Under what conditions are small-scale farmers able to overcome significant barriers to shift into producing organic rice? In this paper, we compare the puzzling patterns we find in the attempts to increase the production of organic rice in five similar provinces in the fertile heartland of northeastern Thailand. Despite the fact that they face similar natural, social and political conditions, farmers in some provinces have been markedly more successful in making such a shift than those in others. We attempt to explain this variation by identifying several upgrading challenges embedded in the shift into higher value portions of this alternative global value chain and exploring the potential roles of local, regional, national, and international NGOs in helping farmers to overcome these challenges. In doing so, we pay special attention to the possible role of local government in serving as a catalyst for ‘scaling up’ the assistance that community groups and NGOs can provide to farmers seeking to upgrade.