Business, Finance & Economics

Changing seasons on the Thai farm

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CHIANG MAI, Thailand — At 52, Sri Tatui’s identity is etched in his hands. Construction dust cakes his fingers, collected in the cracks and calluses he has earned through a life of farming.

He shades his face from the hot Thai sun, gazing toward the foundation of a house those hands are building. “If people see me here, I say I’m a construction worker. If people see me in the rice field, I say I’m a farmer.”

While political upheaval claims the streets of Bangkok, the fields of rural Thailand tell a different story.

It’s a season of decline for the Thai family farm, which requires back-wrenching labor for little return. Many youngsters are opting out, leaving the farm for urban schools and more lucrative futures. Meanwhile, their parents back home increasingly seek supplemental income. And they hire Burmese migrants to do the hardest work — planting and harvesting their crops.

“It’s muddy and wet and you get very low money,” Tatui said. “People 40 years or up are still doing the rice field,” but “the new generation seems to have education and they go to town to work.”

His rice crop, with an average annual profit of $750, no longer sustains him. “It’s not enough,” he said. “Now we are kind of materialistic. In the past, we did not have electricity. We used only gas. But now we use electricity and all the appliances that come with it. That’s why we have more expenses.” Tatui has spent his adulthood in rural Sansai district near Chiang Mai. “Thirty years ago, we just farmed,” he said. “We didn’t do sideline jobs.”

Farming costs have increased, too. Traditionally, the buffalo plowed and naturally fertilized the fields. Today’s farmers use machines. “In one day a buffalo can only work two times, in the morning and in the afternoon. But the machine can work all day and it’s faster,” said Khun Dej, a life-long farmer in mountainous Doi Saket, near Chiang Mai. Still, Dej second-guesses the machine. “If we consider the expense, the buffalo is better because there’s no need to buy fuel.” Dej works a second job as a citrus gardener to help care for his parents, both in their 90s, who farmed these lands before him.

Fifty years ago, farming accounted for 80 percent of Thai jobs. That number has steadily declined. Today, just 38 percent of the population works in agriculture, according to Nareenat Roonnaphai, deputy secretary general of the Office of Agricultural Economics. Young Thais have little interest in unpredictable earnings dictated by weather and natural disasters, she said.

In response, the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives hopes to promote agriculture through a five-year training program for college students, farmers’ children and other Thais interested in farming theory and practice. Participants are given up to 5 rai (about 2 acres) of land to cultivate for two years, with potential for permanent use. Still, Roonnaphai predicts a continued drop in the farming population.

“Farmers have sent their children away to larger schools in hopes that they can get a better education than the local school,” according to Karla Baumhover Pengsagun, an American who has spent more than 13 years in Thailand and runs Temple of Thai, an online grocery catering to Americans. “Thus the children don’t work as laborers on their farms and become distanced from their home.”

Welika Mamun, a 25-year-old Temple of Thai employee from Mae Rim, predicts her country will shift from an “original farming society” to an “urban society” as her peers study engineering, computers, finance, business and marketing. Pengsagun, her boss, thinks Thais will increasingly manage the farm rather than work it. “Paid labor keeps the farm running,” she said.

But it isn’t Thai labor. “Thai people now don’t want to do the rice field,” said 35-year-old Num Loangki, who was born in Myanmar’s Shan state but has spent most his life in northern Thailand. He lives near the town of Fang, but migrates to Chiang Mai with groups of Burmese workers who plant and harvest rice on Thai-owned farms. “Lots of people come from other places, far-away districts,” he said. “Each group has a leader. The leader gets the job and brings it to the group and organizes the work.”

Loangki has no worries about the future of farming in Thailand. “I think it’s good for us because these Thai people are not fussy at all. They just pay us, we do the work.”

He rents a seasonal house with other ethnic Shan migrants half a mile from Tatui, whose story confirms everything Laongki said. “I hired people to plant, and I will hire people to plow the field and do the harvesting, too. The only thing I will do is take care of the field, spraying and fertilizing,” Tatui said. He can’t find any Thais interested in such work-for-hire. “Thai people now don’t want to do the rice field because it’s hard work. Only the Burmese now.”

Tatui bangs away on a construction site that overlooks his paddies, which are planted with Burmese hands. Meanwhile, his grown son works as a furniture contractor in another town. “He never wants to work in the rice field,” Tatui said.

Yet Tatui still thinks of himself as a man of the fields. “I feel I’m a farmer more at heart because I’ve worked in the rice field since I was a child.”