Blessed with natural fertility since the ancient days of “fish in the water and rice in the fields”, modern Thailand’s standing as a leading world agricultural centre owes much to the ongoing efforts of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, His Majesty has initiated and contributed to 4,583 agriculture-related innovations and projects throughout his reign. The wealth of these projects reflects his imagination and knowledge of the sciences, willingness to conduct in-depth research and the scale of problems faced by Thailand’s agricultural sector.
When His Majesty took to the throne in 1946, the impoverished agrarian country needed to focus its resources on addressing fundamental issues. To understand these problems, the King and Queen devoted much of their reign to travels in rural areas, which helped them formulate effective solutions to specific regions and topography. There are few remote locations in Thailand that His Majesty has not visited.
To test the hypotheses he had built up from his travels around the country, His Majesty transformed Chitralada Villa, the royal residence in Bangkok, into an experimental laboratory. As he gained more experience, his efforts and advice were extended beyond the palace grounds. Some of the better known projects are water management with award-winning artificial rainmaking methods and water aerators to prevent stagnant water, replacing opium in Northern mountain ranges with high-value temperate climate cash crops, researching different techniques to address soil problems, and promoting the growth of alternative energy. The Royal Chitralada Projects, which occupy two-thirds of the palace grounds, include a dairy farm, a large deciduous forest, experimental labs, demonstration areas and facilities to manufacture goods bearing the royal insignia that are distributed nationwide.
Dr Rosarin Smitabhindu is currently senior adviser and specialist in policy and planning and has spent 38 years on the The Royal Chitralada Projects. We spoke to her at a sustainable demonstration house with electricity supplied by solar and wind energy. Shaded by leafy trees, visitors can see a pond stocked with Tilapia nilotica, a UHT milk manufacturing facility and rice fields, behind which lies a demonstration forest with more than 1,000 commercially valuable but slow growing yang na (dipterocarp) trees planted since 1961. This dense multi-species mature forest serves as research ground for Kasetsart University agriculture students.
“The Royal Chitralada Projects demonstrate ways people can do things by showing them a complete product life cycle, including ways to purposefully recycle everything,” Dr Rosarin says. One of the best examples of this ‘waste not, want not’ philosophy is demonstrated through rice, the backbone of Thai life and culture. As the first significant Royal Chitralada project, different rice breeds suited to flood-prone lowlands and arid highlands have been grown to test different cultivation methods since 1961. The rice grown is used in the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony, a traditional rite dating back to the Sukhothai era that was revived by His Majesty in 1960. This ceremony continues to be cherished by rice farmers today who regard these royal grains as representing an auspicious blessing. Thailand’s first iron buffalo, invented by royal command, is also here, along with simple domestically made machines to thresh, mill and store rice, serving as prototypes for small rural villages.
Waste is recycled in many ways. A portion of rice husks is composted, but they also burn well, so they help fuel air-conditioning systems for some buildings. They are also compressed into briquettes to make charcoal. Using these rather than wood helps reduce deforestation in rice-cultivating villages and they are also used in refugee camps. In addition, crumbled charcoal reduces soil acidity.
Rice bran is deployed for mushroom cultivation, and from 1988 high-value species like ling zhi, monkey’s head and lion’s mane fungi were grown. After harvesting the mushrooms, the rice bran is composted. This project makes good use of the plant tissue culture laboratory work at The Royal Chitralada Projects, which started in 1985 and is a vital resource in conserving rare domestic plant species.
The third project was introducing milk to Thai diets, launched after a state visit to Denmark to meet King Frederick IX. The royal collaboration led to establishing the Thai-Danish Dairy Farm and training centre in Muak Lek, Saraburi in 1962. At the same time, the King’s farm began with six cows. The 40 animals today provide milk, and their manure makes biogas and organic fertiliser. As dairy products became an integral part of the Thai diet, demand outstripped production despite the project’s daily output of 100,000 UHT boxes and eight tonnes of milk powder made from raw milk sent by four cooperatives. “Many children love the taste of our milk so much their parents clear the shelves whenever they are stocked,” Dr Rosarin smiles. School children’s daily milk in plastic bags with the royal insignia is produced by 20 factories nationwide that meet royal standards. A commercial cheese-making machine, presented to His Majesty by the CC Freezland company on the auspicious occasion of his fifth cycle birthday in 1987. The cheese developed into Maha Mongkol (auspicious) cheese, a name conferred by HRH Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. New products were introduced including ice cream, yogurt and condensed milk.
Half a century after the milk boom began, it has contributed to the nation getting taller. “The average height of Thai men who drank no milk was 160 cm,” says Dr Rosarin. “Today, the average height of mathayom 6 boys is 180 cm.”
In further efforts to add affordable quality protein to Thai diets, the King experimented with breeding Mozambique tilapia in his palace. When Emperor Akihito of Japan (then the Crown Prince) saw His Majesty’s work, he presented 25 pairs of fast-growing, fleshy Tilapia nilotica (pla nil) to Thailand in 1965. Raised in The Royal Chitralada Projects, thousands of fry were distributed to commercial fish breeders. “The famous tubtim fish sold by CP originated from the tilapia,” Dr Rosarin adds.
One by-product that was developed is spirulina, which the team initially regarded as a high protein fish-feed. When its quality as a dietary supplement was noted, researchers developed cultivation methods to make the blue-green freshwater algae fit for human consumption, and it is now available in capsules and food form.
The 1980s saw the emergence of processed produce in the form of juices and solar-dried fruit and vegetables, which like dairy products, have since gained currency among the private sector as OTOP (One Tambon One Product) cash cows and are core products of multi-billion-baht industries.
A proponent of self-sufficiency, His Majesty proposed the production of quality beeswax candles that are used daily in the palaces and in religious ceremonies. A byproduct of beeswax sent from northern beekeepers is honey, which is distributed under the Chitralada brand. Apart from its culinary uses it has proved to be an excellent topical treatment for acne and bed sores.
One of the King’s greatest contributions is perhaps initiating and supporting research on alternative energy sources. In the 1970s, His Majesty became acutely aware of the effects rising fuel costs have on farmers already suffering from depressed prices for sugarcane and cassava. Supporting research on alcohol and biofuels since 1985, the project developed 99.5 per cent alcohol, which could be combined with 91 octane benzene to create gasohol 95. The movement gained nationwide traction when petrol giants PTT and Bangchak Petroleum were able to produce sufficient commercial quantities of gasohol 91, E20 and E85. These efforts have stabilised crop prices, improved air quality, and reduced our reliance on imported petroleum fuels.
Biodiesels from vegetable oils started with the use of palm oil. Researchers developed a formula to make biodiesel from recycled cooking oils to eradicate household waste and cut production costs. A byproduct of biodiesel is glycerine which became the basis for a line of skin-care products.
“We’re the most advanced country in Southeast Asia in terms of biofuels. We not only started first, but we have plenty of suitable crops which allow us to easily create dozens of formulae for different crops and fuels,” Dr Rosarin says. “Our neighbours have just begun to conduct research and grow crops destined for biofuels in recent years.”
At The Royal Chitralada Projects, wind and solar energy is used to generate electricity to cool buildings and pump water. Making biogas from cow manure and kitchen scraps has been adopted by many villagers. Urban settings like restaurants can learn from Chitralada School which makes biogas solely from food scraps to cook school meals.
The Royal Chitralada Projects is open to the public but you will need to submit a letter of application or call 0-2282-8200 in advance.
A comprehensive overview of His Majesty’s work can also be studied at the Golden Jubilee Museum of Agriculture in Pathum Thani which was established by the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives in 1996 in honour of the 50th year of His Majesty’s reign. “Over the decades, many royal projects were created but as His Majesty grew older, his visibility in the rural areas diminished so we wanted younger Thais to be more aware of his rich legacy,” says Jarurath Jongputisiri, the museum director. This well-maintained and innovative living museum aims to share knowledge about agriculture and nature in a fun way, as well as educate people about the King’s efforts to encourage Thais to be more self-sufficient.
The King has espoused ideas of self-reliance since the 1950s given the vulnerability that agrarian communities faced, from commodity price swings to epidemics and the whims of the weather. In the 1970s, His Majesty began to mention those ideas in his national speeches, and they have had wide-ranging applications across industries and in our personal lives. The concepts are collectively referred to as the Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy.
Among the many ideas applied to the agricultural sector, one of the best-known is the New Theory which originally recommended dividing water supplies in a ratio of 30:30:30:10 ratios, covering respectively aquaculture; fruit orchards and vegetables; rice for household consumption; and herbs, raising farm animals and the home. Creating a fertile oasis that produces diverse food and produce year-round mitigates risks associated with weather and crop prices in mono-culture farming. The original ratio of land allocation has since been adapted in various places to match specific environments, land size and topography.
To ensure that best practices are applicable to the four regions, with their disparate topography and soil conditions, the King established six royal development study centres so farmers facing similar conditions could learn and apply successful solutions to rehabilitate heavily deforested, degraded, toxic, acidic soil and even deserts by using hardy cash crops that improve soil quality. Experiments are conducted on how to manage coastal land with mangroves to restore fisheries and marine life, innovative ideas for animal husbandry, and related cash crops.
An unexpected benefit of these studies is the discovery of low-cost indigenous vetiver grass with species that are drought- or flood-resistant and capable of improving virtually all degraded toxic and saline soil. Vetiver grass is particularly effective in preventing soil erosion and slowing water flow on steep slopes due to its long roots that reach a depth of three metres. It also produces aromatic essential oils and its hardy fibres can be used to make handicrafts.
“I knew about His Majesty’s contributions when I was in the Ministry of Agriculture,” says Jararath, who has extensive practical experience in the rural agricultural sector. “But it was only after working here that I became genuinely in awe of the breadth of his innovations which reveal his genius in so many fields. I was particularly amazed by his vision in promoting the study of biodiesels long before they became a necessity.”
The museum serves as the locus for disseminating knowledge in the agricultural sector. Representatives from different regions belonging to the museum’s network convene every month to share best practices, new innovations, and report their progress in different fields. This ongoing effort in discussing and learning from many creative, hardworking agriculture sages ensure that His Majesty’s ideas are successfully adapted to effectively address different real life problems nationwide.
Visitors will enjoy interactive activities, informative 3D animations and creative displays; in the outdoor areas visitors can try their hands at planting rice, building mud brick homes and growing urban vegetable gardens.
The learning centre offers many activities with practical applications. Among them are special courses and seminars that are popular among non-agricultural workers. “Up to 70 percent of the participants tend to be in their 40s and are well-educated with university degrees and full-time jobs,” says Jarurath. “Some people only want to learn how to grow their own food to save money, but many already have land and are seeking ways to supplement their incomes from agriculture.”
An example would be an inflight attendant with two rai of land who planned to grow limes but ended up selling lime saplings as it generated faster profit. “We want people to learn how agriculture can be profitable when approached the right way, to encourage more people to work in this sector and instill pride in this career, particularly since we have witnessed the younger generation choosing other professions instead of farming like their forebears,” continues Jarurath.
The museum also hosts one of the biggest organic farmers’ markets with produce and handicrafts from different regions. Held on the first weekend of every month and attracting approximately 5,000 visitors, the audience is invited to enjoy free lectures delivered by visiting agricultural experts. Many vendors are happy to gain a profitable new distribution channel due to frequent customers who book large orders every month. “Don’t forget to talk to our knowledgeable farmers so you know more about what you’re eating,” Jarurath advises. These farmers are all members of the museum network, and are carefully vetted for their adherence to proper production standards.
From these institutions, it is to be hoped that more people will get a glimpse of what has been accomplished and appreciate the fruit of His Majesty’s labour of love over the decades. The museum’s slogan Nai Luang Rak Rao (The King Loves Us) emphasises the magnitude of His Majesty’s compassion for his people and steadfast dedication to helping more Thais lead happier, healthier lives.