Authenticity is one of Pizza 4P’s core brand values. It’s a policy the founders adhere to but also a question they constantly challenge themselves with.
What does being authentic mean? For Pizza 4P’s it means creating pieces of work that went through a complete process of creation, eschewing superficial imitations and copies of an existing thing. When deciding on collaborations, the brand is attracted to businesses and individuals that share their approach to creativity. In a series of articles titled “Attitude of Authenticity”, Vietcetera brings you stories of artisans contributing to Pizza 4P’s pursuit of authenticity through inspired collaborations.
Thien Sinh Farm is one such partner whose mission to supply fresh and safe ingredients chimes with Pizza 4P’s business model that marries authenticity with sellability. Having established a profitable farm-to-table business, Thien Sinh founder Nguyen Quoc Thang is taking on a bigger role in the community. With high-quality, reasonably priced organic products still a rarity in Vietnam, he hopes that Thien Sinh’s success will encourage other traditional farmers to switch to organic methods. This is an account of his commendable efforts to spread the gospel of sustainable farming in Vietnam.
When and how did you start this farm?
For me it all started with a serendipitous encounter when I was still a conventional farmer. It happened around the time when I realized just how toxic traditional farming methods were: for myself, my workers, and especially for consumers. As I started looking at ways to limit the usage of chemicals, I ran into a Japanese friend of mine who is an expert in organic farming. It was in 2007, I think. The conversation provided a momentum to completely change my approach to farming and right away I set up my first research facility to study organic agriculture. Four years later, in 2011, Thien Sinh Farm was officially born.
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What challenges did you encounter in the early days?
The first challenge when taking the leap to organic agriculture was my lack of experience running a large-scale organic business. Then there were market limitations. Organically grown produce was a novelty in Vietnam back then so at first we struggled to break out of the ‘niche product’ category. The third challenge was the unstable ecosystem on the farm. Fighting pests and diseases without resorting to chemical intervention was tough and I was painfully aware of the fact that I was not prepared to take on a massive agricultural epidemic.
Last but not least, “How do I earn a living?” was one of the questions constantly nagging me. When we shifted to clean farming, at first there was no harvest to speak of. Nothing to sell. So I was under tremendous pressure to make ends meet. It was the biggest challenge for me and, I would say, for any newcomer to organic farming.
What makes Thien Sinh Farm different?
The most significant difference is our self-contained model. Our approach is to minimize the external influences on our gardens, which has two benefits: we keep costs down and are able to run a waste-free operation by turning organic waste into fertilizer. We even make farming tools ourselves. This allows us to gradually build up our capacity as well as giving the workers an opportunity to learn new skills – a sustainable growth model.
Although the farm is self-contained, it is open to students, farmers, companies and anyone who is curious about organic agriculture. Before we can hope to advance the concept across the country, we need to first educate consumers and businesses. We want students and families to spend a day here learning about the health benefits of incorporating farm-to-table produce into your diet and why it helps protect the environment.
As an expert, what tips can you give consumers to distinguish organic from non-organic food at the stores?
It is difficult, but not impossible. One way is by looking at the color – the organic cucumber will look more natural. Another approach is to taste it. Organically grown fruits and vegetables have a more diverse range of flavors, from bitter to tart to sugary, depending on the type of plant. What you taste is the flavor the way nature intended it. For instance, non-organic guava tastes sweet or watery, whereas with the organic kind the first bite is slightly sour, with sweet aftertaste. That’s because organic flavors are richer and more diverse.
Also be sure to check your fruits and vegetables for firmness. Organic vegetables are always softer because they do not contain chemicals. Under conventional cultivation, the substances used increase the thickness of the cell walls of the plants, making them tougher. Therefore, chewing non-chemical greens feels softer and more natural.
What has working with Pizza 4P’s been like?
I find all projects between Thien Sinh Farm and Pizza 4P’s to be meaningful; understanding each other’s business models allows us to cooperate competently. Pizza 4P’s appreciates how challenging and rewarding cultivating a farm is. Thien Sinh growers, in turn, understand the market and the specific needs of Pizza 4P’s restaurants. That enables a more profound connection between us.
Take whey, for example. Whey is the liquid left after making cheese. We recycle 100% of whey from Pizza 4P’s cheese factory, about 2,000 liters a day, by first adding bacteria to help fermentation along, and then feeding it to the cows (unfermented, whey upsets the ruminants’ stomach).
Our second project is the Herb Garden＝Farm 4P’s at Pizza 4P’s restaurants. This is our way to demonstrate, in a publicly accessible setting, how sustainable management of agricultural production from farm to table works. I have high hopes for this project and look forward to seeing it thrive.
In parallel with the Herb Garden we are running the Earthworm Project to minimize the amount of food waste. By demonstrating how restaurant waste can be turned into a natural fertilizer, we hope to make it a common practice. For Saigon to become a smart city of the future, we need to rethink how community garbage is treated, how restaurant waste is treated. The government has made strides in modernizing waste management in Saigon but hasn't followed through. We hope that Pizza 4P’s customers will follow our lead by embracing waste recycling and making the world better, and greener.
Finally, our Rocket Leaves project. It’s a self-contained partnership, with all rocket leaves for Pizza 4P’s restaurants coming from our farm, so consumers know exactly where the leaves originate. Whenever they can’t immediately tell if the product is organic, recognizing the manufacturer, establishing the provenance will give them peace of mind. All in all, cutting out the middleman is beneficial on so many levels: for customers it means provenance transparency and lower prices, for farmers – fair price and sustainable profits that allow them to reinvest into their farms with confidence.
Can you share a little about the working and living conditions of the workers at the farm?
We employ about 30 people. What attracted them here in the first place is not the living conditions, however, but the fact that we do not use chemicals, which is better for their health. Their income is equivalent to or is slightly above what workers at other farms make. Working here they gain knowledge in various fields, from mechanics to raising cows to planting trees – vital skills that they bring back to their communities and that will help them transition to a new line of work over time. For example in Japan, coal miners who learn to operate specialized machinery on the job, are in high demand from other industries due to their unique skill set.
What makes us special is that about 90% of the farmers we employ belong to local ethnic minorities: the K’Ho and the Chu Ru. By training them and giving them employment we help support local communities, as the skills they learn here benefit not just their immediate families but society as a whole.
What plans do you have for Thien Sinh Farm?
There is still a lot of room for improvement. Right now, we are helping some ethnic groups in the neighborhood with farming methodology, lending our expertise to teach them to grow organic vegetables. We advise them and step in whenever they hit an obstacle. We see it as a way to contribute to the process of sustainable growth in the society.
As for our partnership with Pizza 4P’s, we are starting to see an even more integrated cooperation, meaning that it’s not longer just about setting a fair price but about looking at the root cause of the issues we encounter along the way.
Another modest goal of ours is to be part of the global movement to make the future more organic, with fresh, safe produce getting the recognition it deserves from consumers and businesses alike. Given the precarious state of the environment, we must act now and act as a united front.