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.

Andrew Hicks

Copyright: The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog 10 November 2008


FrogBlogger said...

As the younger generations increasingly scorn the lifestyles of their elders, the rural exodus has a sad effect on the countryside and its aging, remote communities. It's something I witnessed happening over 20 years or so in France before coming to Thailand - despite the protectionist attitude of the French and the strength of the farming lobby, the urban drift is tangible and uninterrupted. The only thing that slows it down is the size of the country, and the side-effects of Napoleonic measures to break the hold of the rich - via strictly imposed inheritance laws that forced the division of estates in equal shares amongst siblings. Peasant smallholdings proliferated, and the current day farming lobby is powerful (in terms of sheer numbers and votes) as a result.

I've a few acres in the south near Avignon, and these days you can't even interest a local farmer in working the land just to maintain it - even if they keep all the produce themselves. It's just not worth their while any more. There's no longer the skilled workers who know how to make and repair terraces. So much of the countryside, once so carefully looked after, is reverting to scrubland. Intuitively you just know we've got our priorities wrong these days - it'll come back to haunt us - or if not us, future generations - I'm sure of it!

mike said...

Andrew, It is interesting that you mention the need for mechanisation as a result of the rural exodus that FrogBlogger refers to (FrogBlogger, are you really French? Your English is better than mine!). That is certainly a valid point. I first saw the "machines" for sale in our nearby town last year, and this year I have seen a couple working the fields. I am not a Luddite, but it brings tears to my eyes. Our village community is very much like yours, and others all over rural Thailand. Landless people have very little: the frogs they catch, the mushrooms, bamboo shoots, etc. they collect. Once a year all the able-bodied, but landless, people in the village, can make a few hundred baht working the rice harvest - enough to buy new shoes for the kids, school books, etc. But in years to come they won't have that opportunity; the money will go to the owner of the machine. Well, not quite. He, of course, borrowed from the bank, or, worse, a money lender, to buy the machine. The bank makes the money. Perhaps the machine 'owner' didn't do his sums, and before next year's harvest his machine will be reposessed; the bank gets a bonus. Mungorn's back will feel much better, but what does the future hold for his landless neighbour?

Thai Girl said...

The comparison with France has also struck me too. France has a much higher proportion of workers on the land than say the UK which has under one percent and the average age of farmers there is about 54 years if I remember; a demographic timebomb.

While the principle of primogeniture in England created large farms and estates, the French reserve hereditaire, as you say, split holdings every generation. Likewise in Thailand when Papa is too old to work the land he splits it equally between all his children including the girls. Tiny holdings are the result.

The French held back the rising waters by devising the EEC/EU and a Common Agricultural Policy that required other member states to subsidise their inefficient agricultural production. With the link of subsidy to production being broken in 2002 and further reforms of the CAP being approved this very week, the outlook for the French countryside is bleak. I don't regret the reduction of subsidies though as the biggest losers have been in poor countries whose farmers have seen EU surpluses dumped world wide.

Thailand's agricultural revolution will not have the same cushion though and could happen very fast. Yes, I too hugely regret the passing of a way of life. The combine represents massive change inthe countryside.

There is a genuine shortage of seasonal labour though and as this drives the cost of labour up, so the combine becomes more viable.

In Thailand's central plains Middle Eastern interests are buying up rice land in the name of nominee Thai companies. Rightly the government is concerned.

While rice farming on a more industrial scale is possible there, in Isaan where there can be no second crop, it's a less attractive proposition. Sugar, rubber and eucalyptus make some sense if the ground is not waterlogged, but that too creates totally different patterns of labour and social change.

As in Buddhism everything is changeable and unsatisfactory, but I do find it fascinating being an observer of things here in Surin.

Thanks for your interesting comments and keep them coming.


MeMock said...

Another great read Andrew, so sad but oh so true. I saw a few of these machines for the first time ever close by my home here in Ubon.
You have a great way of using photos to tell your story as well, great stuff.

MeMock said...

I forgot to ask.....

6000 baht to hire the machine, how many rai was that for and does the machine only work on a certain gradient of land?

Thai Girl said...

Thanks, MeMock. Glad you enjoyed it.

The combine was 6000 baht for only a few rai and took a couple of hours. With the high cost of delivering the machine I guess it gets more efficient for a larger area.

Flooded paddy fields are of course flat but the combine runs on caterpillar tracks and I saw it climb across the dividing walls between fields without the slightest trouble. It's pretty nimble.


East Eastington said...

Andrew, Very interesting comments on changes to Thai & French rural practices. Of course in England things have also been changing with the purchase of farms and smallholdings by townies (like us!)At present local farmers are prepared to farm the land and get payment through the Single Farm Payment Scheme, which of course now relates to land area/type rather than production. However in our area of the South West of England, which is mainly dairy, land owners will rely on the local dairy farmers to maintain their land under the cross conpliance requirements. In the event that the decline of the dairy industry continues it will be interesting to see whether the land owners will be able to afford the maintenance costs - maybe leading to a further decline in property values.
Nice to see the iron bufallo. Have often thought this was what we needed for our hill and meadow. Best wishes to you all - we see W&A this weekend prior to their trip out to see you.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. Harvesting rice is definitely grueling work. My inlaws have a few fields and it is profitable but I don't think, as you said, they really know how much they make. They "just do it". Its odd. And any mentioning of trying to apply some standard business practices is ignored or sometimes even laughed off.