On a sweltering afternoon in the northern Thailand community of Mae Tha, five young men dipped and head-bobbed to music blaring from a pickup parked in front of a weathered timber house. Their dance moves were stolen between trips from the truck’s bed to tables beneath a hay barn set on stilts where the men unloaded styrofoam coolers, ice packs and baskets heaped with fresh produce.
With his baggy T-shirt, Crocs and cutoffs, 27-year-old Aphisak “Ahn” Kampen looked more like a college hipster than a farmer. But he and his friends are among the youngest members of the Mae Tha Sustainable Cooperative, which promotes organic farming. In January, they joined forces to found northern Thailand’s first community supported agriculture, or CSA, distribution network.
The CSA concept in Asia dates to 1965 (the first U.S. network debuted in Massachusetts in 1986) when a group of Tokyo housewives initiated an agreement with dairy farmers. But the idea has been slow to take off elsewhere in the region, where only in recent years have concerns about food safety and the ability of farmers to earn a viable living led to the appearance of scattered networks.
Organic farming in Mae Tha
Mae Tha is a small community of seven villages set in a bucolic valley hemmed in by forest-robed hills. Located about an hour from Chiang Mai, its patchwork of rice paddies, tobacco and cornfields are interspersed with vegetable gardens, all criss-crossed by skinny dirt roads splitting off a two-lane blacktop.
Organic farming has a history here, as I learned one April morning when I met with Ahn and his friends Mathana “Pui” Aphaimool, 31, and Yuthasak “Puak” Yeunnoi, 34. We sat at a picnic table in front of the co-op, which has about 500 members among 30 extended families.
In the late 1970s, Pui’s tobacco farmer father, spurred by environmental concerns and memories of a grandmother who never used chemicals on her own farm, became the first in Mae Tha to make the switch from conventional to organic. Ahn’s parents followed the same path 20 years ago after his father ended up in the hospital with ailments a doctor blamed on exposure to pesticides. Puak’s mother also farms organically. All three families enjoy a better livelihood than their conventional farmer counterparts.
Most Thai farmers know that the use of chemicals in the field harms both their health and the land, and that once it’s up and running, an organic farm brings in more cash. But many are stymied by a cycle of debt linked to monoculture, or the raising of a single crop. Much of northern Thailand’s undulating landscape consists of swathes of corn, wheat and tobacco fields. Now vast citrus orchards and rubber plantations are marching up its hillsides.
“With monoculture you need to buy expensive chemicals” explains Pui. “You harvest one big crop and get one big payment,” much of which goes to buy pesticides and fertilizer for the next planting. Farmers who move into organics have to adjust to “making a little money everyday instead of lots of money all at once,” and they don’t reap the rewards for several years. But after that, says Ahn, the benefits are continuous. “You sell your vegetables for more, and you’re also raising food that you can eat. It’s better than one big payout once or twice a year.”
Next generation Thai farmers want consumer contact
Mae Tha’s CSA grew from a desire among the young farmers, whose families had been selling to several organic shops in Chiang Mai, to find new markets for their produce. “We thought: ‘We’re the new generation. We want to do a new kind of marketing,’ ” explains Puak. Selling directly to consumers would not only bring in more money but enable them to connect with the people eating their produce.
Ahn had learned about CSA during a six-month stay in Arkansas sponsored by an environmental non-governmental organization, or NGO. His flower farming host family prepared meals from their weekly box. After he returned to Mae Tha, he and his friends started a CSA, distributing $1.50, $3.25 and $6.50 boxes from a collection point at a nearby hospital. But membership on the consumer side wasn’t steady enough to continue.
“We paused. Not stopped, just paused,” remembers Ahn, who has a degree in architecture and industrial design but chooses to work on his parent’s Chiang Mai farm. “Then we thought: ‘Maybe we can go to the big city — Chiang Mai.’ ”
American journalist prompts CSA
About that time, American journalist Jeff Rutherford showed up in Mae Tha. With his Thai wife, Sarah, Rutherford owns Fair Earth Farm, a one-acre demonstration organic farm on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Disturbed by the problems faced by Thailand’s small farmers and its environment, he secured a grant from the U.S. State Department to investigate the feasibility of establishing a CSA in the area. Last fall Sarah Rutherford agreed to help find subscribers and act as liaison between them and the farmers. The first boxes were delivered in January.
The network is still small, with just five Mae Tha farming families and 26 subscribers in Chiang Mai. There is a waiting list, but “the farmers are going slow to make sure it works,” says Jeff Rutherford. On Tuesday evenings, the farmers assemble their boxes. The next morning two members of the group drive them into Chiang Mai, where they set up a collection point in front of a school. Subscribers exchange cash and empty boxes from the previous week for full ones. There have been hitches – sometimes subscribers don’t show up, or want to suspend their membership when they’re away on vacation. Some Thai consumers, though keen on the idea of eating organic, blanch at the sight of mustard greens with insect holes.
“We’re working on education,” says Rutherford. Sarah has identified local orphanages and other organizations where customers can donate paid-for boxes when they are out of town.
Consistency is key
Before the network can grow, the farmers must grapple with issues of volume and consistency. “We’re still learning how to do organically,” say 29-year old CSA member Apagon “Ton” Kryangngyan as we walk past a clump of cauliflower stalks as high as my knee on his family farm. Beet root has been successful, but scallions are still a mystery, he tells me, pointing to a patch of dry soil punctuated by fleshy green spears. “We don’t know the best season for growing them yet because with chemicals they’ve always grown year-round.”
Back at the CSA box assembly line, Ton laughs as one of the farmers’ toddler son jiggles to the beat of Thai grunge. I’m astounded at the variety of produce. In addition to perky green leaves (morning glory, spinach, mustard, oak leaf and romaine lettuces, cabbage and pak wan, an exceptionally sweet vegetable often cooked with tart ant eggs) and herbs (cilantro, Chinese celery, garlicky cha om), there were chilies, cherry and plum tomatoes, long beans and Japanese eggplants, slender yams and fat beets, bananas and papaya and exquisitely sweet, plump mulberries mounded in containers fashioned from banana leaves. It’s a testament to the valley’s fertile soil, but also to hard work and an eagerness to experiment on the part of the young farmers and their families.
I ask how the farmers know they’ll have enough to fill the boxes every week. Ahn shrugs and smiles. “We don’t. We just plant a lot.”
For more about Thailand’s market and food traditions, read Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman’s piece about the historic, and now endangered, Chiang Mai market.
Zester Daily contributor David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.com. Robyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.
Photos from top:
The CSA assembly line; boxes will be distributed among members.
Lettuce weighing in at a Thai farmers market.
Credits: David Hagerman