Thursday, 12 July 2007

Whither the Rice Harvest?

The ideal way to cultivate rice, from ploughing, to raising seedlings in a nursery bed and then planting each one by hand in the flooded field.

About the time I flew back to England at the end of April the first rains had already fallen, precious drops falling onto the parched ground and giving off the rich smell of hot earth. Cat told me over the phone that unusually the rain was continuing and after a week or two that the farmers were preparing the soil and planting the rice. I was surprised as this seemed earlier than usual and with no guarantee that the rains would continue. A resumption of the hot, dry weather would surely burn the young shoots.

It’s now early July and the rice crop is not looking good at all. Most of the rice land has been planted but much of the rice looks yellow and thin and very little of it is in the standing water that’s necessary for robust growth. Rather than seedlings being pre-germinated and individually planted in the flooded paddy field in the usual backbreaking way, it looks as if most farmers have broadcast the seed rice directly onto the earth. When the ground is relatively dry like this year, the only option is to broadcast the seed, a method that saves time but produces a smaller yield.

In a few places with a high water table the fields are flooded and there’s an example of this at the end of our soi where a pond has recently been filled in. A farmer and his wife have just been ploughing it with their ‘iron buffalo’, the two wheeled tractor that does such good service in this part of the world, before they plant out the rice. This they’ll do in the optimal way by first germinating the seeds in nursery beds. When the seedlings are about a foot high, they gather them in bundles and take them to the flooded fields. There the farmers, often women, wade bare foot in the mud, bent double planting each seedling individually in rows, growing conditions which produce a much better yield.

In the last few weeks there have been some dramatic storms and the sky has darkened, the low clouds streaming by on the squall, dumping cold stair rods of rain on us for a few minutes but then in all their sound and fury fast moving on. What’s now needed is the long grey days of continuous rain that we’ll probably get in August when my daughter and son-in-law come out to stay for a couple of weeks. We’re going for a trip to Southern Laos and while I hope we don’t get washed away, I do still worry for the rice harvest.

Cat simply says that the world is changing. New weather patterns may thus mean that rice production in this dry region becomes even less viable than it already is. Yet you wouldn’t think so when at the rice harvest later in the year all the farmers come streaming in to the rice depots to sell their crop. The trucks, pickups and iron buffaloes are lined up for miles and they sometimes wait for days for theirs to be sold. It seems sad that after all that work they’re so desperate to pay off some of their crippling loans that they can’t wait a few months for a better price.

I’m sure the devil runs rice farms in hell as torment for the wicked and in purgatory too. Rice farming really is a tough life and I wonder what the future is for our North Eastern Thai village where rice cultivation ceased to be a viable way of life at least a generation ago.

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