By Megan Brookens
KHON KAEN – Vibrant colors blur as the market crowd grows, and the tantalizing scent of frying fish fills the air as the sky darkens. A few people with microphones shout out their deals in the middle of the street, customers and vendors exchange goods along each side, and buyers try to get the most for their money.
Every Friday evening between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. the Khon Kaen Green Market pops up near Nikon Samran Road. It might appear just like any ordinary market in the Northeast but the Khon Kaen Green Market, which celebrates its first anniversary on December 18, is of a different kind.
While other markets in the city mostly sell produce conventionally grown with the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the Khon Kaen Green Market strives to sell only chemical-free products, creating healthy and safe options for the city’s people. The wide variety of products sold includes fresh fruits and vegetables, naturally dyed fabric, carefully prepared snacks, floral teas, and even some herbal cosmetics and soaps.
Today, Khon Kaen residents are celebrating one year of having increased access to healthy food. Organic farmers and vendors are also celebrating a year of having a reliable place to sell their products.
The Green Market was established last year through the collaboration of many groups, including the municipality, vendors, and consumers interested in purchasing safer foods. While customer demand was crucial in starting the Green Market, there was also significant demand from producers, as many lacked a venue to sell and promote their organic goods.
Josh Macknick, a 35-year-old restaurant owner and Khon Kaen resident of seven years, involved himself in starting the Green Market in 2013 for the desire to know where his food was coming from.
After a year and a half of meetings with the municipality and collaborating with community organizers, the mayor of Khon Kaen gave the project a green light.
Mr. Macknick and other market organizers used the waiting time to focus on how to maximize the success of the market. They toured giant organic farms, home gardens, and other organic markets in order to strategize and learn best practices.
In Thailand, as well as other countries, organic markets have been gaining popularity in the last decade, particularly in major cities where access to clean, fresh food is more limited. When the Green Revolution swept Thailand in the 1970s, many farmers transitioned from traditional subsistence farming to chemical agriculture, reducing the supply of organic food.
In the early 1980s, many local NGOs, community organizers, and farmers formed the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) to promote sustainable agriculture activism in Thailand. The AAN facilitates forums for farmers to share their experiences and advocates for sustainable agriculture policies, including the promotion of organic farming.
Currently, the AAN supports organic and sustainable agriculture movements in Thailand. It spreads awareness of the risks of using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. It also advocates for stricter regulations because many banned chemicals are still widely available and used in Thailand, AAN members say.
In the past decade, the number of organic farmers has increased, but organic produce still makes up about only 1 percent of the food market in Thailand, with 50 percent of organic products being exported.
According to a study by the Ministry of Commerce, organic agriculture farmland accounted for 314,000 rai (50,000 hectares) in 2013, a 13.9 percent increase from 2012. The ministry plans to promote Thailand as the ASEAN hub of organic farming and trade by 2020.
While producers value organic farming for different reasons, many list health as the primary motivation. Some farmers have been growing organically their whole lives, but others – such as Surritrat Palapan, who runs a farm twenty kilometers outside of Khon Kaen, ended up switching to organic after many years of chemical use.
Mr. Surritrat attended a university training seminar about the benefits of growing in season and using fewer chemicals. “My father had gotten sick directly from the chemicals I was using,” he said. “He had high levels of toxins in his blood and I decided that this kind of farming wasn’t worth it.”
The AAN links chemicals commonly used for farming to various ailments ranging from minor skin rashes and chest pain to cancers, dangerous infections, diabetes, and even death from chemical poisoning. These toxins are dangerous to both the farmer and the consumer as they can be transmitted through pesticides sprayed in the air, residue from fertilizer in water sources, and the ingestion of treated crops.
Mr. Surritrat takes pride in the fact that his products do not harm his customers’ health. “If I make customers happy and healthy, I feel good about my job,” he said with a smile.
Panida Kanhakun, a 54-year-old customer, comes to the Green Market every Friday after work because she too is conscious of her health. “I would buy more organic products if they were available more often, and not just on Fridays,” she said. Ms. Panida said she feels more connected to her food since she knows where it is coming from.
Although all Green Market vendors have products that are chemical-free, the market hosts farmers who are diverse in the products they sell and the agricultural methods they use. For example, some use compost from organic material instead of chemical fertilizer and others use plants instead of chemicals to make dye for their products.
Some vendors have attained certifications from organizations like the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), and Organic Agriculture Certification Thailand (ACT), but the majority of participating farmers originally had no idea where to start the complex certification process.
According to the organizers of the Green Market, the majority of vendors are currently held accountable to organic standards by a participatory guarantee system (PGS), most commonly defined by IFOAM as a “locally focused quality assurance system.” This system certifies producers based on “active participation of stakeholders” and is “built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange.”
Green Market organizers make it their mission to disperse knowledge about the various types of certifications and provide support in the certification process, with the hope of ultimately inspiring other farmers in the region to follow suit.
“Our PGS process is actually quite strict,” said Mr. Macknick. “A member of the Khon Kaen Food Safety Board, myself, and an AAN representative visit the farms where we run through a seventeen-point qualifying questionnaire and inspection,” he continued.
Mr. Macknick explained that each farmer must meet with the certification committee individually. The committee tests one kilogram of soil and one or two items growing at each farm in a lab.
Some vendors at the Green Market are not officially certified because of the lengthy vetting process, but have been approved by the Green Market team. Random testing at the market is also done regularly to ensure that products are truly chemical-free.
While vendors from the Green Market can ensure that their own agricultural methods are safe, there can be other factors outside of their control. Sometimes protecting crops from contamination can be difficult, especially for farmers located near the city or close to chemical farms. A strategically placed road or blockade might be the only thing keeping the chemicals from getting into their crops.
In Maha Sarakham Province, a quaint organic farm of five rai stands out amidst fields of mono-cropping. For the owners of the farm, Green Market vendors Ting Palangjai and her younger sister, organic farming is a way of life. “This food we grow is like medicine for both the consumer and the producer,” Ms. Ting said proudly.
Ms. Ting and her sister grow many local varieties of plants that are well suited to the climate of Isaan and require few extra inputs, such as irrigation or fertilizers. Her farm is teeming with plants of every color, intertwining in symbiotic patterns. Oddly shaped purple wildflowers have recently sprouted in the wooded areas between her cropland, possibly from the rich nutrients in the soil.
While Ms. Ting’s primary focus is on subsistence farming and leading a self-sufficient life, she sells peanuts and rice at the Green Market when she grows more than she and her family can eat themselves. She also sells passion fruit drinks, herbal snacks, and sesame seeds when they are in season. Ms. Ting believes that it is important to grow her own food because she wants to avoid consuming the chemicals that are used to grow produce at conventional markets
As its first year of operation comes to an end, the Green Market team wants to continue to focus on getting their farmers certified as organic, and to start educating consumers more about the dangers of chemicals in food sold in general markets. This education about the benefits of organic farming can start in local schools, Mr. Macknick said.
“We are currently focused on starting school farms at the 11 schools under the Municipal government’s authority,” he said. Green Market organizers hope that focusing on the consumer will create more demand, inspiring other farmers to start growing or producing organically.
Mr. Macknick and his fellow market organizers hope that in the coming years, the Khon Kaen Green Market will have “a greater impact on the local and regional community at large, whether it be through informing more people of dietary dangers and benefits, inspiring a positive view and greater appreciation of agricultural workers, or just making it trendy to go green,” he said.