Raitong Organics: Advice for Organic Farmers and Makers

November 4, 2016 | ProgressTH Raitong Organics, based in Sisaket, Thailand, has provided a good example of just how far a single farm can take organic agriculture. Selling to customers both inside Thailand and abroad, Raitong Organics has been active in the organic farming community for years. 

We recently interviewed Bryan Hugill (pictured above, right) of Raitong Organics to find out more on how farmers interested in making the transition from conventional agriculture to organic agriculture could get started. We also wanted to know what he thought about the role makerspaces could play in developing innovations for organic farmers.

We begin by asking about Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), as this is the easiest certification for farmers to obtain when switching over to organic agriculture, and is the system used by several of the organic farmers we are currently involved in networking with.

1. What organic certification system do you currently use and what are your thoughts on PGS? What could be done to improve PGS, or what would be a better existing system aspiring organic networks in Thailand could use?
We’ve been certified organic by the EU and Canada for several years, although I would love to see local PGS systems develop and flourish; however, the challenge that we keep running into in PGS is credibility, both in terms of the actual certification process and the corruptibility of the current implementation process. Ideally, I feel that a good PGS system should have the basic elements that we’ve been working on for the past couple of years with P3+C, our own homebrew PGS system (which needs a much sexier name, obviously).

P3+C is based on Open Source code, Open Data, complete transparency and accountability. As far as we know, it’s also the first PGS system to bring in consumers/customers as a key part of the process, overlays data on GIS mapping, geolocates and timestamps every audit through the use of a mobile phone application (as opposed to paper), holds a complete record of all past audits and corrective measures, is extremely cheap for food producers to be a part of, and presents this raw data to viewers to also make their own assessment of whether they want to support that farmer or not (beyond whether they pass organic standards or not).

It’s still very early days though, and we have a long way to go before we’re able to present something workable to our farmers, but the concept is solid and we’re looking for volunteers who want to work with us to develop it into something that can be used nationally and beyond.
2. What advice would you give traditional farmers who are now switching over to organic agriculture, especially those also trying to move away from “middle men” and connect with customers directly?
The best advice is to learn as much as you can about what you’re trying to do, and then to jump in and do it. It’ll be tough the first few years, especially if your soil is very damaged, and finding a receptive market will take some time. Link up with other organic farmers, and try to find mentors who are able to think about the bigger principles and are able to understand your situation. And yes, amazingly, there was productive farm life before agrochemicals.
3. What advice do you have gained from your experience for organic farmers in terms of marketing directly to customers?
Marketing to customers is not easy, especially as everyone has an opinion and a different demand, and these change with the weather. Ideally, you should develop your farm as best you can, focus on building incredible soil, share what you’re doing via social media, take part in markets, and invite people to come see what you’re doing and to take part. Marketing to customers is not a sterile formulaic process...it takes a lot of time, energy, perseverance and honesty. And you need to believe in what you’re doing, be willing to always improve, and be willing to admit when you’re wrong. Customers will see this, and they will come to you eventually and be loyal to you and your products.
4. What role, if any, do you see makerspaces playing in helping expand independent, organic agriculture? Have there been any instances in which you as a farmer or distributor of organic produce could have benefited from a local makerspace and the coders, designers, and personal manufacturing equipment (I.e. 3D printers) found there?
As rural Thailand greys, a new generation of farmers is taking over that grew up with the internet, data on demand, social media, Open Source, Open Data, IoT, etc. This is a profound shift in culture from the traditional farming system, where a farmer and his family has to physically see and do everything on the farm 24/7, which is exhausting and not really cost-effective.
Hackerspaces and IoT are allowing farmers to learn much more about their farms now, from small hyper-local weather stations, realtime soil moisture sensors, irrigation systems controlled from smartphones, the use of homebrew drones for aerial photography and precision pest control, and so much more. Previously, to do things like this would have been prohibitively expensive and every piece of equipment would have been a black box, but this is all changing rapidly now with hackerspaces taking a keen interest in working with food producers.

The best part is that this really takes the regular reality that farmers are tinkerers / makers by nature, and inserting a much more hi-tech element that is understandable. In turn, farmers are also able to work with the hackerspaces to improve those pieces of equipment / processes by sharing the data that’s collected openly and in real time.

5. What role does social media play in promoting and marketing for organic agriculture? Would training at makerspaces regarding photography, social media networking, and basic marketing help farmers become more independent and connect better with potential customers and markets? If not, what would?
Social media is critical to all business and ventures these days, not just farming, especially as more and more consumers and customers are pushing for transparency and accountability beyond pieces of paper (certification). They’re also keen to learn more about day-to-day activities that make the farmer real, and sometimes they see projects/activities that they want to take part in or help out with, which ordinarily would be impossible to know about.

About the other elements that could be learned through a hackerspace (photography, marketing, electronics, 3D printing, woodworking, metal fabrication, sewing, brewing, etc.), absolutely, but it’s vital to remember the time constraints on farmers who already tend to work from 4-5am until 10pm-midnight, so it’s usually more effective to take the training out of the classroom and try to turn it into a real project that can be implemented with the farmer(s) in-situ.

Follow our work here: http://www.raitongorganicsfarm.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/RaitongOrganicsFarm
Final Thoughts...

Bryan points out that while makerspaces and the talent and technology found there present many opportunities to improve organic agriculture, makerspaces must understand the realities of the long days, hard work, and conditions under which farmers operate.

FabCafe Bangkok's recent FARM HACK 1.0 event helped bridge this gap in understanding, bringing farmers together with designers, makers, and engineers to solve specific problems faced on farms. Bryan points out that many farmers may be too busy even to attend such workshops, and that going out to farms might be a better way for makers to understand agriculture and what they can do to help improve it.

In order to connect with farmers, events like FARM HACK 1.0, farmers' markets, and field trips out to farms are a great way to break the ice and begin getting involved. Makers are already making a big impact on society, especially in terms of introducing new skills to education and for urban applications. But outside cities awaits many challenges and vast potential to apply maker skills to improve the livelihood of farmers and the quality and consistency of their produce enjoyed by customers nationwide.

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