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November 2009 (page four)
The night before I left, Pakphum and I shared our longest conversation translated through Bennett. We talked about the importance of rice in Thai culture, and the nutritional value of the kinds of rice produced by his cooperative vs. the standard white rice often found on supermarket shelves. We talked about the yearly cycle of the work on the farm, and how the long-long days we had put in that week are balanced by the five months of the year when the growing season is at a standstill and there is more time for leisure pursuits.
We talked about growing older and Pakphum’s plans for the future, such as whether to go back into debt by purchasing a sit-down plow (a tool that might help him farm longer into his later years). Pakphum said he was turning against the new-plow idea at present, focusing instead on maybe leasing some of his paddies to townspeople in Surin City who might want to get back to the land. He could teach them about organic farming, he told me, and they could keep the rice they produce, and he could still earn a living from his land.
Finally, we talked about the Fair Trade system, and how it’s important for small-scale producers to be paid a decent wage for their labor, how it’s easy for the conventional supply chain (with its many, many layers) to squeeze the producers at the beginning, and how Pakphum is skeptical of the aims of the mega-corporations that are switching tiny portions of their lines of Fair Trade products like coffee. Pakphum objected to a mega-corporation knowing how to get involved in a better supply chain, but not choosing to commit to a better system 100-percent. Those companies’ scale, he said, could give them power to dilute standards, or could pull market share away from the smaller, purer Fair Trade product lines.
Nothing wasted: The inedible rice hulls stripped off during processing at the cooperative headquarters are recycled back to the farmers as compost. (See a slide show here.)
Fortunately, at present, there is no mega-corporation threatening to compete with Alter-Eco, the company that brings Pakphum’s rice to market in the United States (and a member of our Green Business Network). Early in my visit – the day I met Bennett at the train station and took the pick-up ride to the village – Bennett and I first stopped at the headquarters of Pakphum’s cooperative, where its US-bound rice is packaged.
It was here where I saw the scales where Pakphum would drive his rice harvest in to be weighed and paid for. It was here where I saw the giant machines that strip off the inedible portions of the rice husk, which are saved to be turned into compost for the farmers. And it was here that I peered through a window at workers who were packaging the finished rice in boxes and bags bound for various destinations: the cooperative store in Surin City, as well as distributors in Europe and the United States. If you purchase a box of Alter-Eco Fair Trade and organic rice in the United States, that box was filled in this room, by workers who personally know the farmers who just dropped it off.
After my tour of the facilities, I sat down with Sompoi Chansaeng, the leader of the cooperative to ask her some questions. She was very busy that day, and we talked for maybe 30 minutes, about the history of the cooperative, about her thoughts on the Fair Trade system (she has the same misgivings a Pakphum about mega-corporations), and finally about what one factor could be the most successful at helping expand the use of organic farming and Fair Trade practices in the Surin area. I suggested greater government support, NGO support, farmer education, and consumer demand as possibilities.
Without hesitation, Sompoi stopped me in the middle of my list and replied: “It’s consumer demand.”
(continued on page 5)