© Dan White. No repro without permission.
In the rough world of the mythical wild west cowboys were rarely known to have engaged in philosophical ponderings on the relativity of time in relation to the essentials of existence and the fourth dimension.
But here on the Chokchai ranch in Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima province there is one revivalist cowboy who is not only confusing tradition but also forging ahead with a vision driven by his passionate desire to bring balance to a society that may be fast losing its way.
Choak Bulakul has staked his future and the future of his company on agricultural tourism. Chokchai farm is an educational playground where children come to learn about the environment and sustainable dairy farming. It attracts about 240,000 visitors a year with a particular focus on the serious business of giving children a chance to gain real hands on experience of rural farm life. The focus is also on fun with horse riding, wild west shows, off road adventures in four wheel drives and lots of whooping. But alongside the wild west excitement children can learn how to milk a cow, feed baby deer with their own hands or even make their own ice cream.
The farm itself was started by Choak’s father, Choakchai Bulakul, and came about simply because he loved the wild west and wanted to be a cowboy. “My Father was not really that interested in being a big business person. He just genuinely wanted to be a cowboy. And that’s it.”
As Choak’s father realised, to be a genuine cowboy you need genuine cows. In 1957 he bought 20,000 rai (2,598 hectares) of land in the Pakchong district of Nakhon Ratchasima with only 30,000 baht in the pocket of his levi’s. By the mid ‘90s the Chokchai brand was one of the most important dairy operations in South East Asia with over 5000 head of cattle, thousands of acres of farm land and one of Bangkok’s most fashionable steak houses. It was also the biggest producer and distributor of pasteurised milk in the kingdom.
But although the company was huge, by 1996 all was not well. Chokchai Farm Group was saddled with Bt300 to Bt 400 million of consolidated debt. As the 1997 financial catastrophe approached, it was clear that changes needed to be made.
It was at this point that the young Choak returned from his studies in America and decided to try something new to save the family business. Something that would turn conventional business wisdom on its head. Something that would be profitable and progressive but would also be creative. “If you are a business man and you are only after profit without thinking of the moral issue then I don’t think it is good enough. For me it has always been important to deliver something back to the community as well as create a profitable business.”
For Choak Bulakul the marriage of a creative vision and sound business acumen has granted a rebirth to the Farm Chokchai Group. “When we were facing bankruptcy I knew I had to think creatively to survive. To think simply in the normal business way was not enough. So in a way that is where my artistic side helped me come up with a solution.”
Choak’s plan was simple. To eliminate the debt by selling off the dairy processing side of the business and then use the newfound economic freedom to create something new on the land itself that would revive the fortunes of the Chokchai farm group and fulfil his personal desire to do something different.
There was at first a lot of family resistance to Choak’s ideas since they were the first ones to introduce pasteurised milk to the Thai market but it turned out to be a company saving decision.
Not only that. For Choak the project is helping to provide some balance for children whose lives may be dominated by ragnorok in cyber café’s or reality TV shows that, for some, may just be in danger of replacing reality. “Stuck in the cyber world, your emotion may just disapear. To appreciate nature brings a balance and harmony. On the reality TV show they play with emotion. Why? Reality itself is far more interesting. I don’t see anything wrong with the technology of the modern world, but without balance our emotions can disappear.”
Being a man of action Chokchai doesn’t spend a great deal of time reading. But when he does it is again the desire to understand the depths of all that is real that draws him. “I love books that explain to me how things work. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking is a book that I go back to again and again. I read it both in Thai and in English. Understanding time is part of understanding nature and how things in nature constantly change and evolve. I would love to see a real dinosaur for instance. If only we really could travel in time!”
Choak may be pre occupied with the relationship between time and nature, but he is also under no philosophical illusions as to the very down-to-earth realities of global competition in the dairy business. “Thailand is an agricultural country. Our wellbeing depends on our farmers, yet we are importing things more cheaply from China than the products our own farmers produce here in Thailand. The re–combined powdered milk from Australia that is produced with Australian government subsidies is cheaper than the fresh milk we produce ourselves. It’s the bad side of globalisation.”
These issues concern Choak as a businessman but will be of less concern to the children watching the wild west show or spending time with the animals in the petting zoo. For them it’s a chance to see that milk doesn’t start simply from the fridge of the 7/11 or that real creatures are as interesting as cyber monsters. There is real fascination as they take the Chokchai tour. And the word is spreading.
And what gives Choak real satisfaction? “I was buying gas for my car in Bangkok and I paid with a Chokchai Farm Group card. The gas attendant’s face lit up. A friend of her son’s at school had been on a visit and was telling all the other kids about what a great time he had. Now all the kids want to go. I didn’t tell her that I was the CEO. I just gave her directions. Take a bus to Saraburi and then change onto another bus that will take you straight there. For me its all about creating enthusiasm.”