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Phuket Business Feature: Hydroponics – a happy medium

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PHUKET: Located about a kilometer west of Chao Fah West road, en route to the Big Buddha, the DN hydroponic farm is not the bustling business operation it might at first seem.

“I can supply large orders, but this is really just a hobby,” insists Pakdee “Doo” Khruthanang.

Ms Pakdee’s primary hat is running her business, West Coast Divers, which specializes in live-aboard trips to the Similan islands.

“Business in tourism, especially in the dive industry, goes up and down, and thus is not always reliable in terms of steady and stable income,” she says.

The instability of such a seasonal industry drove Ms Pakdee to start thinking about ways she could supplement income for her family in an increasingly expensive Phuket.

“I started frequenting many restaurants that served European salad – not Thai,” she says.

It was at an Italian restaurant, Capannina at Kata beach, where she got her first taste of the fiery, flavorful and astringent tasting rocket lettuce, Eruca sativa.

“I found out that they [restaurants] were paying as much as 900 baht per kilogram for this. Then I thought to myself, at such a price I wouldn’t have to grow too much to be able to supplement our earnings year round.”

A budding interest soon expanded to other types of lettuces, vegetables and herbs, and the curiosity soon became a passion.

To research the market, she went to various restaurants around the island, and particularly enjoyed visiting the Sizzler’s salad bar, known for its diverse array of fresh and seasonal offerings.

“I took a one-day hydroponics course for 500 baht at Rajabhat University, and continued to research the science and methodologies on the internet.”

Originally from Chiang Rai in the North of Thailand, Pakdee laughingly admits that growing up, she didn’t have any background or real experience in agriculture.

However, as a professional dive operator, she already had an underlying passion for the life sciences, particularly biological cycles and processes. Such a passion – or “heart” as she calls it – is essential for anybody looking to try their hand at something new, and hydroponics is not exception.

“Some people will try it out, perhaps as a hobby or even a small business venture. But if they don’t have the heart and ample time to devote to it, they will not succeed,” she says.

By the end of the initial year, highlighted by much trial and error, Pakdee was filling a small yet steady demand.

“We currently grow about a dozen types of lettuce and herbs, whereas others [in Phuket] only grow three to four types.”

The types were chosen not only based on market demand, but also practicality. Over the last four years, she has attempted to grow more than 20 types of herbs, ferns and vegetables, but Phuket’s hot and tropical environment has proved inconducivve for growing many things. Pakdee has tried rosemary, sage, oregano and Italian parsley.

“These would be a lot easier to grow in Chiang Mai, for example, but the weather in Phuket is just not ideal,” she says.

The farm has the capacity to grow and supply one tonne – 1,000 kilograms-of fresh lettuces and herbs per month, and at this point, she’s content.

“Any more than this, and it would no longer be a hobby, but become full-time work.”

Rocket continues to be the most popular of her offerings, and the two varieties she grows – Garden and Wild – combined make up about 40% of her supply. Other than this, she grows both red and green varieties of Coral and Oak lettuces, as well as Frillice Iceberg, Batavia, Butterhead, Thai Mustard, Romaine Cos, Mizuna and both Thai and Italian Basil.

Half of her produce goes to local households, friends and their restaurants, and whatever is left – about half of the produce – is sold to two wholesale brokers, who supply directly to hotels and restaurants. She also supplies both the Central and Patong branches of Sizzler.

The fundamental principles of supply and demand affect all business, whether a small dive company or vegetable farm,” she says, before going on to highlight a common problem many business operators face in Phuket.

“In order to gain more market share, new players often end up producing too much. As supply exceeds demand, then everyone tries to undercut the competition, which makes prices plummet, and causes problems for everyone.

Ms Pakdee goes on to highlight the advantages of sourcing locally produced, high-quality produce.For the last four years, Ms Pakdee has not increased or decreased prices, regardless of inflation and other factors that often affect suppliers depending on produce from other regions.

“Whether there are floods in Bangkok, or a drought elsewhere, my price doesn’t change… The important thing to keep in mind is sufficiency – make enough but not too much.”

She says that the reason she has been able to keep her prices, and thus demand, stable, is because she views her operation as a past-time, rather than a trade, adding that such a model can be applied to any hobby, venture or operation.

Despite the constant threat of copy-cat entrepreneurship, Ms Pakdee readily shares her knowledge with anyone wishing to learn about hydroponics, whether just to feed their families or to make supplemental income in their respective locale.

“When you start a business, it’s important to have your own customer base and to maintain strong relations. And you really have to ensure that your offering is better than others, not just copying others.”

Ms Pakdee has taught and continues to teach her hobby to a number of villagers, vendors and curious students, as well as hotel staff.

“They usually come to work and study on the farm on weekends and whenever they have holidays. I don’t charge or pay them, but am happy to give them knowledge and even some vegetables to take home,” she says.

For more information and inquiries, go to: phukethydroponics.com.

Keep checking our online Phuket Business pages, join our Facebook fan page or follow us on Twitter @PhuketGazette for the latest local and national business updates.

— Steven Layne

 

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