CHIANG RAI – For a young Thai with a university degree, fluent English and work experience in the U.S., Walaiporn Phumirat made an unlikely career choice. While many of her former classmates were competing for city jobs, she returned to her rustic village in Chiang Rai Province, in the once-notorious Golden Triangle, and became an organic strawberry farmer.
In the five years since then, Walaiporn, 32, has become a one-person rural success story, deftly using social media (she has 20,000 Facebook followers) and much-improved airline connections to establish a growing market for her Backyard Strawberry brand in Bangkok, 800km to the south.
I chanced upon Walaiporn’s 3,200-sq.-meter strawberry patch in scenic Wiang Sa village at the end of a road trip through the mist-shrouded mountains and lush, fertile valleys where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet.
I had spent the previous week in very different surroundings — touring vast industrial estates, car factories and port facilities outside Bangkok. So munching sweet strawberries with the effervescent, entrepreneurial Walaiporn, her face shaded from the sun by a straw hat, offered a more grass-roots perspective on Thailand’s progress.
At its simplest, Walaiporn’s story attests to the Golden Triangle’s transformation from the main source of the global heroin trade to a bustling center of licit agribusiness straddling an important new trade route between Southeast Asia and China.
On another level, her success reflects the demand from Asia’s increasingly sophisticated urban middle classes for food provenance — and their willingness to pay for it. Walaiporn, who is better known by her nickname, “Be,” charges 600 baht ($17.62) a kilogram for her strawberries — far more than many imported varieties readily available on the shelves of upmarket Bangkok food halls. She has no distribution system in the capital, so online purchasers must arrange collection from either Suvarnabhumi or Don Muang airports.
Even so, a small but passionate group of consumers is happy to bear the inconvenience and cost because they know her strawberries are organic, flavorsome and sent by air from Chiang Rai within hours of being picked. “Yes, it’s easy to buy strawberries in any supermarket,” Vilailuck Sriya, a Bangkok secretary, told me. “But I like to eat right, eat organic and eat seasonal. I love Backyard Strawberry.”
IN YOUR DREAMS
Walaiporn’s lifestyle choice also offers hope that Thailand’s urban-rural divide may not be quite as unbridgeable as many imagine. Far from scorning rural life, many of her middle class city-dwelling customers envy her. “Some customers tell me that I live in their dreams,” she told me as we walked from her fields to the two-story wooden house she has built nearby. “They say they would like a life like this, growing their own good food.”
Vilailuck, who was born in rural Loei Province, certainly feels that way. “The inspiration Be gave me was to dream to go back to my home town, live a natural life and escape the chaos of this capital,” she said.
The daughter of a schoolteacher who became mayor of their local district, Walaiporn studied tourism marketing at Chiang Rai’s Mae Fah Luang University, and worked at SeaWorld theme parks in Florida and Texas during vacations. But after graduating, she decided she wanted to find a way to live and work in her home village.
Her first season was far from idyllic. Although strawberry farming in northern Thailand was not new — the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej had long promoted it as a substitute for opium growing in neighboring Chiang Mai Province — it had been less successful in Chiang Rai. Of the first 60,000 plants Walaiporn planted, 20,000 died within the first two weeks.
“I felt sad and upset,” she told me. “Being a farmer is not that easy.” That is one reason, she said, why many of Thailand’s farmers choose the simpler route of producing less valuable, non-organic crops. But she hopes her subsequent success will show what can be achieved.
Walaiporn’s organic strawberry patch is still a small operation. Even so, it is rapidly gaining attention. This year, Thailand’s Channel 5 television network broadcast a documentary on her. And her social media posts have inspired foreign visitors to travel to Wiang Sa to spend working holidays at Backyard Strawberry.
“Here, it would be thought quite freaky for girls in their 20s and 30s to run a farm,” said Yoon Hyein, 27, from Jeongeup-si, South Korea, who spent a month picking strawberries in return for free board. “I think she is doing the right thing for her village and also the whole world.”