Organic Farming Improves Lives and Affordable Nutrition in Northern Thailand

The linoleum floor is cold underneath my bare feet. I must admit, though, it’s a welcome refreshment from the hot Thai air that hangs heavily outside. I peer down at my feet, wishing I had taken the time to get a pedicure before departing on a 20-hour journey to Southeast Asia. It’s not something I thought of back in 40-degree February weather in Washington. But as I examine the others around me I realize that I may have actually looked out of place with shiny, freshly lacquered nails. The feet of the others in the room belong to people intimate with the land, their well-worn feet a hallmark of years of experience.

I am in the city of Chiang Mai, located in northern Thailand, nestled at the base of the Thai Highlands, and not far from Laos and Myanmar. I am here to find local partners for the John Deere Inspiring Leadership program, a corporate initiative that sends high-level John Deere employees outside their home countries for a month to serve as pro-bono business consultants with local NGOs, SMEs, universities, or governmental agencies.

I have done my research—organic farming is a nascent movement gaining ground in Chiang Mai. Having established contact with organizations working in this space prior to arrival, I now sit at the ECHO Asia Impact Center, in a small kitchen that doubles as a conference room. ECHO’s mission is to fight hunger by providing seeds, research, and resources to agricultural development workers in Southeast Asia. These are people who have become experts in northern Thailand agriculture because they have planted the seeds and tended to the crops with their very hands. They are proud of their hard work and the calluses they bear. Soon the meeting is underway and each person begins to introduce themselves.

As each organization shares its story, I am struck by four common themes. Each shares a passion for the farmers, consumers, and environment of northern Thailand, and a mission to educate the local community on the benefits of locally sourced organic food. They are also experts in traditional Thai farming practices, and are committed to working together to transform the farming culture of northern Thailand. I’m moved by the conviction of these people and dedication to their cause. I suddenly realize that the infusion of the John Deere team—my project—could have a transformative impact on their work and the exciting movement emerging from Chiang Mai.

Organic Farming: Then and Now
In the early 1950s, the agriculture industry changed dramatically, following the introduction of chemical fertilizers and insecticides. Until that time, what we refer to today as “organic methods” were standard farming practice. In the 1960s, as the negative effects of chemical farming became known, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring spawned a movement, advocating a return to organic farming practices. As people have become more interested in issues of healthful nutrition and environmental conservation, demand for organic foods has only grown, expanding beyond the United States. Organic farms around the world have since begun to organize opportunities for individuals to immerse themselves in organic farming through the WWOOF network.

The organic agriculture movement in Thailand has developed on a similar timeline. In the 1980s, Thai NGOs and farmers became more vocal in advocating for a return to organic farming methods. The private sector has been slow to promote organic, but each year more and more organic stores open across Thailand, mainly in the urban areas. Organic farming has recently made it into the government’s national agenda for agricultural development.

Mainstreaming Organic Farming Practices in Thailand
Just outside of Chiang Mai, a community called Mae Tha has long been known for its dedication to organic farming. In 2000, a group of farmers formed the Mae Tha Sustainable Agriculture Cooperative and committed their farms to the organic methods. This began as a small endeavor, but has since grown to now include 500 members. Organic farming in Mae Tha, however, did not begin with the co-op. The farmers today take pride in telling me about their families’ long history of organic farming. Spurred by environmental concerns and the health risks farmers face from the harsh chemicals, their ancestors abandoned chemicals and started using sustainable methods to farm before “organic” was mainstream.

One of the young Mae Tha farmers, Ahn, envisioned a community-supported agriculture initiative, or CSA, after being introduced to the CSA method while on an educational stint in the United States. Ahn believed a CSA would expand the market for his co-op’s produce through direct interaction with consumers.

In 2010, the Mae Tha CSA was born. Initially, it only served consumers outside of Chiang Mai, close to the Mae Tha community, but it didn’t take long for the farmers to set their sights on Chiang Mai. Soon after its launch, Jeff Rutherford, an American environmental consultant in Thailand heard about the Mae Tha CSA and their desire to connect with consumers in Chiang Mai. Jeff, who was studying the feasibility of CSA, runs an experimental organic farm, Fair Earth Farm. He and his Thai wife, Sarah, immediately jumped in to help, serving as liaison between the farmers and the consumers and helping market the CSA.

The CSA has grown to include five farming families and 30 consumers. Every Wednesday, a few Mae Tha farmers make the hour-long drive into Chiang Mai with their truck full of boxes of fresh, seasonal produce. The farmers do home deliveries and distribute from a local school to sell produce boxes for around 200 Thai Baht, or $6.50 per box. The farmers benefit tremendously from the CSA. They receive higher prices for their organic produce than they would with chemically grown crops. They, along with their families, are able to consume their own produce and enjoy the health benefits of organic food. The CSA system can also absorb increases in labor. The more hands they have working the fields, the more produce they yield. In a time of rapid urbanization, the CSA provides the opportunity for Thais to return to the farmland of their ancestors and make a good living.

The success of the Mae Tha Sustainable Agriculture CSA is an indication of the rising popularity of organic food in northern Thailand—Jeff will tell you, finding consumers is the easy part. But the Mae Tha farmers and network members like the Rutherfords believe the CSA not only provides high-quality produce to Chiang Mai, it also introduces the greater community to the benefits of organic food. Besides having enormous health benefits, organic farming strengthens environmental integrity, supports the health and livelihood of small farming families, and bolsters the local economy.

Amplifying the Message through Pro Bono Support
To assist Jeff and the Mae Tha CSA in accomplishing their goal of being not only producers, but community educators as well, a team of John Deere employees spent the month creating a marketing strategy to increase the visibility of the CSA in Chiang Mai. By pooling their collective knowledge and experience in marketing, communications, business planning, customer service, and sales, the John Deere team was able to finalize a CSA logo that incorporated the preferences of the farmers, design marketing materials, and devise a marketing and communications strategy for 2014. As knowledge of the Mae Tha CSA grows in Chiang Mai, Jeff and the farmers will use this new platform to build awareness of the benefits of organic farming.

Fortunately, Fair Earth Farm and Mae Tha are not alone in their endeavor to promote local, organic farming to the community. The John Deere team was also able to support Food4Thought and ECHO Asia Impact Center. Their impact on the community is already being felt, and will certainly provide an important capacity infusion that will propel exceptional momentum for Thailand’s organic farming movement.

The day before leaving Thailand, I had visited Jeff and Sarah’s organic farm just outside Chiang Mai. On the way there, watching the bustling streets turn into small country roads winding through fields of rice paddy, it was easy to understand why these organizations are so passionate about protecting the land and the livelihoods of farmers.

Looking out over the rice paddies peacefully waving in the breeze, the sweet aroma of wild orchids tingeing the air, Jeff points out the many small plots of land around his farm. “There’s no way to reverse the changes chemical use has caused in the agriculture industry, but farmers are following in the footsteps of Mae Tha and making a return to organic agriculture, which provides a viable way for these families and so many others to continue farming their land just as their ancestors before them did.” There are no thousand-acre commercial farms here, just families whose land has been passed down through generations. These fearless farmers, who aren’t afraid to get their hands and feet dirty, know that their dedication and perseverance in mainstreaming organic farming in Thailand will have a significant impact, not only on their families, but generations to come. Theirs is a legacy worth protecting.

Amy Crumbliss

Amy Crumbliss

Amy Crumbliss is a Senior Program Coordinator at PYXERA Global where she supports several international corporate volunteerism projects. Her educational and professional background consists of international development, trade, economics, cultural exchange, international relations, and Latin American studies.She is also fluent in Spanish. Amy joined PYXERA Global because she believes strongly in the power of collaboration to tackle today’s biggest global problems.

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