Can Betong chicken become as famous as Japan's wagyu?
A business group in Yala's Betong district plans to make its chicken as famous as Japanese wagyu beef, which would not only help out local farmers hit by low rubber prices, but also boost tourism in Thailand's southernmost province.
When speaking of the best ingredient for Hainanese chicken rice in Thailand, the name of Betong chicken is always at the top of the list.
However, the popularity of this strain of chicken in the far South was not earned easily.
Thananrat Udomthanyarat, known locally as "Ko Chang", worked hard to set up a farmer group to raise Betong chickens and is devoted to making this local speciality world-renowned.
The sound of chickens cackling can be heard in a newly founded village in Betong district dedicated to raising the birds.
In the midst of mountains and lush forest, a small chicken farm can be seen within a rubber plantation.
It may look simple, but this farm supplies the market with rare and expensive Betong chickens, which can be sold for up to Bt1,000 each.
Akeksasit Thareelapraksa, a member of the Betong chicken farmer group, said the pristine nature of this part of Yala and freerange-style farming were the prime advantages for raising this breed, as the birds live in a clean environment and forage their food naturally, which makes their meat tender and fragrant.
"We cannot raise Betong chickens on an industrial scale, or else they would be the same as other farms' chickens, so Ko Chang set up the farmer group, which has 20 members, to raise Betong chicken in small coops and let our members raise the chickens under the same brand," Akeksasit said.
He said that under this system, each member buys chicks from Ko Chang's farm, and the group gathers money to buy antibiotics and supplementary foods for the birds, but each member will receive full profit from his or her chicken sales.
Ko Chang opened a Hainanese chicken rice restaurant in Betong city so the group could sell their poultry directly to the customers.
"This style of management allows us to benefit the local farmers, who earlier depended financially on rubber only. Now they can have a special income and have a better life, as they can receive at least Bt60,000 a month from the sale of 100 chickens," he said.
Akeksasit said that because of the popularity of Betong chicken, there was always high demand for it, but Ko Chang and his team decided not to expand production, because they wanted to control the quality of the product.
He said that currently the overall production rate was only 2,000 chickens per month.
"This is one of our tactics to make our chicken more special. We will not sell Betong chicken elsewhere, as we still cannot fill the demand in our home town, and anyone who wants to try our famous chicken must visit Betong. It is just like if you want to taste genฌuine wagyu, you have to visit Japan," he said.
Akeksasit said the farmer group and the Yala Provincial Agricultural Office were trying to have Betong chicken certified as a Geographical Indication product, as the breed cannot be raised elsewhere and have the same meat texture.
"Farmers are always branded by the big conglomerates as we are only the producers, but with our business, we have proved that farmers can link directly to consumers and increase their product's value without letting middlemen take benefits away from us," he added.