A New Model for Democratizing Agriculture in Thailand

Thamturakit is revolutionizing the way food is grown and consumed all across the country — and we should all be paying attention

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he Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance, an organic farm and teaching center located in the North of Thailand, was founded sixteen years ago as a way to transition to a more sustainable, self-reliant model of living and growing food. Since then, it has bred a nationwide movement towards a new, democratized financial model for Thailand’s agriculture system.

It started as Jo Jandai and Peggy Reents, the farm’s co-founders, began to see the cracks in the industrial agricultural system in Thailand: “In the conventional model, consumers are paying a lot for food, and farmers are paid very little — in the end, the middlemen are the ones who are profiting,” explains Reents. “So we set out to create a model where the farmers had more control — where they became their own middlemen.”

The traditional agricultural model in Thailand, favored by large conglomerates, gives farmers huge quotas they must meet by the end of a season in order to be paid a set rate. “It’s all contract farming,” says Reents. “The farmer is responsible for all the expenses, so when you really budget it out, the farmer barely makes anything.”

The need — and the opportunity — to do something different became clear: consumers were growing more concerned about unsafe pesticide residues on conventional agricultural products, but organic produce was overpriced and hard to find. Farmers, in turn, were becoming more interested in moving away from monocrops and industrialized forms of agriculture towards self-sufficiency models, where they could grow diversified crops that they could support their families with while making profits from their surpluses.

“We’re almost like a black sheep in comparison to the rest of Thailand because we don’t do cash crops — we don’t invest a lot of money in farming, we try to think about self-reliance first,” explains Jandai. “The idea is that we have to grow enough for ourselves first — the leftovers, we can sell.”

Thamturakit: A New Model for Agriculture — and for Life

Thamturakit— which translates to “A Fair Business” in Thai — was co-founded by Pun Pun Farms and Ajaan Yak, an expert in sufficiency economies in Thailand. “We wanted to see if we could create an entirely new business model for farmers where they were could access markets that they were in charge of themselves — to remove the middle-men,” says Reents.

To do this, they started with what they saw as the core element of creating a new model: a new kind of education. In order to become a member of the social enterprise, everyone must undergo a four-day training session — whether they’re a farmer, consumer, or someone wishing to make products from farmers’ crops. “This way, they get involved,” explains Reents. “They make connections, they get to know each other, they get to know the farmers. It’s hands-on — they get their hands dirty, help on the farms, and learn about farming techniques, the challenges facing farmers, and environmental issues — even if they aren’t farmers themselves.”

But the centers serve a deeper purpose, as well. “The learning centers started as a way to ask how we can learn to make life less complicated,” Jandai explains. “We want to know how we can live more easily. How can we live happily? How can we enjoy our life more?”

“Before I started Pun Pun, I used to work in Bangkok for seven years,” he explains. “I realized at that time that I couldn’t live in Bangkok anymore because city life is not for humans — it’s for robots. So when you live in the city, you cannot be human — you cannot think about love, you cannot think about freedom, you cannot think about happiness — you can think only about working and making money. It’s like a machine.”

It was this discontent that led Jandai to begin questioning the deeper inequalities that made up the conventional system. “Humans should not be hungry because we live on the most fertile planet in the universe. How can we be hungry in the middle of fertility?”

These questions brought Jandai back to the land. “When I worked in Bangkok, I worked more than eight hours per day every day but never had enough food to feed only one person. But when I went back to the land, I worked less than one hour per day and had enough food to feed six people.”

Between starting Pun Pun, running the education centers, and growing Thamturakit, one might think Jandai’s responsibilities made him even busier. Instead, it has brought him a deep sense of peace. “Life is so easy,” you’ll often hear him say. “Why do we design our lives to be so complicated?”

nce farmers have undergone the training, they can begin to sell their products through the network. “We have over 1,000 farmers across the country who are now involved in the enterprise,” says Reents. “Most of them started out by farming conventionally, but through the process of joining the enterprise, began to transition to an organic, self-sufficiency model.” The membership base has only grown from there; as of now, over 100,000 people of all positions in the food system and from all across the country have undergone their training.

Thamturakit is a largely volunteer-based organization, as well, with its members offering up skills like accounting or architecture to help keep costs low and giving urban residents a way to get involved and contribute to the cooperative’s success. “A lot of it is driven by the consumers themselves because people want to be involved with it,” says Reents. “People are just so disconnected with where their food comes from, what’s happening with farmers, what their struggles are, what their opportunities are, and what support they need from the public, so once they get the education and relationship-building, they really want to be involved if you open up the opportunity for them to do so.” This community-building is the core essence of what makes the model work. As Jandai puts it, “to be self-reliant, it means we have to rely on each other, also.”

“It started as an experiment to see how much of the system could be controlled directly by farmers, without having to rely on middlemen,” says Reents. But it expanded to become a space for relationship-building, education, and shared understanding between the groups that led to the movement becoming what it is today. “We cannot continue to be farming in the way that we are,” she explains. “We have to imagine something different.”

A New Pricing Model

One of the ongoing challenges for farmers is price fluctuation. “In the conventional market, the prices for produce fluctuate so much, which is so hard for farmers — they don’t know how many other farmers are growing the same things they’re growing, and how that will affect the final price they get,” explains Reents.

This new model addresses this in two innovative ways — by helping farmers transition to a new model of agriculture and by changing the pricing structure of the food that is sold through the network. Under the self-sufficiency economy model, farmers grow a wide range of crops: “You can’t grow organic rice only, buy the rest of your food, and sell through the network that way. This model is that you grow everything you need for your family and then you sell the extra that you have leftover.” This allows farmers to cut down on their food costs for their families while still making enough profit to sustain themselves and contributing positively to biodiversity and environmental health.

Those leftover crops are sometimes hard to sell, however, because farmers don’t have large quantities to distribute through other market-based mechanisms. In response, Thamturakit set up a pickup and delivery system that collects the small bunches of a variety of different crops and delivers them to members of the network. “This is the opposite of the model that’s conventionally done around us, which is where a farmer grows one variety of hybrid corn to sell to a company, and they’ll come one day and pick it up from you on one day and that’s all they get from you,” explains Reents. This approach celebrates an agricultural model that ensures that farmers are well-fed first, that they are paid fairly, and that the community benefits from access to the diverse crops that farmers grow.

They also had a plan to address price stability for farmers in the model’s design: instead of crops being bought based on their wider-market value, all the crops at Thamturakit’s markets are priced the same. Farmers’ crops are bought per kilo, regardless of the types of crops, allowing them to sell the entire diversity of the crops they grow while stabilizing their incomes.

“There have definitely been challenges with this,” admits Reents. At first, lower-value, easier to grow crops flooded the market when farmers knew they would get the same rate for those as they would for higher-value crops that are more difficult to grow. “But what they found is that in this model, everyone is very intricately involved with this company, so when we began to talk to their members about how this is an issue, you find that the members want this to work as well — they’re invested, and they see the value in the diversity, so it stopped being an issue.”

Building Equity in the Enterprise

The premise of Thamturakit was to disrupt the status quo of conventional agriculture; to build a more equitable way of growing, selling, and consuming food. To make the model viable while adhering to these values, members can buy shares in the organization — but rather than the size of the share correlating to the number of votes one has, each shareholder, regardless of the size of their share, gets one vote in the decision-making process of the organization.

“We need to design a new kind of business where the profits go to more people,” explains Jandai. “When people are buying shares, we don’t need them to be buying a lot — one share can be three or four dollars — but we want many people to be buying the shares. So this way, the profits are spreading to many more people. They aren’t expecting to make a lot of profit on their shares — they just want to support the idea, they want to see a new business that makes the food circle fair for everybody.”

The enterprise also does not accept funding from venture capitalists, banks, or other corporate sources, as they want to keep the enterprise focused on its values and on the people who are directly involved with agriculture, allowing them to make the decisions that are truly in everyone’s best interest: consumers, farmers, and the planet, alike.

“We want to have organic food be the same price as chemical food; we want to expand the amount of land that can be organic land, we want to have more clean water,” says Jandai. “So the business that we do has to be fair for everybody, and it has to be good for the environment, the ecosystem, everything.”

The response has been enormous — at one point, Thamturakit was at risk of losing the land that one of their learning centers was housed on, so they called on their community to help by inviting them to buy shares in the organization. 6,000 people — mostly people who had already undergone the training — donated a total of over five million U.S. dollars to help, and they were able to retain the land. “People weren’t investing to make a lot of money, says Reents. “They see the value of this work, they see the changes that it brings to have farmers and consumers undergo this training, and they want to see it grow.”

Although the organization has been able to build and finance large ventures through crowdfunding, Reents emphasizes that this isn’t its biggest accomplishment. “The focus is less on how much money we can raise; it’s about asking how we can think outside the model that we currently live under. What happens when we try to imagine creating a different model? It might be really small to start — ours was small at the beginning and it took a while for farmers to become interested — and it takes time to build that momentum. But I think the main point of it is connections. It’s about belonging and participation, and what can happen with that when you get more people involved and choose to grow together.”

ince humans began farming thousands of years ago, agriculture has served as the fundamental basis for our societal order. It has shaped our ways of living and relating to each other more than arguably any other development in our history. And since the beginning, hierarchies have existed — disparities between those who produce the food and those who distribute it, between those who own the land and those who work it — and these disparities have endured, ordering and shaping our present-day societies into what they are. We often romanticize agriculture’s past, while ignoring the fact that it has been steeped in injustice and hierarchy from its conception.

This model reimagines that hierarchy. The birth of Thamturakit shines out as an example of what is possible when the control of agriculture is placed back into the hands of those most directly involved; when sustainability, community, and equity are built into the foundations of a system; and what happens when a few people are brave enough to disrupt the conventional model in the pursuit of something better.

As long as an unjust agricultural system endures, inequality will remain as a bedrock of our larger society. In reimagining this new model for agriculture, Thamturakit’s founders have shown us that an entirely new way of ordering society — one that is not only sustainable, but truly just — is not only possible; it’s already taking place.

Written by Thea Walmsley

To learn more about Pun Pun’s mission and to support their work, http://www.punpunthailand.org/

Confronting Unjust Power in the Food System

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