Seven years ago, Nongluck Asavasakulchai, now 53, left her job as a nurse in the capital to become a farmer in her hometown in Nakhon Phanom, about 715km northeast of Bangkok. There, in 2014, she founded Community Enterprise Rice Processing Tambon Ban Phueng (Khaowsook) after the price of rice hit record lows. Her goal was to find alternative options and the solution she turned to was organic rice.
Starting from 19 members in the first year, the group now has 2,400 members who produce about 4,000 tonnes of organic rice every year. Over 70% of their produce is for export with major customers located in Europe, Canada, the United States and Hong Kong.
“Being a nurse for 13 years, I saw all kinds of sicknesses. One of the common cause of these illnesses is the fact that we eat food contaminated with chemical hazards,” said Nongluck, president of the community enterprise, better known as Khaowsook group.
“I thought about my parents. I wanted us to be safe and healthy, so I quit my secure job and came back home to become a farmer. I wanted to produce rice that was different so that we could sell it at a higher price.”
Before embarking on her new career path, she prepared herself for work on farms. She attended numerous organic farming courses and visited organic fields in various places in Thailand as well as Australia and New Zealand. Equipped with new knowledge, she persuaded her relatives and neighbours to stop using artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides and instead turn to a natural way of farming. At that time, the popularity of organic farming was still in its infancy, so it was difficult to convince farmers to change.
“They did not buy my idea. They believed that without chemicals, the quantity of rice would drop and it would make their lives harder during a time they were already suffering from reduced income,” she said.
However, Nongluck decided to live by example. She worked on her mother’s farm, a total of 70 rai, along with some relatives. Here, she applied all the knowledge she had gained and began to look for an agency to certify the farmlands and their products for food safety.
Within one year, her group received the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) label as a guarantee of food safety from the Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives. The group branded their product as “Khaowsook”, meaning happy rice. The decision to give it this name was because they wanted people who eat their rice to be healthy and happy. Also, the term referred to the name of Ban Sook Charoen Community where they live and it also is a reference to the name of the first village leader, ta (uncle) Sook.
Since then, Khaowsook has become recognised as the organic brand of Nakhon Phanom.
“At that time, I was happy that people bought our rice at 50 baht per kilogramme. It was much a higher rate than the 10-15 baht per kilogramme we received from the rice mills,” she said.
The rise in price was an invitation to other farmers to turn to organic farming. Hence, they became members of the Khaowsook group as well and one year after starting, the number of members in the group increased from 19 to 60 while the total of farmland area expanded from 70 rai to over 400 rai.
However, Nongluck knew that the group needed more than just a GAP certification. Therefore, she applied for international organic certifications from the European Union (EU) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2015. Soon after, she received the green light to use EU and USDA organic certifications and these stamps opened up opportunities for the group to export their products.
The group began producing a variety of jasmine rice, including khao hang or germinated jasmine rice (100-150 baht per kilogramme) and khao nam nom or green jasmine rice (almost ripe jasmine rice), which is priced at 200-300 baht per kilogramme.
Yet another unexpected opportunity came when the group was invited to participate in the World’s Jasmine Rice Fair in Surat Thani in 2015.
“Our group was selected to represent organic jasmine rice of Nakhon Phanom. We were told to prepare 200kg of jasmine rice for sale in the fair, however, I thought the amount was too little to cope with our expenses, so we prepared another two tonnes and gradually transported them every day via public bus to a co-op in Surat Thani before the fair started,” she said.
Nongluck’s vision proved to be right. Having international organic certifications made customers’ decisions easier and all of their product sold out before the fair came to a close.
“We earned almost a million baht from the fair. I flew back to our community and called for a meeting immediately. I told the members that we did not have to do anything else and that our sole focus must be on producing high-quality organic rice,” she said.
After the event, Nongluck realised that there was a demand for healthy food, especially in the high GDP cities in the South like Surat Thani, Krabi and Hat Yai. As the group needed to find more supply, Nongluck decided to join hands with other organic farmers in the neighbouring provinces of Sakon Nakhon and Mukdahan. They formed a cluster of Sanuk organic rice farmers in 2016 (The term sanuk refers to the initial letters of the three provinces).
The network selected Nongluck as the leader. Today, it has 69 groups of farmers. While some groups are cooperatives, others are community enterprises. Each group has a large number of members.
“Our cluster is the largest jasmine organic rice producer in the Northeast,” she said.
After establishing the cluster, Nongluck wanted each province to have an organic rice mill to assure customers their product was 100% organic and that it began its journey on the farm before reaching a rice processing facility. Based on research, only two of the 69 groups could build a facility for operating a rice milling machine that can produce at least 30 tonnes per day. One of these groups was Khaowsook.
“We offer our members 2-5 baht on top of market price when they sell us their rice grain for milling. Our members have two options. They can either receive their money right away or keep the rice in our stock and sell to us when they need money or when they think the price is right for them,” she said.
The group also provides a quality control service. They also have a team to audit and cross-check the organic farming process of the members. Today, the Khaowsook group produces organic jasmine rice and organic processed food. The group produces 38 products, including several kinds of jasmine and glutinous rice, rice bran oil, rice flour, instant rice drink, rice cookies and rice crackers. Moreover, members also produce other products on their organic farms such as sun-dried bananas and herbal tea. Each product is certified and guaranteed by the Food and Drug Administration to be safe.
Additionally, the group’s milling facility has received the ISO9001:2015 standard and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) certification for quality and safety in food management. To meet international standards, the group has received major international organic certifications from the USDA, EU, Canada, China, Japan and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
“Being certified is very important for our products as it guarantees our quality. I am lucky that I was once a nurse. The job taught me about the importance of having a standard. It shaped my thinking and instilled a sense of caring for details, which are skills I have applied to manage our group,” she said.
Khaowsook also makes use of technology to manage its database and stock. It uses a Quick Response (QR) system for tracing products. The group recently integrated Global Positioning System (GPS) technology through the support of Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (Gistda) to let customers know where their rice was grown when they scan a QR code on the package.
This strategy encourages farmers to improve their product quality and be proud of their work. This tracing system so far only covers 51 farmers but there are plans to expand it to reach every farmer in the future.
Nongluck has an ambitious plan to eliminate the use of plastic bags. The group plans to work with a team at the Ubon Ratchathani University Science Park to find a sustainable solution.
“If we can use leftover materials such as rice straws or rice husks to produce biodegradable packaging, we will achieve the goal of ensuring our products are 100% environmentally-friendly from start to finish,” she said.
Today, these materials are sold to livestock farms in the Northeast.
“While it might appear things are smooth, we face problems daily, mostly about managing people. For me, it is not a big issue though. We live and learn.”
When looking back over the past seven years, Nongluck has managed to achieve so much more than what she expected when she started.
“I’ve worked hard not for myself, but for our members also. This has motivated me to do more to make us succeed. However, what we have achieved so far always makes me proud,” she added.