Although nowadays Thailand’s Royal Project coffee is much sought after, Prof. Dr. Pongsak Angkasith recalls the difficulties encountered along this road to success
One of the main focuses of the Royal Project when it was started was the cultivation of the coffee bean, something His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej saw as more than a viable alternative to the opium crop that was originally being farmed in Northern Thailand, especially along the borderlands.
Thailand has since become a burgeoning producer of coffee on the global market, presently ranked in third place among Asia’s top coffee producers. Getting this far has been no easy feat, but it was His Majesty’s original ideas and vision that acted as the catalyst for this agricultural turnaround.
In Chiang Mai, at the Coffee Research and Development Centre located inside the Chiang Mai University campus, Prof. Dr. Pongsak Angkasith, Head of Coffee Research and Development Project for the Royal Project Foundation, spoke about the ascent of Thailand’s coffee production, and with it, Royal Project coffee.
On returning from Oklahoma State University in 1978, after studying agriculture, Dr. Pongsak became involved in the research and development of coffee in the highlands. Now, 38 years on, the research still continues, since producing the perfect coffee bean is continually a work in progress.
“Research since the beginning of the Royal Project has been focused on crops that can grow in the highlands—creating a cash income for farmers and, in the beginning, to replace opium poppy cultivation,” Dr. Pongsak explained, adding that under the King’s advice coffee (Arabica) was promoted for farmers to grow after only one or two years of the Royal Project starting.
“His Majesty King Rama IX started the royal project in 1969, focusing on the standard of living of highland communities,” Dr. Pongsak continued. “His Majesty helped the farmers, for their welfare, to create a cash income away from opium, but he also taught them about inappropriate agricultural practices such as ‘shifting cultivation’, destroying natural resources, and the importance of watershed management, as well as helping them to understand soil degradation and the consequences of slash and burn farming.”
The farmers, at first, were reluctant, as opium was a crop they knew how to produce. And while it wasn’t the best crop in terms of income, it was an almost guaranteed source of money.
“We started replacing opium with fruit farming, such as peaches, but moved on to vegetables and various temperate fruits. Coffee was also one of the promising crops, so we started to grow and promote coffee to farmers. Coffee is a perennial, or what we call a permanent crop,” Dr. Pongsak noted, adding that farmers started to realize they could earn a good living, achieving an even better income than farming the poppy had given them.
There were setbacks and continual difficulties, however, and so the King started research centres based on his own findings. These centres were where the King’s ideas were put into action, and from these centres hilltribes would gain their knowledge and take it back to their communities in the hills.
It took many years to implement, in spite of growing numbers of farmers starting to see progress, and a greater income. “We had to motivate and inspire them to grow other cash crops, we also had assist them in terms of technical knowledge, we had to train them, introduce good practice to them, and also teach them about the marketing side,” Dr. Pongsak pointed out.
The nexus of this inspiration, he admits, was His Majesty the King. “He showed us the way, the strategy, helped us to work harder to introduce coffee to the highlands.”
A difficult start, an amazing finish
In 1974 the King set off from Bangkok and covered much of the
highlands. “He visited very far, very remote areas, meeting farmers as well as staff and researchers working with the Royal Project,” Dr. Pongsak noted, trips which Thai people and many visitors will be aware of after seeing photographs with the King talking to farmers—farmers who had taken his advice and branched out into other areas of crop cultivation.
Research was key, as the cultivation of coffee was often thwarted by setbacks. Dr. Pongsak recalled, “In the beginning there was rust disease, or ‘coffee disease’ as we call it. This destroyed the coffee tree. If we couldn’t find a solution to this, the farmers would have to use more pesticides, and this would result in more costs for the farmers. We had to find a rust resistant crop.”
That they did, under the King’s guidelines and research, supported by the Thai government. “We have carried on research until now to get a better quality of coffee and a better standard of production,” the doctor noted proudly, pointing out that coffee production in the north is expanding, now covering Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Nan, and Lampang—highland areas at 800m to 1600m elevation. The Royal Project now has 22 areas that produce Royal Project coffee. In all they produce about 500 tons annually. The coffee is bought from the farmers and sold to roasting companies, but the Royal Project also roasts its own coffee—around 50 tons a year.
For the most part it’s only available in Thailand—Amazon, Black Canyon, Illy, and Thai Airways are buyers—as there isn’t enough to export. The Royal Project Coffee has however appeared at coffee expos in China and Japan, and some European countries, but the amount is still small in terms of the industrial level. “That’s how we manage to control the quality of coffee,” Dr. Pongsak said. “We are sure Royal Project coffee is one of the best in Thailand in terms of quality.”
The doctor went on to remark how the King’s strategy of replacing the opium crop with coffee was admired worldwide. It may have taken more than a decade for it to happen but he says the end result was perfect: sustainable farming, a rise in living standards for farmers, and of course excellent produce.
His Majesty’s footsteps
“Every year, since the start of the Royal Project, His Majesty the King went to those hilltribes—walking, climbing up mountains, visiting the research stations, giving motivation and knowledge to his subjects,” Dr. Pongsak said, admiringly. “He visited one village, telling the locals that coffee was the future, better for your income and better for natural conservation. He watched how progress was made it made him feel extremely proud of the work that was being done, work based on his own observations. This became a lesson learned for many countries, and we are still working on it now.”
There are 80 teaching staff and almost 2,000 students in Chiang Mai University’s (CMU) Faculty of Agriculture. 30 of the staff have volunteered in the Royal Project initiative since the start of the project in 1969, not only from CMU but other nearby universities. “Generation to generation. Working on a voluntary basis, training and developing,” remarked the doctor who is already retired, but still volunteers as the head of coffee research.
New highland development areas of the Royal Project system are being found, and one of the latest is Mae Salong, traditionally known for its tea cultivation. “Last year we got more than 20 tons of coffee from Mae Salong,” Dr. Pongsak noted. The target now, he says, is to produce a Royal Project specialty coffee, a unique variety of coffee, cultivation and farm management, that follows the King’s guidelines.
There are limitations, he added, such as the areas in which coffee can be grown. Preservation of forestry areas and protecting natural resources is always the utmost concern. But one day he believes that Thai Royal Project coffee will be known as one the quintessential specialty coffees around the world.
“We put our efforts into the future, with a view to His Majesty’s policies and strategies, and we followed his teaching, guidelines—in our heads and in our hearts—all the time. We will do this into the future, following in his footsteps.”
By James Farrell