Banging the drum for the Bang Mot oranges
Bangkok growers watch the future of this sweet ’n’ sour variety peel away as developers move in, writes Supoj Wancharoen
Anyone who has tried a Bang Mot orange is unlikely to forget its distinctive sweet-sour taste that literally drips with flavour. It grows in eight districts in the capital but originates from Bang Mot in Thon Buri on the west side of the Chao Phraya River, an area famous for its fertile, potassium-rich soil that gives the fruit its signature taste.
However, rising land prices and other factors are jeopardising the orange’s future, warn cultivators and conservationists, who see it as an “inheritance” for later generations. They fear farmers in other parts of the country will buy the seeds and reap the benefits while Bang Mot, the birthplace of this hugely popular variety, gets stepped over and forgotten.
To ensure its survival amid rising competition, a group of farmers is banding together to preserve their traditional growing methods. In recent years, the Bang Mot orange has been disappearing from local markets, replaced by other varieties from the North including Sai Nam Pheung and easy-to-peel Mandarin.
On top of this, property developers are offering farmers in Bang Mot eye-popping prices to sell their land while environmental problems in the capital are hurting crop yields in Bang Mot orange orchards.
Critics say this is cause for concern as just 32 growers run orchards on 80 rai of land in Chom Thong, Thung Kru, Bang Khunthian, Rat Burana, Bang Bon, Phasicharoen, Bang Kae and Nong Khaem — the eight Bangkok districts alluded to.
During a recent visit to several of these orchards the Bangkok Post talked to some of the growers about their experiences and what they believe, or fear, the future will hold.
Kallaya Thongniem, 59, owns an orchard in Bang Khunthian district. She relayed a story that her grandparents told her about an old man called Sem who allegedly first brought the Bang Mot orange over to Thailand from China in 1920.
Ms Kallaya said her maternal grandfather grew fruit in the same district and adopted the Bang Mot variety in 1937. Sadly, disaster struck in 1942 when all the Bang Mot trees grown on a 10-rai plot were destroyed by floods. In 1967 her father started over with other varieties but these too were washed away by torrential rains in 1975.
“My dad tried again in 1977 but more floods forced him to put his dream on ice for a few decades — until my older brother started growing new orange seedlings taken from the two sub-districts of Bang Khun Non and Bangkok Noi in 2003,” said Ms Kallaya.
Another major flood in 2011 destroyed these crops so the family decided to take a break from orange-growing until Ms Kallaya felt it was time to revive the orchard a few years ago.
She claims the variety found in Bang Khun Non and Bangkok Noi is particularly good when grown in the salty, alluvium-rich soil of her orchard. This natural alchemy produces a more delicious fruit than if the same seeds are grown elsewhere in Thailand, she said.
“The Bang Mot orange has a distinctive flavour. It is sweet, slightly acidic and its peel is thin and easy to remove. This, and the soft rind, has made it especially popular,” she said.
Another grower in the locality, 64-yearold Supab Sumthong, said her grandparents started her orchard, too. It was flooded, abandoned for years, revived, then later destroyed by a subsequent deluge, she said.
Ms Supab recalls hearing how the Bang Mot variety sold for 1.5 baht per kilogramme in 1957, when growers still transported their products to market by boat. The orange now costs around 200 baht per kg and is considerably harder to find, largely due to lower yields.
Since 2003, the remaining growers have come together to launch a programme that lets them share their experience and knowledge for improved yields. The initiative is supported by agricultural technology experts from Chom Thong district office.
“We came up with this programme after hearing that HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn expressed her wish to see Bang Mot orange-growing preserved as a form of ‘inheritance’ for the nation,” said Ms Supab.
The farmers say they only use organic pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers. The first two are made using locally grown herbs while the fertiliser is a product of manure and mud that grows in the orchard’s watercourses which is rich in natural minerals.
Ms Supab said urbanisation is a major threat to Bang Mot orange-growing areas as property developers rush to snap up land plots for new housing projects.
An orchard next to hers, about 300 metres away from the main road, has attracted bids as high as 25 million baht per rai, she said. Other plots by the main road can sell for 80 million baht per rai, she added.
Selling up is very tempting in light of the falling yields, plummeting profits, environmental pollution from nearby factories and growing competition, she said.
“One solution would be for the government to better regulate the use of land in this area by clearly separating the industrial zone from the green zone,” Ms Supab said.
“We intend to preserve [the Bang Mot orange-growing fields] for later generations but we don’t have anyone to turn to when we need help.”
To supplement her shrinking income, she said she has started growing other fruit and vegetables to sell.
She said she was inspired by the sufficiency economy philosophy espoused by the late King Rama IX.
Kallaya Thongniem is one of the locals who decided to preserve the Bang Mot orange orchards they inherited from past generations.
Ms Kallaya has revived her orange orchard in Bang Khunthian district after floods a few years ago.