Connect to share and comment

Changing seasons on the Thai farm

Hard work, increasing costs and lack of education options. Young Thais don't need any more reasons to run from the farm.

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.