Saturday, 15 December 2007
If you’ve threshed your rice out in the fields, you’ll have to bring the rice sacks home in the trailer behind your rot tai, the powerful little one axled ‘iron buffalo’ which serves to plough the fields, power the pumps and saws and haul every load that needs to be moved.
The roads are crowded with them and they are a definite hazard, especially at night as they rarely have lights and it’s easy to run up the back of them. Occasionally someone has nailed an old music CD on the back of the trailer to act as a reflector, a strange juxtaposition of the old and new.
Sometimes when taken home, the rice sacks can immediately be lifted into the rice barns where they’ll be kept until needed. If the rice is damp however, it’ll have to be laid out and dried. A couple of years ago, there was unseasonal rain during the rice harvest and many of the back roads were spread with tons of rice, out drying in the sun.
This year, our neighbour had hers spread out on fine blue netting in front of her rice barn and I saw her repeatedly raking it and turning it over to get it dry. She told me this was the crop from her seventeen rai of land (about eight acres) and it was going to take two or three days work to get it dry. Only then could it be put back in the sacks and stored. If stored damp, it would of course tend to germinate and to be tainted with mildew.
She is a rich farmer, her former husband a teacher, the first in the village to have a pickup many years ago, but still she follows the age old pattern of husbandry on the family’s land, bringing the harvest home.
Many small farmers are deep in debt and today the roads to the rice merchants’ depots are crowded with old pickups and rot tai taking their rice for sale. They need a quick return to pay off the credit they needed to raise the crop, though if only they could wait a few months the price would surely go up. This year there was flooding in the central plains and with a significant proportion of the harvest lost, the price is now quite high at ten baht a kilo, though with only modest rains the yield around here has been below normal.
Many families keep much of their crop for their own use. It stays in their rice barn or is displayed under the porch at the front of the house for all to see as a symbol of their productivity.
It’s always kept unhusked as brown rice is more resistant to rats and pests and as and when they need it, they’ll put a sack on a push cart behind the motorcycle and take it to the local rice mill. The mill is a small machine kept by a neighbour who turns it into white rice (khao san) in return for a proportion of the rice and the husks that he feeds to his pigs. Thus the nice fat sack you take to the mill is very much smaller when finally you get the white rice home again.
It’s surprising how many people here have bank accounts, though money has little real emotional pull and is spent easily. Many an Isaan man with a comfortable credit balance would feel far happier to have his rice barn full of bulging brown sacks. For rice is the staple and without it life cannot be sustained.