Born and raised in the rice-growing centre of Surin, Maytar Kochai, 52, is certain he knows about two things — the prized Hom Mali grain and poverty.
He doesn’t care for much except his dog, pipe and 1950s rock and roll music. He works as a part-time DJ at his local radio station for three hours at weekends, spinning his favourite discs to forget about the drudgery and bitterness of being a rice farmer.
Mr Maytar, who lived in Bangkok when he was younger before returning home at his parents’ urging, also recently took over as chief administrator of Sakad Subdistrict Administrative Organisation.
Fed up with the raw deal rice farmers receive, he understands the power of social media and recently set up a Facebook page to sell Hom Mali rice directly from farmers.
His page has a simple, strong message — farmers have had enough of being suppressed by market prices. With a little local media help, his posting was widely viewed and hundreds of orders started flooding in via his telephone.
“To be honest, we were not at all prepared for this kind of response,” Mr Maytar told Spectrum. “We had no one to pack the rice; in fact, we had no bags to pack the rice in. The phone calls keep coming from all over Thailand. I can’t believe we have so many people interested in our product.”
WORKING CLASS HERO
The issue of rice subsidies and how great a role the government should play in propping up struggling farmers has returned to the news.
On Tuesday, the cabinet approved a subsidy of 13,000 baht per tonne for Hom Mali paddy to help farmers in the North and the Northeast. It will run until the end of February next year. The subsidies were announced in light of weak global rice prices.
To shore up rice prices, the military also announced it would deploy soldiers to “seek cooperation” from all rice mills to buy grain from farmers at “reasonable” prices.
But local politicians such as Mr Maytar are aware of the farmers’ plight and are taking a proactive position. He is a straightforward character who doesn’t mince his words.
As he works closely with farmers, he understands why they are unable to earn enough from their premium-grade products. He said he saw a farmer return from a miller last week with big sacks of Hom Mali grain. The farmer offered him the grain, but the miller said the rice didn’t meet its standard.
Mr Maytar told the farmer to leave the rice at his office before calling all rice farmers from 16 villages for a meeting.
“Forget about the market price or help from central government,” he told them. “I will take all the rice you grow this crop and sell it for you without having to go through rice millers or middlemen. Who’s with me?”
All the farmers agreed to the plan despite the market rice price being at its lowest level in 10 years. They started bringing their unmilled rice to Sakad SAO office and hoped that Mr Maytar’s plan would work.
If those farmers sold their rice directly to the miller, they would get 6.60 baht per kilogramme or 6,600 baht per tonne after the humidity fee is taken out. The Thai Rice Mills Association lists the price for Hom Mali rice in Surin at 8,700-9,000 baht per tonne minus a 15% humidity fee.
But if the farmers take their unmilled rice to Sakad SAO, they receive a guaranteed price of 12-13 baht per kilogramme or 12,000-13,000 baht per tonne. There is no humidity fee and they receive the money after the rice is sold. Spectrum witnessed many farmers arriving at the SAO office to receive their money after sales were made. They had made twice the amount of money by cutting out millers.
POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Since turning to social media, Mr Maytar has received phone calls from 6am until 9pm for rice orders. Despite being a blunt person, he has learned how to talk politely to unknown people over the phone, upload pictures on Facebook and respond to inquiries to buyers from all over the country.
FIGHTING BACK: Maytar Kochai says rice farmers have had enough of being suppressed by market prices. ‘Farmers must be able to earn actual money like other occupations,’ he says.
Sakad SAO has also made a deal with a rice miller to mill three tonnes of rice per day, but at least four tonnes are arriving each day. Once a quiet subdistrict that people passed through without a second thought, Sakad has become an agricultural hub for Surin farmers.
Wisut Sarapee, coordinator of the project, told Spectrum that they receive multiple orders every day. Phone inquiries come from other regions but they have no budget to deliver the rice. Many times he has had to apologise to people for the lack of a delivery service.
“We don’t want to add any more expenses to the process, otherwise farmers will not get the full amount of money,” he said. “For now, if anyone is interested in our rice, they will have to pick it up themselves. We may have a delivery service in the future but it will be in major points. We can’t do it for every province.”
Invitations are also coming in to sell their rice at local trade shows.
“We are very happy to see what we are trying to do is working out perfectly. Actually, this is beyond our expectations,” Mr Wisut said.
BUILDING THE BRAND
After selling rice directly to the market for a week, Mr Maytar think this might be a good opportunity to use the same approach for next year’s crop. As farmers in the Northeast can only grow one crop per year, he thinks he still has time to develop something more permanent.
Rittikrai Deerob, an academic and researcher for Sakad SAO, has suggested that they build their own brand of Hom Mali rice. He believes it would be the best way to take advantage of the social media phenomenon and build something more sustainable for farmers.
The rice is now sold under the brand name Sakad Kwan Kao. The labels were printed on simple white paper, which were slipped into each bag of rice. With enough orders to keep the programme running, Mr Maytar has hired some disabled people to help pack the rice, creating more employment opportunities in the area.
The rice is sold at 27 baht per kilogramme and packaged in 1kg and 5kg bags. The farmer receives 20 baht per kilogramme, while Sakad SAO keeps seven baht to pay for bags and packers. At the end of the crop cycle, if there is still money left from the seven baht they deduct, they will pay one baht for each kilogramme back to the farmers for the season.
Napaporn Homhuan, 37, inherited her rice field from her father eight years ago. She owns 20 rai of land and is happy with the Sakad SAO direct selling scheme. Even though she only took rice from one rai to sell, she managed to go home with almost 10,000 baht.
“I have high-quality rice but I could never sell this much before when dealing with millers. I’m happy to learn that I get to keep some money after paying off the money I borrowed to start the crop,” she said.
Sangwan Sankla, 39, who owns seven rai of land, is also pleased with the scheme. She went to a miller before going to the Sakad SAO office to compare prices.
The miller offered about 7,800 baht for rice grown on two rai of her land, compared with the 15,000 baht she eventually received from the SAO.
“I finally got to see actual money. I am so happy that Mr Maytar started this project to help us. I never had any money left after selling rice until now. No matter what government has been in power, they have never given us this before.”
Udomsak “Peter” Udomdee, 34, works as a public relations officer for the Disease Control Department of the Ministry of Public Health in Surin. As a local, he prides himself on being able to tell the difference between good and poor-quality Hom Mali.
When he lived in Bangkok, he found expensive Hom Mali but its aroma was not close to that of real Hom Mali back home.
When he brought some rice back from Surin to sell to colleagues in Bangkok five years ago, he received positive feedback. They ordered more rice and he started to think this was a better way to sell rice directly without going through a middleman. He could determine his own price for rice grown by his family grows and even ensure a real income for his parents.
“The older generation like my parents only think about the actual figure they get. They never calculate how much they spend or if they earn any profit. When I started to sell rice for them directly, I demonstrated how much more money we were making,” Peter said.
From that point until today, Peter has used a Facebook page to sell his family’s rice. He receives many orders during the crop cycle from December to February. He started by taking 100kg of rice to Bangkok in the first two years, but now he is taking at least 300kg on each trip.
If his family sold unmilled rice from their 20 rai to a miller, they would get 38,000 baht after investing 55,000 baht on the whole crop. But when Peter mills the rice at one miller in his neighbourhood and sells the rice directly, they can sell 13 tonnes for 110,000 baht after investing 32,000 baht.
“I want to show that anyone can sell rice directly by themselves and earn a lot more money with a better quality of rice. I only sell rice from my parents’ paddy through my Facebook page. I don’t want to start a big business and buy rice from other farmers. I only want to support my family,” he said.
Even though direct rice selling has become the talk of the town in Sakad and orders continue to flood in, Mr Maytar has no plans to increase production. He will continue to mill three tonnes per day no matter how many orders he has.
“I really want this to be a simple marketing exercise that anyone can do at home. The price of rice is very low in the market these days because it goes through a lot of processes and each process has its own fee. After all the fees are taken off, the farmer ends up with almost nothing,” he said.
Next Sunday in Bangkok, he is going to sell Sakad Kwan Kao rice at seven locations including Or Tor Kor Market and Asia Hotel Bangkok.
He is getting closer to his real intention of stabilising the price of Surin’s Hom Mali rice. In Thailand, only Surin, Buri Ram and Si Sa Ket can produce high-quality Hom Mali. Mr Maytar thinks it is unfair that the price of such premium rice is suppressed by the overall market price.
If Sakad Kwan Kao rice really takes off, he will use the brand to build the identity of Surin Hom Mali. He expects other districts in the province will start doing the same and send their rice to be part of the Sakad Kwan Kao brand.
“I never intended to create a business here. All I ever wanted was to build a new way of life for rice farmers. It’s time to take this back to basics and cut down the processes that determine market prices. Farmers must be able to earn actual money like other occupations,” Mr Maytar said.
HOTLINE: The Surin direct selling scheme handles many telephone calls every day from people keen to buy its Hom Mali rice.
PROFIT MARGIN: Farmers receive a guaranteed price of 12-13 baht per kilogramme from Sakad SAO for unmilled rice. There is no humidity fee and they are paid after the rice is sold.
PULLING TOGETHER: Workers package the rice in Surin for sale to customers all over Thailand. Since the rice was advertised on Facebook, Sakad SAO has been flooded with orders.
READY TO GO: Sakad has become a hub for Surin rice farmers, with three tonnes of grain milled each day.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE: Sakad Kwan Kao rice has plain labels slipped into bags.