Strawberry Fields Forever

Entrepreneurial woman farmer's passion spans Thailand's urban-rural divide

Walaiporn Phumirat with one of the scarecrows she makes for her strawberry plantation in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand (Photo by William Mellor)

For a young Thai woman 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 opium-growing Golden Triangle, and became an organic strawberry farmer.

In the five years since then, Walaiporn, 32, has become a one-woman 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 the Bangkok, 800km to the south.

I chanced on 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.

"Strawberries ahead": A signpost points to Walaiporn Phumirat’s Backyard plantation (Photo by William Mellor)

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 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 are happy to bear the inconvenience and cost because they know her strawberries are organic, flavorsome and air freighted 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."

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.

Far from romantic

Still, Walaiporn said her life has not always been an idyll. The daughter of a schoolteacher who became mayor of their local district, she 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.

Family business: Walaiporn’s mother packs strawberries destined in a few hours time for the Bangkok market (Photo by William Mellor).

Her first season was far from romantic. 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, that many of Thailand's farmers choose the simpler route of producing less valuable, non-organic crops. But Walaiporn persisted and succeeded. Today, she said, she hopes to be a role model who can prove to farmers that they can take the organic route. She also hopes to show university students that farming can be a good career. After taking a course in community tourism in Japan, she is promoting her farm as an eco-friendly attraction.

Today, many of the Golden Triangle's tourist spots remain linked to its darker past. Indeed, before chancing on Walaiporn's farm, I had stopped for noodles at Ban Hin Taek. There, preserved as a museum, stands the former headquarters of Khun Sa, a warlord driven out of Thailand in 1982 who continued for many years to dominate the international heroin trade from across the border in Myanmar.

Also within a short drive is a more inspiring spot. The royal villa of Doi Tung was where, in 1988, and at the age of 88, the remarkable grandmother of Thailand's present king took up residence to help persuade hill tribes to stop growing opium. Princess Srinagarindra's efforts, complementing those of her son, King Bhumibol, were markedly successful. Today, tea and coffee plantations dot the hillsides where opium poppies once flourished.

By contrast, Walaiporn's organic strawberry patch is still small scale. 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."

William Mellor is a Hong Kong-based writer.