We met Tor more than 3 hours before the scheduled meeting. We arrived at the shopping mall agreed as a meeting point directly from Bangkok train station, planning to wait in some cafeteria, working on the GoodNewsLetter or other things. Before we managed to find any place to sit a man standing in front of us asked:
He recognized us after our picture and within 5 minutes he opened us his rice world.
I’m going to Unilever to sell my organic rice. There is no point for you to wait here, just come and help me there!
Shortly after we got to know types, names and prices of his rice, as well as 2-3 words in Thai language. We also smiled a lot and it was enough for 3 hours of selling. Sometimes it was very calm so we could talk with Tor and start to get to know him. Sometimes there were so many clients that additional hands to help proved to be very useful. Upon finishing the selling, we had a 4 hours ride by car (with a break for a delicious Thai dinner in Tor’s friend restaurant) to reach Tor’s place in Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima). On the way, he introduced his reality by telling us how he became a farmer.
I did many jobs in my life. I worked as a chef, I had my own restaurant, but I’m not really a gifted cook. Before farming I used to work as a broker in Bangkok. I earned good money but I wasn’t really happy. That’s why I decided to quit everything and come back to my hometown to become a farmer. I like to see the product of my work. If you plant rice you see how it grows, changing every day.
Tor came back to his family area, bought the ground and started to grow rice.
I’ve decided to come back here also because I missed my family. I wanted to be close to them, they can also support me. But coming back wasn’t a piece of cake. Being in Bangkok for so many years I got used to another lifestyle. People here are very stubborn, not open to trying out new things. It’s very difficult to convince them to do any change.
It’s not easy to fight against habits and customs. Tor mentioned often not even the family understands. His main effort to affect the life of local farmers is convincing them to move from chemical to organic farming. It’s a very difficult decision, connected not only with big risk but also with loss, at least for the first few years.
It was not so long ago when all the farmers did organic. Even our parents' generation didn’t use any fertilizer. But nowadays nobody believes you can grow anything without chemicals. Organic means also finding a new mill and a new market. In my area I’m the only one and a few others are already willing to follow. But I have to test the market first. Once my business is stable I will have more arguments to convince other farmers to change. I hope they will follow me. It is challenging from both sides: farmers, who are not so easy with changes, but also clients who just don’t care. They want cheaper rice. There is not much awareness about organic rice in our society. Pookpintokao helps a lot.
The contact with Unilever was possible exactly thanks to Pookpintokao – the organization which builds relations between organic farmers and potential clients, and which we described in the previous issue of the GoodNewsLetter. Tor got from them also 200 phone numbers of people interested in buying organic rice, who he started calling one by one after our departure. But this is just one small part of his market. Tor has a huge amount of rice which he tries to sell using many different methods.
Only yesterday some guy called me. He wants quite a big amount of rice flour every month. The problem is that I’ve never made the flour before. And I don’t know whom I can trust. I can’t just order it to the average place, it’s too risky. If the flour is not good enough, I can lose my reputation. You build trust slowly, step by step. It’s much more important than any big order.
After a long inner struggle Tor finally rejected the order, but the client decided to wait for him as long as needed. The flour is the next item on the long list of rice products he sells.
During our few days staying we had the chance to try his delicious rice ice cream, we helped with cleaning and packing the rice soap, we talked about his experience with producing rice wafers, rice wine, and rice noodles. What’s more, Tor immediately put into practice our suggestions.
I’ve tried to pack different types of rice with different colors into one package as you suggested and it seems to work. Can you pack some more for me?
Tor’s imagination is not limited to his products. He has already tried to open a local restaurant (idea postponed for later) and to start a foundation which aims at helping children from poor families to go to school. It’s only the beginning but Tor asked us about all advice and possible solutions to make it work properly.
I think that helping people, giving, is essential in one’s life. I want to do something good for others. And it returns to me as happiness. At the end of the day I just feel happy that I could do something to help.
After a few days with Tor I feel it’s completely true. The first picture that comes to my mind when I think of him? Smile. Always smiling. A very warm attitude toward other people, his family, workers. And the ability of tackling problems before they really appear. Few times we were discussing something with Andrea, close to arguing, and Tor cut it solving the problems by one sentence or move. His caring and warmth is going together with a pragmatic approach to work. Tor quickly and effectively delegates tasks, plans what should happen and when. He was able to use our few days' help. Starting from cleaning and shucking the rice with three manually operated machines, to weighing and packing till transporting and selling – in only a few days we contributed to all these steps, having the chance to experience the hard life of a farmer. Especially the organic farmer, who can’t sell the rice to the normal mill.
If I sell the rice to the normal mill, they just mix it with the other, chemical rice. For now I do it manually together with my brother-in-law. I also opened my own shop to sell the organic rice and above all I’m building the trust within the community. Sometimes I give people rice for free, so they can try it, taste it and decide if they want to come back for more.
And slowly they come back. Building the trust is a slow process, it requires a lot of patience. The same is with growing rice. Tor sows twice a year (a lot of farmers are able to do it only once) – around July and March. For the next months the rice grows soaked in water, vulnerable to the attacks of animals (if it’s truly organic) and to the elements. Around November and June it is harvesting time, hard physical work in stifling heat, which requires quite a lot of strength and patience. The rest of the time Tor is busy with processing the rice as well as looking for new clients. Organic crops are always connected with risks: does nature let it survive? Do the animals eat it before? This is one of the ways to distinguish a chemical crop from an organic one – are there animals around? Are there crabs and fish in the water in which rice is soaked? Are there birds and insects flying around? If yes, it means they didn’t die from chemicals and the rice is also safe. But how many consumers care about that? Are they enough to allow farmers like Tor to survive and not be forced to go back to mass production? Responsibility lies in our hands as consumers.
Chamlong Dokkratok (Tor) – Organic farmer from the area of Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima), Thailand.
Contact thanks to Pookpintokao, a project which foster the relationship between organic farmers and potential customers.
About Tor’s farm
About Pookpintokao in their website and on Facebook