March 02, 2014 00:00 By Olivia Sylvia O Inciong Spec
Mantana, Supatra's efforts lead to thriving project of producing organic vegetables in Kalasin, Khon Kaen
For some, food preparation is their profession, while for others it is their passion. For Mantana Leksomboon and Supatra Chadbunchachai, who live in Kalasin and Khon Kaen provinces, respectively, the production of organic vegetables started as an interest that blossomed into a passion for life.
The market for organic vegetables in Asia is large and growing fast. In Thailand alone, consumption of organic foods has increased fivefold in the last six years.
With consumers increasingly concerned with food safety and quality, the production of organic vegetables is no longer targeting niche markets. It has become an economic opportunity.
From family consumption to community production
For eight years, Mantana’s family-owned 60 rai (9.6 hectares) of land remained uncultivated. However, as they became increasingly worried about the quality of vegetables available from the market, they decided to grow vegetables for their own consumption.
At that time, Mantana was managing Kalasin province’s Q Shop, an outlet established by the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry selling organic vegetables grown locally.
Offering farmers a fair price, Mantana was assured of a steady supply of organic vegetables. Soon, produce from her family’s farm also reached the shop’s shelves.
“In Kalasin province, the public is increasingly aware of the importance of food safety. A strong and growing market for organic vegetables has emerged in the area,” she said.
Today, assorted vegetables and herbs such as morning glory, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, lemon grass, chamomile leaves and curry are harvested and delivered to the Q Shop. Local produce is also travelling further.
Thanks to increasing demand from high-end supermarkets in Kalasin and Bangkok, Mantana was able to mobilise the surrounding communities and step up the production and marketing of organic vegetables.
“In Kalasin province alone, we cannot even meet the local demand,” she said. “That is why we had to establish networks with other farmers to obtain a steady supply of produce.”
Such networks also encouraged other farmers to grow organic vegetables, as word is relayed as to what is in demand. Farmers plant vegetables that they can easily sell to eager customers.
The Kalasin Organic Vegetables Network was recently formed with the help of the provincial government as part of a farmers’ cooperative programme. What started with only 20 hectares cultivated by 20 households, has now expanded into 20 sub-district areas involving 500 households.
Teaching beyond the university gates
As a pharmacist and chairperson of the master’s degree programme on health consumer protection and health management at Khon Kaen University, Supatra knows that pesticide residues in vegetables are a major food-safety issue in Thailand. The public is increasingly aware of the problem.
While most academics would limit their work to the classroom or university lab, Supatra’s 10-year stint with the Health Promotion Foundation, a Thailand-based non-government organisation, motivated her to take action.
Working with the Sam Sung district office in Khon Kaen province, she helped 30 farmers obtain permission from the local government to allocate public lands for growing organic vegetables.
The experience was a success. Soon, the farmers organised themselves into a formal association, enabling them to directly negotiate as a group with buyers. Vegetables are now sold under the brand name Sam Sung and the district is renowned as one of the biggest producers of chilli in the province.
There are now 14 hectares in Sam Sung district producing at least 10 kinds of organic vegetables and harvesting an average of 27 tonnes per month.
These are sold in local markets. Supermarkets and hotels in Khon Kaen city have also asked Sam Sung farmers to supply them with organic vegetables.
“I am happy that shopping habits of consumers have changed,” Supatra said. “Consumers are now willing to pay premiums for pesticide-free vegetables.”
Sam Sung has become a famous community, being visited by local officials and other vegetable farmers. The organic vegetable farms have also become a training centre for nearby farmers.
“I have seen changes in Sam Sung. Yearly incomes of farmers have increased from Bt40,000-Bt50,000 per family to Bt200,000-Bt300,000. Youths who have left are returning to the farms to help their family. They are proud of their safe products,” Supatra said.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has been helping these farmers organise themselves into efficient-size producer groups that can provide appropriate supply levels for countries in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS).
“We are strengthening local chambers of commerce and industry to promote trade and investment along the East-West Economic Corridor of the GMS, linking them with organic-vegetable farmers’ networks,” said Rattanatay Luanglatbandith, regional cooperation specialist at the ADB’s Thailand resident mission.
Rattanatay, who has been providing technical assistance to the project, emphasised that there is a need for a large-scale production of vegetables.
He noted that while global food consumption had expanded by between 2 per cent and 4 per cent in the last decade, worldwide consumption of organic food had grown at a double-digit rate.
Supatra and Mantana recognise that the sustainability of organic-vegetable production depends on many factors, among which are the awareness of consumers on health issues and their access to safe produce. Small farmers will continue to grow organic vegetables as long as there is demand for them. However, being small farmers, they cannot afford advertising, so networking with the private sector is important for them.
Olivia Sylvia O Inciong is external relations officer of the Asian Development Bank in Manila.