After a long career in the food and beverage industry, Richard Blossom ’66 decided to cofound two businesses that help marginalized farmers in Northern Thailand earn a much better living producing organic foods. We asked him what made him decide to do this and how it’s working.
Richard Blossom ’66, in white shirt, with a Hilltribe Organics farmer, along with staff members; Hilltribe Organics is his organic free-range egg company based in Northern Thailand.
What led you to cofound two companies that work with farmers in Northern Thailand to produce organic foods after a career in the international food and beverage sector for PepsiCo, Del Monte, and others?
I remember someone showing me a picture of farmers in a small village in Thailand. It took me a moment to realize what was wrong. I asked, "Where are the young farmers?" and was told there aren't any young farmers anymore. All the children have gone to the city. And I knew how those journeys go—the poor become the abject poor. I had no idea how to solve that problem, but I thought I might have an idea how to preserve these small farming communities.
These farmers are not poor because of their soil or the crops they grow or how they grow them. It is because there are seven layers in the food supply chain and the farmers are the last one. They take all the risks, everyone else makes money, and little is left for them.
But my experience told me that if we produce superior branded products for high-end consumers and eliminate the middlemen, we can assure small farmers a consistent and much higher income. So we did that by creating a new market in Thailand for organic free-range eggs—in biodegradable packaging and traceable to every farmer— under the Hilltribe Organics (HTO) brand.
It worked. HTO created a new market, helped spur the growth of organic food in Thailand, and still remains the leader of a substantial and growing market segment. We doubled or tripled the income of farmers.
A year after we started HTO, we started Perfect Earth Foods, also focused on the hill tribe farming communities. Our first project was to bring chia seeds as a crop to Thailand from Peru. Then we built a plant to produce organic gluten-free pasta from the organic brown, red, and black rice our hill tribes were growing. And now we are starting to produce organic meal kits and organic gluten-free instant ramen noodles—to our knowledge the first in the world that are fully organic, including the sauces and seasonings.
In some ways, I suppose I am atoning for my sins in selling unhealthy products to people all over the world in the early part of my career.
How did you decide to focus on this unique area, home to the marginalized Akha and Karen people? What made you want to help them generate sustainable farming income?
My cofounder of both companies, Arvind Narula, is the largest exporter of organic rice in Thailand. He does contract farming with thousands of small farmers in Northern Thailand, but we were both drawn to starting our project with the hill tribes, capitalizing on the experience of his team there. We took poor rice farmers and gave them something they had never had in their lives—daily income. And annual income two to three times greater.
These hill tribes are socially and politically marginalized, so we felt that if we are going to help small farmers, let's start with the poorest, the ones nobody else wants to help. But also we had the goal to broadly spread organic farming among small farmers, not just to improve their income, but also to improve the health and wellness of them and their families and of the consumers of their products, while protecting the land on which they depend.
Have you been able to get these food products into a wider international and regional distribution system?
For fresh eggs, the distribution scope is limited due to shelf life. We are sold in all the major retailers in Thailand and export to Hong Kong and, until COVID, were exporting to Qatar. We are working on getting Certification to Export to Singapore (which can double our sales) and in taking the HTO model to Vietnam next year.
At the same time, HTO is working on value-added products that can be sold globally—like organic whole-egg mayonnaise produced from our organic free-range eggs, and on other crops that can be grown organically by our farmers, such as organic coffee and organic honey.
Perfect Earth only produces shelf-stable products, and they are sold all over the world.
What's the most rewarding part of having established these businesses? And what have the hurdles been?
The rewarding part is easy. For both HTO and Perfect Earth, we can easily see the impact we have made on these small farming communities. The communities have stopped shrinking. Kids have stopped leaving and some have started to come back. Parents are sending kids to better schools and sometimes to college. The air and water are cleaner since they have stopped using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and the farmers are healthier and feel better. And we have made many consumers happy, especially those like my daughter, Carissa '08 (also a Taftie), who has celiac and has to eat gluten-free.
On the other hand, the hurdles are constant, especially for HTO. Since we are organic we cannot use antibiotics, so when the rainy season comes our hens get sick. We solve the problem every year and then the next year there is a new disease we never heard about. But we have a great team who are passionate about what we are doing, so we have improved every year and hopefully will continue to do so. Maybe one day we can bring HTO to American Indian tribes in remote areas! And meanwhile, we are working on launching the Perfect Earth brand in the U.S. for our organic chia seeds and shots, organic gluten-free pastas, organic meal kits, and organic instant ramen noodles.