By Petchanet Pratruangkrai
For the past three years, Mayom has been growing an organic variety called Rice Berry. She has no need of any subsidies from the government, as Rice Berry sells in the market for two to three times as much as normal white rice.
Not only that, she says she does not need to queue at millers’ warehouses to sell her produce, as traders have already signed contracts to purchase it in advance.
Farmers sell Rice Berry for about Bt70-Bt80 a kilogram. That compares with the current price of white paddy rice at Bt9-Bt10 a kilo.
Mayom says Rice Berry is also less costly to produce. Although it can be difficult to use natural techniques to get rid off pests, Mayom is happier with the living quality and lower cost of production that result from avoiding chemicals. For instance, Mayom does not need to purchase chemical fertiliser, which is very expensive.
The price of Rice Berry seeds is about Bt800 per 15kg tank, while normal white rice grain is only Bt200 per tank. But Mayom says she uses less Rice Berry seed per rai than would be required for regular white rice.
Rice Berry can grow twice a year. Each crop needs about 130 days, slightly more than white rice’s 120-day requirement.
Total cost of production for Rice Berry is about Bt3,000 a tonne. At present, the cost of producing a tonne of white rice has climbed to Bt6,000.
In Sing Buri, more than 20 farmers now enjoy stable living costs as they grow Rice Berry. In Mayom’s community, the plantation area of more than 200 rai (32 hectares) is owned by more than 20 farmers.
Mayom says her small community is one whose residents have thought about their children’s future. They don’t want to rely on unpredictable government subsidies, so they have found an alternative rice grain to raise the community’s income.
In Nakhon Nayok province, another group of farmers has found an alternative to being at the mercy of unstable rice prices, without relying on the whims of millers or government policy. Farmers in Baan Bu-yong community have established their own mills and warehouses, and encourage their fellow members to grow organic rice.
Ubol Chabathong, president of the community, which produces unpolished organic rice under the Krok Kra Duang brand, says farmers there can sell their organic rice at Bt13,000 a tonne. Each farmer is paid in cash and need not be afraid of high humidity, as the community does not impose any price reductions. They can adjust the quality of their rice on their own.
Farmers can also earn Bt200 a day for collaborating in the community’s work, such as packing rice. A small pack of Krok Kra-duang organic unpolished rice sells for Bt45 a kilogram.
The community currently has about 80 farmer members cultivating more than 100 rai of organic-rice plantation area.
Ubol says that since the farmers in her community quit using chemicals in their fields, they had to be very patient, as rice output decreased initially. But over time, after the soil adapted to the use of natural methods, production gradually increased.
Previously, the yield per rai was about 600kg, but now is as high as 900kg per rai (5,625kg per hectare).
"Farmers need to be patient when growing rice with chemical-free methods. They may suffer from lower production at the beginning, but in the long run, higher output will be seen, with a better environment and good health," Ubol said.
According to the Public Health Ministry, chemical toxicity is a risk to farmers. Ubol says that to improve farmers’ standard of living and ensure sustainable incomes, the government needs to put more effort into educating them about organic rice and the impacts from using chemical substances.
In the past, when she used chemicals and joined the government’s subsidy projects, Ubol saw low returns on her investment, a low quality of life, and illness from the products she was using. But after joining a provincial training programme five years ago, she adopted organic methods under the sufficiency-economy principle. Today, she is quite happy with her life, as she has no debt. Meanwhile her neighbours also have better living standards after making the same changes she did.
According to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, the government has issued pledging documents to about 1.91 million farmers, but fewer than 800,000 have been paid in full, covering about 5.86 million tonnes of the total 11.61 million tonnes of pledged paddy. The arrears to almost 1.2 million farmers amounts to more than Bt90 billion.
Wanlop Pichpongsa, former president and secretary-general of the Thai Organic Trade Association, says that growing organic or premium rice grains could be the answer for some farmers, but not all. As most farmers live outside irrigation areas, they still have to rely on government support.
Moreover, the market demand for organic rice and other premium grains is still small, accounting for only 1-2 per cent of the total, he explained.
"Organic and premium-grain rice are very much a niche market, though rising health consciousness has increased demand in some markets," said Wanlop, who is also deputy managing director of Capital Cereal, one of the country’s leading rice traders.
Capital Cereal sells organic rice locally and overseas, but its sales account for less than 1 per cent of the company’s total.
Wanlop says cultivation of organic rice can boost farmers’ incomes as well as improving their living standards and protecting the environment. However, the government should help find markets to warrant higher production.
He agreed that the pledging programme was unstable and created a major fiscal burden for the country, and was continued for too long. But the government still needs to give some assistance to farmers.
So the bottom line is that growing organic or premium rice may be a small solution for some farmers. But Thailand spends a huge amount of money on agricultural subsidies each year. Are there any long-term and far-reaching ways to increase and stabilise farmers’ incomes? We examine this question next week in the final instalment of this three-part series on rice policy.