In today’s age, where we have our personal trainers, doctors and lawyers, why shouldn’t we have our personal farmer? That was the food for thought offered by Arrut Navaraj, managing director of Sampran Riverside, at the Travelport Live conference in Bangkok earlier this month when he spoke of how he’s starting an Organic Tourism movement in Thailand, and encouraged us to get onboard.
The movement means getting hotels and restaurants in the country to source produce from the collective of 170 farmers that he’s formed so that “you, as the traveller, get to eat directly from the farmers”.
Navaraj said, “We are what we eat and we eat so often that we should care more about what we eat, and know the people who bring us our food. We should know the farmers and when we buy directly from them, we cut out the middlemen and the farmers benefit. “We don’t pay more but the farmers get more.”
One third of Thailand’s populations are farmers – around 20 million – and “we should support them,” he told the audience.
In this video, a farmer talks about how she lost her farm due to dwindling margins and being cut out by the middlemen and how the Organic Tourism movement helped her get back the deed to her farm. Hoteliers who have come onboard include Goh Choo Leng, general manager of Le Meridien and Plaza Athenee Bangkok and Marisa Sukosol of Siam Hotels.
Navaraj talked about how he’s trying to get different clusters in Thailand to adopt the Sampran model of facilitating organic tourism between travellers and farmers.
Putting together the Sampran model wasn’t easy. Navaraj’s interest in organic farming started when he took over the reins of the third generation family business at the Rose Garden. He was looking to source local produce for the resort’s restaurants.
He visited the farms nearby but found almost all had given up organic farming methods for faster, commercial means. Over time, he managed to persuade them to revert to their original, natural methods of farming.
“I told them I’d buy whatever they grew, direct from them. That means no middlemen. It doesn’t increase our costs and they get more money for their vegetables.”
Over time, more farmers joined the collective and today, more than 170 farmers are part of the Sampran Collective.
Putting together the collective has been challenging. You couldn’t get a more fragmented network of individuals, each with their own interests. But Navaraj has persevered, winning awards from institutions such as PATA and the Tourism Authority of Thailand as well as grants to help farmers find their commercial footing while they migrated to organic farming methods.
His latest project is to apply for a grant to use blockchain technology to help with the distribution and authentication of food produced by the collective. “With blockchain, we will be able to help farmers connect directly to buyers and we will be able to authenticate the origin of produce to remove fraud,” he said.
The Organic Tourism movement is the latest in a series of initiatives Navaraj and his brother, Anak, have implemented ever since they took over the family business started by their late grandmother, Khunying Valee Yuvaboon who, inspired by the gardens she saw in places such as the UK and Hawaii, wanted to create a similar retreat for foreign travellers and Thais.
Their mother, Suchada Yuvaboon, came into the business in the early 1980s and grew it into a destination in its own right, attracting nearly 20 million visitors to its Thai cultural show to the day it closed just this month.
The site for the show will be closed for six months and will be converted into the Patom Organic Village showcasing a farmer’s market, open factory and organic farm.
The name change from Rose Garden to Sampran Riverside itself was symbolic of the direction the grandsons wanted to take it – Sampran was actually the original name of the plot of land bought by his grandfather as a home-away-from-Bangkok for the family.
“We wanted to bring back to its roots,” said Navaraj, who came into the family business in 2005 after a career in investment banking. “We didn’t have roses anymore anyway and it felt strange when people came to the Rose Garden and asked, where are the roses?
“The type of travellers we were getting to Thailand was changing and our generation was also changing. There’s a new-found awareness and appreciation of Thai way of life.”