle and dairy operation near Pak Chong.

Left, traditional “old west” farm architecture amongst the tropical foliage.

Chokchai is the most modern and productive cattle operation in Thailand and ostensibly their cows get a lot of opportunity to pasture, although I wasn’t able to take the farm tour thanks to the monsoon rains that arrived.  Instead, we hunkered up in the Chokchai Steakhouse and enjoyed a good steak lunch with inexplicably overcooked vegetables.  Really, they were aiming for Midwestern US cuisine with frozen carrots and green beans that had been boiled to death.  Only the steamed cabbage and daikon radish were fresh.

We returned to Khrungthep around rush hour, leaving unexplored many other parts of Nakhon Ratchasimaa province that I’ll have to return to in the future.  In particular, the capital city of Korat, about which I’ve heard good things, deserves some exploration.


Not to Korat

This was going to be the get-away weekend: the last weekend before the preparations for the move to the new condo got serious.  So Tawn and I were going to drive up to Korat and Khao Yai, about two hours northeast of Khrungthep, visit some property that Tawn’s father owns up there, and explore the self-proclaimed “Gateway to Issan“.

So what would be the one thing that would stop us? 

Our designer, who with his globe trotting travel schedule to far away places like Turkey and India, has summoned us to a meeting to discuss furniture.  Since scheduling time with him has been so difficult, we must make ourselves available when he is.  To be fair, he is a well-known Thai designer, doing many stores and boutique hotels.  He’s doing our home remodel as a favor as he’s our friend, certainly at a discounted price, so these schedule challenges are a small price to pay.

Still, we’re not going away this weekend.


Martha 1 Friday night I met Tawn at Paragon to take a look at some furniture at the Martha Stewart Store.  Actually, it isn’t the Martha Stewart store, but it is the only store in Thailand authorized to sell the Martha Stewart furniture collection, so the entire store is done up so that you wouldn’t know that it isn’t a Martha Stewart Store. 

We go in there frequently to get ideas as it is a style we like.  The store was designed by our decorator friend and dressed by him as well, as are many of the furniture stores in Paragon.

The lady who works there is so familiar with us, she just invites us in to have tea.  We sit at a dining room table on display in the main room, drinking tea and nibbling M&Ms, like two life size mannequins.

Martha 2 While there, we looked at various catalogs, discussed different pieces of furniture on display, and considered the merits of ordering a US-sized bed versus a Thai-sized one.  A king-size bed in Thailand is not a king-size bed in the US. 

Khun Nirin – note the carefully crafted PR in this linked story – told us of an experience where two picky customers – a pair of women – spent a half hour lying in one of the beds (under the covers, even) in order to try it out before spending that much money to buy the mattress.  It was the middle of the day, other customers were coming and going, and the women just lay there seeing if they’d be comfortable on the mattress for an extended period of time.

If you think about it, it makes sense.  Most of us shop for mattresses by lying down for sixty seconds or less.


P1010618 I ate Halal for dinner at my favorite vendor in the food court.  The nice lady there prepares Muslim style food and they have a chicken roti-mataba that is just lovely. 

It is a southern Thai dish that takes thin, crepe-like roti and stuffs them with a curried chicken (or beef or lamb) and shallot mixture, then fries it in a pan to crisp the sides a little.  The mataba is served with a side salad or cucumbers, shallots and chilies in a rice wine vinegar sauce, along with a spicy green chili sauce.

Not feeling fully satiated, I went haram and ate some pork satay.  That was tasty, too, although obviously from another vendor.

Below: Tawn took a dozen takes for this picture at a dozen different settings before coming up with something usable.


As there wasn’t much to watch in the cinemas, we headed home where I was early enough to participate in a conference call with work at 10:00.  Which was kind of boring, actually.


Funny food pictures:  Above: Ken and Roka clown around at a Japanese restaurant called Yayoi, part of a Japanese chain that is operated here in Thailand by MK Restaurants.  They serve you tea in this fun, brightly-colored English teapots with these tiny pink teacups that look to be stolen from a child’s tea party set.  Below: Last weekend in the midst of errands we stopped for dim sum at SK Park Hotel, at the Chinese restaurant that Tawn’s whole family frequents.  We didn’t check in advance and lucked out that nobody we knew was there.