Fruit trade in Chanthaburi:
The money is with the ladies
All day long vehicles of all sizes and qualities pour out of tiny roads, packed with fruits of nearby orchards. Towards dark, traffic almost comes to a standstill. All major roads and junctions are lined with wholesale buyers inspecting the fruit in the farmers’ trucks. It’s the harvesting season, April to June. A year of hard labor is now paying off and the mood is festive.
The eastern province Chanthaburi is one of Thailand’s major sources of durian, rambutan, mangosteen, salak, longkong, banana and longan. Every year, hundreds of new fruit purchasing depots spring up in the region. During the harvesting season these places are visited by an endless parade of fully loaded pick-up trucks, providing a continuous supply. Work is done with impressive efficiency; quality is checked on the spot, fruits are instantly packed in boxes and loaded onto large container trucks, while the drivers take a nap in their hammock before they head for the harbor, the airport or the road to Laos, China or Vietnam.
Horticulture deals as much with vegetation as with culture. As a foreigner in Thailand, I am often more struck by the cultural aspects of growing flowers, trees and crops than by the actual appearance of certain species.
Likewise it is fascinating to discover how plants, flowers and landscaping are applied for cultural events.
The most striking aspect in all this hustle and bustle is the female dominance. In Thailand the middleman is generally a woman. It is she who buys crops from dispersed orchards. Checking the quality of fruit offered in the back of pick-up trucks is performed by a keen woman. Negotiations on the price of the load are carried out by a sharp lady. And of course it is a woman who handles the calculator and carries the bulging money bag. Men are for the hard work: loading and unloading, packing, weighing, carrying. Women scrupulously watch the scales, take decisions, calculate and hand out the bank notes.
In families of fruit farmers, more often than not it is the materfamilias who owns all the land on which her children grow their crops. She is the one who decides which new plots of land are bought and which son or son-in-law is allowed to try his skills on it. And eventually she is the one who assembles and distributes the earnings among her offspring.
Knowing the trading skills of Thai women, it does not come as a surprise to find them in leading positions in the fruit cooperatives. Near the Thai-Cambodian border, a cooperative with 7,000 members is headed by a female planter who took up the challenge to export rambutan to Vietnam. As rambutan has a short shelf life, she experimented with cold storage methods at the lowest possible costs and set up a joint venture with Vietnamese businessmen. She managed to slash the cold storage costs to less than a third. At the processing plants the best fruits are cleaned, covered with a moist, fibrous sheet and packed in ice. Thus the rambutan reaches the Vietnamese markets, 1,000 kilometres away, in a fresh state. Currently this determined woman is spurring the Thai government to speed up the customs procedures at the border.
May 2016, by Karolien Bais, image Mijnd Huijser
What fruit are we talking about?
Durian, ‘the King of Fruits’, is heavy, smelly and thorny. Do not wander through an orchard without a helmet when the fruit is ripe. Harvesting is a job for specialists. One man climbs the tree and cuts the fruit, while another one catches it with a sackcloth. With roughly 90% of the international market share, Thailand is the world's largest exporter of durian. Durian is especially popular in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Mangosteen,with its thick purple skin hiding a slightly pink, very juicy inside, is lovingly called ‘the Queen of Fruits’. Supposedly that pet name derives from Queen Victoria’s offering 100 pounds sterling for anyone who could bring her a fresh sample. Thailand is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of mangosteen. Almost 90% is exported, mainly to Vietnam, China and Hong Kong.
Rambutan grows in loose pendant bunches. The reddish skin looks spiky, but the spines are pliable. It covers a pale, sweet berry with only one seed. As rambutan has a short shelf life, the majority is consumed in the domestic market. Only 5% of the total production is exported, either as fresh fruit, canned fruit or stuffed with pineapple in syrup.
Longkong, also known as langsat, grows in clusters. The skin is a bit fuzzy and leaves your fingers sticky after peeling. But the white sweet juicy flesh is worth it. Like rambutan, longkong has a short shelf life, so it is mainly produced for the domestic market. It is also a favorite of many insects (scorpions love to hide in the bunch), which is not good for export. Still some produce goes to Cambodia, Philippines and Vietnam.
Longan is a close relative to the lychee. The hard skin is easy to crack open between thumb and forefinger. The white juicy berry with one round black seed does taste somewhat like lychee. Of the Thai produce of longan 94% is exported. Longan is sold fresh and dried, and processed into longan powder, baked longan and longan sugar. Dried longan is almost black and is much used in Chinese medicine.
Salak fruit grows in clusters at the base of a spiny palm, so harvesting is not a pleasant job. Neither is peeling the scaly and spiky skin. But the taste of the fruit, sweet, sour and crunchy, is a good compensation for the hardship. Luckily many street vendors sell them peeled, with a serving of sugar, salt and chili. Frozen salak in juice is a popular dessert in Thailand, especially during the hot season.