How One Thai King Saw Potential in a Coffee Tree
In the 1970s, Thailand’s agricultural economy was reliant on rice and opium. While rice crops were used to feed the rural families who worked the farms, opium was exported and used as the main source of income for many families in Northern Thailand. Opium farming involves widespread deforestation, and did not provide enough income to raise farming families out of the intense poverty they were living in.
The king of Thailand during this time, King Bhumibol, noticed a few stray coffee trees growing around villages during a 1970s tour of the countryside. Upon noticing these Arabica coffee trees, King Bhumibol was struck by the realization that the coffee trees were growing in a very similar environment to the opium plants that many villages relied on. Both opium and coffee prefer high altitudes and plenty of shade.
King Bhumibol decided to launch a series of projects that would help place an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and other crops in order to replace opium as a cash crop.
The Royal Project Foundation and the Success of Thailand’s Coffee Industry
After encouraging many of the villages on his tour to replace their opium crops with coffee, the king founded the Royal Project Foundation in order to help optimize the growth of coffee trees. The foundation helps to conduct research and development in order to optimize economic growth throughout the coffee growing regions of Thailand.
Nearly forty years later, Thailand is now one of the biggest producers of coffee in the world and the third biggest coffee producer in Asia. Although the Royal Project Foundation has helped to ensure the success of coffee in Thailand, it was no small feat to let go of the opium trade for a more sustainable crop.
Thailand’s successful transition from the opium trade to coffee is now used as a case study for other developing countries that are struggling to escape reliance on dangerous industries.
Research and Development Continues to Help Thai Coffee Improve
The foundation helped to educate farmers about harmful practices such as shifting cultivation and the unsustained depletion of natural resources. With the help of researchers from the foundation, farmers were able to overcome setbacks like rust disease, which destroys coffee trees.
Farmers did not want to have to constantly buy and use pesticides, so coffee researchers at the Royal Project Foundation helped to develop crops that were resistant to the disease.
Now, roughly 500 tons of Arabica coffee beans are produced in northern Thailand annually. In addition to that, southern Thailand produces 80,000 tons of robusta coffee. Because coffee is a perennial plant, farmers are able to better sustain themselves now than they did when they were dependent on opium.
What Sets Northern Thai Coffee Apart From Other Coffees
Arabica coffee generally grows on a shorter tree, which means that most Arabica coffee in Thailand is shade grown. Shade grown coffee requires low amounts of chemical fertilizers and causes minimal erosion. In addition, it doesn’t require a farmer to clear cut land.
Shade grown coffee takes longer to grow than sun grown coffee, and therefore allows more complex sugars to develop in the fruit. This means that when you buy coffee from northern Thailand you aren’t only supporting a sustainable coffee industry, you’re also buying coffee that tastes better.