Two years have passed since Chananya Chawengchote left behind her career as a chef overseas and returned home to take care of her 85-year-old father and the family’s 35-rai coconut orchard in Ratchaburi province.
Ms Chananya, Kung as she is known to family and friends, grew up here. As a second generation coconut grower, she is determined to keep the orchard sustainably productive yet non-labour intensive and consumer safe, all while facing saline intrusion, soil degradation, pest invasion and climate change. When her family’s orchard was destroyed by coconut black-headed caterpillars in 2021, she didn’t hesitate to seek a solution to coconut farming management.
The chef-turned-coconut farmer was introduced to the Regenerative Coconut Agriculture Project (ReCAP) in mid-2021. She is among 400 farmers participating in the training on how to transform conventional farming towards regenerative organic coconut practices. The aim is to restore soil and farm ecosystems and strengthen the livelihoods of farmers and local coconut farming communities.
Ms Chananya quickly learned that planting cover crops such as roundleaf bindweed, or Bai Tang Rian in Thai, could reduce soil erosion and improve soil-moisture holding capacity. This technique is unlike conventional practice. The older generations of coconut growers believed all kinds of cover plants were weeds and should be pulled out from the soil to ensure that they would not compete for nutrients, water, and light.
Realising that soil health is the key to coconut growth and good produce, she immediately started to grow this climbing plant in her trial ReCAP plot. It takes only a few months for these coin-shaped leaves with creeping stems to grow along the ground. By six months, the green carpet of roundleaf bindweed had made her coconut orchard unique and different from others. Aromatic coconut growers from nearby communities now visit the site to learn about regenerative coconut agriculture and even buy Bai Tang Rian to grow in their agricultural plots.
“I never thought that a weed would not only improve moisture and soil health, but also give a boost to our livelihoods,” she said, adding that a sack of roundleaf bindweed can be sold for 200 baht.
Apart from growing roundleaf bindweed, Ms Chananya also practises intercropping by growing bananas, edamame beans and local herbs such as betel leaves, pandan, ginger and lemongrass. Raising stingless bees can increase coconut fruit growth through pollination and provide an extra income through honey sales. She also uses her experience as a chef by producing fresh coconut ice cream with different flavours based on her herbal and fruit intercropping method.
As one of the ReCAP farmers, Ms Chananya also plans to manage her coconut farming in a more sustainable way to prepare her farm for exporting market opportunities for her coconut produce.
“Thanks to ReCAP Project, I am exposed to practical farming methods that can transform and take our coconut farming to the next level, be competitive and meet international standards. If we take good care of the coconut farm, then the coconut farm will be resilient and sustainably take care of us,” she said.
Charuwat Hongsuphagphan is a second generation coconut farmer turned wholesaler. Every day he and his workers have to deal with tonnes of shells and husks, which are considered waste.
After joining a four-day training programme run by the project, he learned how to make compost from coconut waste by mixing husks, chopped coconut shells and chicken faeces.
By reducing the use of chemical waste and producing compost fertiliser for use on his family’s 14-rai coconut plot, he was able to help his family reduce the outlay on fertiliser by up to 50,000 baht per crop cycle.
“The project seeks creative ways of transforming coconut waste into economically and environmentally sustainable products,” he said.
Currently, coconuts from his farm are certified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as organic. Mr Charuwat said he also planned to transition his farm to meet the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) standard, regarded as a new holistic standard raising the bar for how food is produced. ROC uses the USDA Organic standard as a baseline. From there, it adds important criteria and benchmarks that incorporate the major pillars of regenerative organic agriculture into one certification. The goal of ROC is to promote holistic agriculture practices, increase soil organic matter over time, and sequester carbon below and above ground, which could be a tool to mitigate climate change. He hopes to provide economic stability to his farm and workers with these efforts.
“International standards will boost competitiveness of our coconuts and open more market opportunities. With the competitive situation we are facing, we have to always seek market opportunities and improve our farming management and our products,” he said.
Khachiphan Bunsiri, Sustainability Manager of Harmless Harvest Thailand, said partnering with the project has enabled the company to pursue its mission to bring positive impact to the environment and the farming communities in which it operates. Currently, the Company products are certified USDA organic and Fair for Life and Harmless Harvest is on its way to have Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). The Company actively promotes regenerative organic agriculture among coconut farmers and ReCAP is one of its strategies.
“To convince farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture practices, we cannot do it alone. It also takes time to work and align with all stakeholders in the coconut supply chain to bring social change,” she said.
The ReCAP project has provided a platform for the private sector to share expertise and introduce consumer trends that are essential for Thai coconut industry to adopt. The project enhances smallholders’ sustainable farming practices and farm management skills while engaging government and academic sectors to international organic standards and, most importantly, consumers’ needs.
Nowadays, consumers are greatly concerned about health and environmental impact. Manufacturers give priority to ingredients and products that are responsibly sourced, organic, and fair trade since these factors can boost competitiveness.
Three years of project implementation have led to an awareness of business models among coconut farmers. Ms Chananya and Mr Charuwat have proven successful in putting regenerative coconut agriculture into practice. Over 400 coconut farmers and entrepreneurs in the implemented area have been trained in regenerative coconut agriculture.
Lisa Faust, ReCAP Project Manager, said further discussion with stakeholders on how the results of the ReCAP project can be sustained long-term, including knowledge and equipment transfer to local coconut communities, are ongoing as part of the project’s exit strategy.