'Weed' proves a treasure
A northern village is enjoying new prosperity thanks to a humble grass that’s said to help cancer victims and others
Story by CHOMPOO TRAKULLERTSATHIEN
Pictures by SOMKID CHAIJITVANIT
Somchai Nimdamrongsakchai and the villagers of Baan Dong Thob are the country’s largest supplier of ya pak-king grass.
INSET: After the harvest villagers gather at Somchai’s to prepare the finished product.
Looking out on his 10-rai plot of grassland in Baan Dong Thop of Sa Kaew province, Somchai Nimdamrongsakchai is the picture of satisfaction. "It’s my golden land," he says of the expanse of ya pak-king grass stretching out before him.
"When it turns a yellowy colour, it’s harvest time."
Ya pak-king is valued for slowing the spread of breast and colon cancer and has grown more popular as the demand for herbal medicines has soared in recent years. The special properties of the plant, whose scientific name is Murdannia loriformis (Hassk.) Rolla Rao et Kammathy, have been tested by scientists from Mahidol University’s Faculty of Pharmacy.
The herb was in short supply in this country before Somchai pioneered large-scale production three years ago. He now exports to several countries, including China and Japan, and his home place has become known as "ya pak-king village".
Villagers who initially laughed at the man who was growing "weeds" have jumped on the bandwagon.
"At first, I really wondered who was going to buy his "weeds", said Suwanee Chidjungread. "But after I found out what it was and why it was important, I thought differently. Somchai taught me everything about it and now it’s earning me good money for my family," said Suwanee, who is in charge of quality control at the farm.
SOME VOCABULARY HELP
the state of being financially successful
not special in any way
a wide and open area
at the beginning
to produce new plants from a parent
an opportunity to sell a particular product to a particular group of people
extremely important, because it affects other things
to grow well
to improve on good quality
a chemical substance that affects growth
to create a threat or problem
given an idea to do something
to develop a wider range of products
Said Somchai: "From the start, I wanted to help the local economy and help people here stand on their own two feet."
About 30 villagers now work at the farm, where labour starts at dawn and doesn’t end till dusk. The vast grassland has become a natural outdoor classroom as well as production centre.
"I train them in everything, from preparing the soil and the beds, to cultivation and collection. They take turns to look after the plants and water them. And we all work harder when urgent orders come in," said Somchai.
This is an unusual-looking "grassland". The humble plant is cultivated in neat rows, like fruit trees in an orchard, and there are lots of weeds, which provide cheap shade for the grass.
The road to success wasn’t all smooth sailing. Somchai, a former fruit farmer, knew nothing about the grass at the beginning. He had to hunt for specimens to plant and propagate. He lucked out when he found a thriving patch in a temple, took it home and started experimenting.
"I grew a small patch and after a long time and a lot of trial and error, figured out how to do it."
Finding a niche in the herbal market was also tough. Although the plant had been introduced to Thailand as a herb five decades ago, few people knew of its medical qualities.
"A lot of people thought it was just another grass, and few would eat it. But that’s all changed now. It’s even selling in supermarkets."
The main customer at the moment is Apaiphubet Hospital in Prachin Buri, which has a strong focus on traditional medicine. Individual traders also come by regularly to pick up product for distribution around the country. The farm produces around 300 kilogrammes of grass a month.
Good soil is crucial, says Somchai. "It must have a medium PH level. The grass can’t flourish in acid or alkaline soil. The PH must be medium. We send samples off from time to time to get it tested."
"And the product must be clean and chemical-free," he added. "The reason all the villagers must work at the central plot is so I can keep an eye on things. If they grew grass elsewhere they might use pesticides or chemical growth-enhancing hormones which would affect the product and pose a health hazard."
At four months old, a grass plant is rich in medicinal properties and ready to harvest. The farmers collect all parts of the plant, including the roots, blooms, leaves, seeds and stems. Then they are cleaned, dried, sliced, baked twice and screened for size before being packaged. It takes about 20 kilogrammes of fresh grass to create one kilo of the dried herb, which sells for about 800 baht.
"You need a lot of plants for a small amount of finished product. That’s why we have to keep expanding the grassland, to meet the demand," said Somchai.
The farm grows other medicinal plants as well, including citronella grass, turmeric, pepper vine, betel vine, Milletia kityana (rang jued), oyster plant (wan karb hoi), black lily and Zingiver casumuna (pai). Most of the additional plants are cultivated in village orchards, where they are mixed in with larger trees.
"Herbs need no extra care. They grow well beneath big trees. Several kinds of medicinal herbs are on the verge of extinction and I want to keep them alive. I just need to find the time to hunt more of them out."
Time is in short supply for the busy farmer who’s in demand to speak about the grass at educational institutes and in villages around the country. The farm also gets regular visitors dropping by to look for information.
"People can be inspired by our example to identify plants that will help them have an income all year round. They can see our techniques and adapt them. There’s no point in everyone relying on one crop. Or in relying on the government either," said Somchai.
With an eye on the future, he is currently experimenting with making his own instant grass juice and ya pak-king capsules.
"We won’t stop here. We’re going to diversify and make different forms of the product. Thais should have many alternatives when it comes to their medical treatment, especially in traditional medicine," said Somchai.