Thursday, April 01, 2004

Spaghetti farming a success in Suphan Buri

from Thailand's Bangkok Post:

Local product cheaper, much softer, cooks faster and tastes better, producer says

Story and pictures by NICK WILGUS

Long a favourite ingredient in Italian dishes, spaghetti is not easy to produce, requiring the right sort of weather, adequate moisture, and generous amounts of fertiliser, according to Santi Saengkaew, one of Thailand's rare spaghetti producers.

``Foreign brands are more expensive,'' he noted. ``I sell my spaghetti for about half what the foreign brands cost, and customers don't complain.''

Indeed they do not. The home-grown variety is much softer than the packaged variety, cooks more quickly, and has a better taste, he said.

Some of his neighbours, surprised by Santi's success, have asked to learn how to grow the product, which is notoriously fickle, and will dry out and become unusable if not properly shaded. Thus far, seven ``spaghetti farms'' have sprung up in his small village in Suphan Buri province.

Santi said he was happy to teach others how to grow the crop, adding that he was approached by village officials who wanted to make his spaghetti part of the One Village One Product (Otop) scheme. He said he declined because he was afraid that the village's few spaghetti farmers would be overwhelmed by excessive demand.

``Bigger is not always better,'' he said.

So, how is spaghetti grown? The most difficult part, he said, was purchasing the initial seedlings, which are very expensive and not easily found, since they are not indigenous to the region. He said he purchased his first crop of seedlings five years ago at a small shop in Chiang Mai, noting that they could sometimes be purchased at Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok.

Next, growing the seedlings requires patience and much attention to detail. The seedlings need plenty of shade, but also indirect sunlight. Humidity is good for the seedlings, but excessive watering can drown the plants before they have a chance to grow.

And grow they do, and fast _ like banana trees, he said. Within three months, if the plants have been properly tended, they should be about chest-high. Within six months, they will spout shoots which, if left to grow, become long and slender strands. At that point, harvesting can begin.

``It's best to harvest a little at a time _ to give the tree breathing room,'' he said, rather than harvesting all the shoots at once. This was because the plants are sensitive to change, and it was best to treat them gently and with respect.

Is there money to be made in spaghetti farming?

``Thais don't like spaghetti all that much _ it's a niche market,'' Santi said. ``Even so, it's a nice alternative to rice, and can be served in many different dishes. Vegetarians especially like it.''

Prapapan Jaonai, an official from the Office of Agricultural Promotion, was a bit more optimistic, noting that Thailand had the chance to become a major spaghetti grower in the region, and that its product could one day hope to compete with European brands, especially since they could be produced more cheaply and were thus a better buying decision for spaghetti connoisseurs.

``We want Thailand to be a spaghetti hub in this region,'' she said. ``This is a brand new market, and the potential is enormous.''

When pointed out that it was more economical to simply make spaghetti by hand, she replied that ``fetish foods'' were all the rage.

``People want hydroponic salads,'' she said. ``They want truffles from France, tuna from Japan, macadamia nuts from Hawaii. They want GMO-free, chemical-free, natural, real food, not processed, chemicalised, treated, preserved, wrapped, packaged, bundled, mass-produced, manufactured stuff that tastes like cardboard. People will pay more for the real thing. Genuine spaghetti has an exotic cachet to it. You know what I mean?''

If she's right, perhaps there is indeed a future in spaghetti farming. And if there is, Thailand has everything to gain and nothing to lose by leading the region in spaghetti production.

``This is a lot different from when I used to grow rubber trees for a living,'' Santi said. ``You can't eat rubber, can you? But with my spaghetti farm, at least no one goes hungry any more, and that's something.''

Indeed it is.

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