Sunday, 23 November 2008
The Tyranny of Rice
From upstairs I can see the rice is suddenly ripening
Hire of the thresher and labour is yet another cost
An old truck has brought a new future to the rice fields
Thumbs up from Mungorn as the combine does all the work
Combine harvesting Mama's fields for the first time ever
A big machine, no wonder it's so expensive to hire
Mali's Papa eyes the future with some scepticism
For his generation it's all going to change though.
After almost a week of rain the temperature has suddenly dipped several degrees and as I look out from my upstairs verandah I can see that the brilliant green of the rice fields is suddenly turning to brown. It’s a good time but a tough one as the harvest rules everyone’s lives when they begin the tough task of bringing in the rice.
The village is not quite as sleepy as usual. Familiar faces that I haven’t seen for some time have come back from work in Bangkok for the harvest. I hear the thump, thump of the thresher and go round to watch a family team tossing the bundles of rice high into the machine. The straw is spewed out high into the air and a trickle of brown grains is collected in sacks which are then put together and counted. Will it be a good harvest this year?
Cat’s brother Mungorn tells us that Mama’s field is ready for cutting but try as he might he cannot find enough people to do the work. In recent years he’s used a big team to bring in the whole crop within a day or two but times are changing. He thinks the only alternative now is to rent a combine harvester but while this cuts out the cost of the threshing, it’s going to be expensive. He’ll have to find 6,000 baht which he hasn’t got, but never mind, he does have a farang brother-in-law!
An incidental advantage is that with his own fields cut in a few hours, he and Mali are then free to sell their labour and recoup some of the extra cost.
Rice farming is difficult as your cash flow comes only at the end of the season when you sell the rice, so farmers borrow to finance the production costs and sell on for a low price as soon as possible after the harvest to minimize interest payments, though this time Mungorn’s in luck as he's got free credit from me.
I go out to the rice fields and the harvester has already been offloaded from its battered truck and is grinding up and down the fields at some speed. Mangorn gives me the thumbs up as he starts his rot tai, the iron buffalo and trailer with which he’ll collect the full sacks of rice from the fields.
First time ever on Mama’s land, the harvester is quite a spectacle for the old men who’ve come to watch. After a hard life of farming by hand, Mali’s father is open mouthed, but he’s ready with his sickle, gleaning the standing rice in the corners that the harvester has missed. His eye sight is fading so I’ve just given him some spectacles which I can see sticking out of his shirt pocket. (I buy these ten at a time and hand them round to any old folk who need them.)
For him though, this is the end of an era. His world has been changing fast and with rice farming unable to sustain the village population and with the inevitable drift to the cities, ironically there’s now a shortage of labour at harvest time. Here in Isaan with its long dry season and no water for irrigation, only one crop a year is possible which thus offers intensive work for only a few months. Seasonal workers who come and go are needed but as they get scarcer and scarcer, increasing mechanization is necessary.
For a child in the field playing with the old man’s sickle, life may be very different. He'll not want the same backbreaking life in the rice fields and there’ll be no livelihood there for him anyway. It’s a way of life whose time is almost gone.
With all the costs of producing rice I often wonder too if rice production on this small family scale is still financially viable. I’m sure that few of the farmers keep accounts and have only a vague idea what if any profit they’ve made. But it’s what you know and if you have land, then you just have to farm it. As most people are under-employed, working the fields turns your labour to account and you can produce some rice to eat during the year. To me it seems a very haphazard way of running a major industry and I wonder how things will change in the next twenty years.
There’s a slow revolution coming to Isaan and who knows how socially disruptive it will be. It seems an obvious proposition, but the problem of urban drift and migration should be tackled by an aggressive policy of regional development. Bringing small industry and jobs to Isaan would reduce the pressure on the metropolitan area and maintain social cohesion in the villages.
It seems strange though that I’ve never heard mention of such an idea. For the aspirant politician it could prove to be the most attractive populist policy ever, far better than handing out money and cheap credit as has been done until now.
Sadly politicians need instant results and long term policies such as this seem to have little chance of success. The life expectancy of a Thai government is generally far too short.
Copyright: The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog 10 November 2008