CHIANG RAI – In the remote village of Baan Huai Nam Yen, in Chiang Rai, many hill tribe farmers are doing their best to take care of their chickens. They have built coops far from the community and roads to ensure that their fowl live in peace. They feed the chicken with clean rice grains, beans and even insects. After meals, the chickens are allowed to roam freely around fruit plantations, grazing for food and stretching their legs before their next mealtime.
After working as a volunteer English teacher in Thailand, Gomes decided to quit his job in the US and return to Thailand to run an organic egg farming business. Gomes chose to work with poor hill tribe farmers in order to share benefits with the community.
Hilltribe Organics provides chickens, animal feed — all organic — veterinarian services and medication, as well as building materials. Half of the villagers are Akha, while the rest are Karen. Both groups are very skilled at building huts and coops from natural materials.
Situated in the mountainous areas, the free-range farms are made up of long coops with thatched roofs and bamboo walls. The ground is covered with straw and rice husk. Bamboo baskets are placed among partitions, which allow the hens to lay their eggs in privacy. Chicken food is served in bamboo trunks. The entire farm is built from natural materials, except the fence, which requires a mesh to protect the chickens from predators.
“The mountain breeze keeps the whole farm cool. As the temperature ranges between 15-20 degrees Celsius, the chickens are very happy. They eat, run and lay eggs,” says Gomes.
Soil is regularly checked for traces of chemicals. “We are quite serious about no chemical usage,” says Gomes. “The land must be left unused for three years for soil preparation and to let all chemicals dissolve. No chemicals usage is even allowed in nearby areas.
Sometimes, the chickens are given extra food like fruits or insects. It is difficult to describe exactly what the eggs taste like, explains Gomes, because it completely depends on the natural foods that the chickens digest, which differs from season to season.
“Sometime we feed chickens with tussock moths, which are considered hi-so snacks,” he laughs. In the countryside, tussock moths are often stir-fried and salted, making it a popular snack for the people, as well.
During a visit to one of the organic farms, many of the curious chickens pecked at our shoes, perhaps checking to see if they were edible. We picked up a hen, which was nearly 3kg in weight, and it seemed very healthy.
“On some stressful days, I wish I were a chick here. I could just eat some food, lay eggs and go to sleep,” says Gomes, with a smile.
Gomes’ company buys back all the eggs at 1 baht each. Although this is lower than other companies, which buy eggs at around 2.20 baht each, start-up costs run into millions of baht, so it eventually evens out.
Gomes set up his first farm in December last year. He currently runs 14 free-range, organic egg farms (each of which houses around 600-650 chickens), with more planned for the future.
“It was quite difficult to begin this project because no one believed in me, but now there are 85 families asking to join.”
A 48-year-old Akha man named Laokor Chikor was the first to become involved with Hilltribe Organics. Laokor makes around 500 baht a day on an average from his farm; more than enough to support all of his seven children in school.
“I used to do corn and rice farming, but it was very difficult to make ends meet,” Laokor says.
On average, each family earns around 12,000 baht a month from their farms, without having to invest any capital. Many of the hill tribe families also earn extra from growing organic corn, beans and rice.
“Though hilltribers live among nature, they have no idea about organic farming, so we should give hilltribe farmers the opportunity to learn about it, otherwise, they will continue with the old style of agriculture and use harmful chemicals forever,” Karen veterinarian Decha Saenluang said.
A Hilltribe Organics’ egg has a much brighter yolk and more egg white when compared to Thai branded eggs. Though the branded egg is cheaper and a bit bigger, the question of which one tastes better, however, completely depends on personal taste. Many believe that the organic egg has much more natural flavour.
Organic eggs are an interesting option for health-conscious people who want to support environmentally-friendly businesses. It is also nicer to see happy chickens and hill tribe farmers.
“We do not offer only eggs,” says Gomes, “but are trying to reduce global warming, give people opportunities to save the environment and make merit.” – By Peerawat Jariyasombat