Putting rice on our tables

lifestyle July 01, 2014 00:00


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Three farmer-friendly groups use social networking to bring organic rice directly to consumers

The failure of the last government to pay farmers under the rice-pledging scheme that landed Thailand’s already poor agriculturists in serious debt led not just to a public outcry but also prompted concerned citizens to help farmers in their own way.

The assistance comes not through handouts, nor through collections among anti-government protesters, but in a much more sustainable way – non-profit activities that offer people a chance to buy rice directly from the farmers. 
The project initiated by Na Namjai (Field of Care) uses social networks to bridge the gap between buyers and sellers, and because it’s strictly non-profit, circumvents trading that’s been traditionally fraught with opportunities for corruption. The idea isn’t entirely new, as farmers’ groups have for a while been selling their rice online and using the post to deliver the grains to customers.
Na Namjai’s founder Panisa Choosangsri, a freelance interpreter who’s based in Chiang Mai, has no illusions about the project’s life span. 
“It started because we wanted to help the farmers but the motivation is almost bound to wear off. For now, though, it’s working well as all the members are from the same circle of friends,” says Panisa, who was inspired to launch the scheme after talking to struggling rice farmers in Phitsanulok.
The 30 members of the project pay Bt10,000 each upfront in return for a guaranteed delivery of 100 kilograms of rice to their homes at the end of the harvest. The money goes straight to the farmer who uses the cash to buy seeds and to cover his planting and other expenses. Some members have already opted to take delivery of less rice and donate the remainder to a charity organisation.
Panisa plans to extend the idea by opening her website to more people and encouraging them to order online.
For the members, the advantage is the quality of the rice, which is organically grown and free from pesticides. Farmers in the scheme include both those who have been in orgamic farming for quite some time and those who have just switched to chemical-free planting.
And Na Namjai isn’t the only group buying direct. Also trading on Facebook is Khon Kin Khao Chuay Khon Plook Khao, another non-profit group. Founded by Kannika Rattanapreedakul, the group counts doctors and architects among its members. They too wanted to do something concrete to help the farmers and made contact with an organic rice cooperative in Yasothon.
Their Farmer and Friend website is also open to everyone with buying options ranging from 30kg to 120kg with delivery starting after the next harvest. Both chemical-free jasmine rice and brown jasmine rice are available, as well as the more expensive organic rice.
“We want the idea to spread to everybody regardless of their taste in rice or economic sta
 tus, so we are offering as many options as possible,” says Kannika.
Farmer-friendly group Pook Pinto Kao takes a different approach, setting themselves up as “matchmakers” between consumers and farmers. The service is free and the group refuses to accept sponsorship from any commercial enterprise. They recruit farmers to be the chao bao (groom) then match them with chao sao (bride), as they call they consumers. “Bride” and “groom” then get to know each other through a Line group.
Organiser Pradhana Chariyavilaskul says there is no minimum order and it’s up to the bride and groom to agree on a deal. Pook Pinto Kao does take efforts to ensure quality control by sending out members who know about farming to visit the paddy fields and ensure the crops are indeed organic. 
All three groups also organise activities that allow the city folks to visit the farmers.
“We don’t measure our success from the volume of sales. Our reward comes from seeing people change their eating behaviours by switching from chemical rice to organic rice,” says Pradhana.
Panisa says that convincing farmers to plant organic rice is not as difficult as changing people’s habits. 
“I’ve learned that farmers mainly lack marketing knowledge, so they don’t know where to sell their organic rice,” she says.
“Buyers, on the other hand, have to be educated as to why it is worth spending 20 per cent more on organic rice than buying rice that’s laced with pesticides. 
“It’s a bit like coffee. I tell them that if they can spend Bt100 or more for a cup of java juice, then surely they can pay more for a kilo of organic rice that’s better for the health. I think behaviour will change but it will take time,” Panisa says. 
Another obstacle is that people are not used to paying in advance then waiting for the rice to be harvested and sent directly to their homes. Kannika explains that the advance payment is a guarantee that they will get the products for which they’ve paid. “It’s more secure than paying up front for vehicle or health insurance that you might never use,” she says.
All three operations have received a warm welcome. Na Namjai is still very much a small operation that runs amongst friends and Khon Kin Khao is now dealing with 400 farmers happy to send their product direct to customers.
Pook Pinto Khao, meanwhile, welcomes more brides and grooms to its circle every month.
And while most of the farmers have now received their long overdue payments under the defunct rice-pledging scheme, Kannika points out that several schemes, no matter how small, that directly help the farmers, have to be better than a single policy.
“Both rice growers and consumers benefit too and both sides like the idea of community-based demand and supply.”
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