Sunday, October 27, 2013

Family farms in Thailand

Rice nearly ready for harvesting.
Thailand is one of the most prolific producers of fresh foods I have seen; despite the country's low average income, people here say that as long as they have rice and fish, no one goes hungry. In a country that receives six months of regular tropical rains, there are two distinct growing seasons, one for crops that thrive in wet soil, and one for those that do well in dry conditions.

I spent a day touring the fields in northeast Thailand (the region known by Thais as "Isan" or "Esan"), where many different crops are grown by families who live in the nearby village. Plots (or "rai") vary in dimensions, depending on the family's total farm size, and on what type of crop is grown. The season was about to change from rainy (June-October) to dry (November-May), so I was fortunate to see the fields in transition. I plan to go back for the rice harvest in November.

I was not interested in seeing the huge corporate farms here that have become the norm in the U.S., and threaten the way of life of Thai farmers as well, but instead I wanted to see the traditional farms that sustain families. They remind me of the way farming was done in the States 50-100 years ago (I spent many a wonderful summer on my grandparents' small farm in the midwest 50 years ago), although the farms here tend to be much smaller: most Thai farmers grow more than one crop and supplement their income and diets by raising livestock, green vegetables, chili peppers, bananas and coconuts, most of it next to their homes in the village, but some also in the countryside. 

Rice field boundaries are marked by raised earth, to separate each farmer's field, and also for growing different varieties. The fields contain clay, which helps hold rainwater for the rice to grow for several months.

Bananas grow as clusters, along field borders and in backyards. Water buffalo, the traditional beast of burden in Thailand, graze on non-rice grasses.
Eight of the top ten rice producing countries are in Asia; Thailand ranks #6 (behind China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam). Rice is planted at the beginning of the rainy season (June) and harvested when the dry season begins, from mid-October through November. On small family farms (anywhere from 2-100 rai, [1 acre = 2.5 rai]) no chemicals are used. Rice bought in Bangkok that is from corporate farms has chemical reside from artificial fertilizers and pesticides, as well as being genetically modified; rice from small farms do not. Their fertilizer comes from animal waste. I was told by one farmer, "We don't want chemicals in our rice. Insects don't eat much, so we don't mind sharing if it means no chemicals."

Burlap rice sacks. Each holds 90-100 kilos (200-220 pounds). If held until later in the year when demand drives prices up, quality non-chemical aromatic rice from certain provinces can fetch US$18-20 (600-700 baht) per kilo, about US$8-9 per pound.
Bagged rice is stored in sheds typically located next to the farmers' houses in the village, not in the fields. Farmers hold their stock depending on market prices or sell quickly if in financial need. These are reminiscent of "corn cribs" in America's heartland.

Sugar cane
Another grass crop grown in large quantities is sugar cane. Growing up in Iowa, I saw plenty of another type of grass crop: corn. Rice and sugar cane are harvested in Thailand by hand, cut with a machete. As far as I know there is no equipment designed to harvest them any other way, as they are in water, and not necessarily planted in rows. The sugar cane is sent through a press to extract the sweet liquid, then processed into crystal form, probably very similar to how it is done in more mechanized countries.

Small herds of cattle are tended by one or two farmers, moving them along roadsides to graze. They sometimes overnight in the countryside, or are taken back to the pens near the farmer's house in the village.
Rubber trees

Fresh latex, collected year-round

Rubber farmers often build simple houses in the grove of trees they tend. No electricity; light is by candles, and warmth provided by campfires during the "winter" (November-January).
Thailand is the world's leader in the production of rubber. The trees take 6-7 years before mature enough to produce the latex that is gathered daily. Rubber trees produce latex year-round, so farmers often live in the groves. They usually have a home in the village as well.

"Mahn" (taro)

Small taro tuber

Mahn canes. After harvesting the tubers, the stems are trimmed and those with good nodes for sprouting are stacked to dry.

Large mahn tubers being transported for sale
Many fields are planted with mahn, or Thai sweet potatoes. Known as taro in the west, they are a starchy dietary supplement. Mahn tubers are harvested at the end of the rainy season, and the canes stacked and dried for planting at the start of the dry season. The canes are cut into short sections and simply stuck into the ground where they grow and mature in about 8 months. It takes three people three days to plant 5 rai, or about 2 acres.

Along the roadside between the village and the fields sits a small altar with images of deceased villagers who were successful farmers. People visit this site to pay homage and to bring offerings of food in hopes of a good harvest.

Most village farmers do not have mechanized equipment. A few use modern tractors for leveling fields, hauling soil, and transporting produce to market. I asked if they rented them to other farmers and was told, "No, but if you want it, it's for sale!"

Many people raise pigs in their backyards or in larger enclosures in the field, in concrete or wooden pens shaded by a thatched roof. Piglets cost about US$45 (1,500 baht) each, and in a few months can be sold for as much as US$225 (7,500 baht).
Most farmers sell their produce and meats locally. Here a merchant weighs a chicken that was bought from a local farmer.

At home, farmers spend a great deal of time preparing food that they have harvested, tending livestock and making repairs to pens and enclosures. Here, coconuts are cut open for drinking the sweet liquid, and then the soft meat is scraped out. 

A young woman stir-fries garlic and red onions over a small charcoal cooker. The garlic and onions were chopped on the tree section cutting board next to her.

The garlic and onions are pounded together with dried red chili peppers and made into a paste that is stored and used as a garnish with meals.
Farm life is hard, but I noticed that there never seemed to be any complaints. The life may be simple, but it is less stressful than the hectic pace of life in Bangkok.