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Rice farmer’s switch to melon farming bears fruit

Mar 04. 2016
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AYUTTHAYA farmer Sawas Suknum, 52, who switched from rice to melon farming five years ago, now sells his produce to the modern-trade and hotel chains in an operation that generates average monthly income of Bt659,000.

The ambitious farmer also plans to export his melons to Singapore, South Korea and Dubai this year.

“My thanks go to the Agricultural Land Reform Office and the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives [BAAC], which suggested that I and my friends consider changing from growing rice to other crops such as fruits or vegetables, which require less water at a time of drought,” he said.

Until then, Sawas had been a rice farmer since finishing primary-school Grade 4 some 40 years ago, while his father and grandfather had also been rice farmers before him.

“When I grew rice on 20 rai [3.2 hectares] of family land, it generated average income of Bt350,000 a year, with two rice harvests each year. All of my income was used to repay debt, after borrowing money to buy fertiliser, feed, and so on. The debt situation grew to the point that we were unable to do anything to improve my family life,” he explained.

Then, in 2011, after flooding hit the family farm and others in the province, the Agriculture Ministry’s Agricultural Land Reform Office held a seminar and took rice farmers to visit a closed-end melon farm – a greenhouse operation – in Suphan Buri province that had survived the flood and was able to continue to grow its produce.

This persuaded him to try melon farming, and he initially borrowed Bt800,000 from the BAAC to get the operation going.

However, Sawas’s open-end – outdoor – melon farm did not prove successful, as it required more insecticide than an indoor operation, besides failing to yield sufficient produce.

He and a group of 14 friends then decided to build housing for melon cultivation under the closed-end method, and were able to borrow Bt3 million from the BAAC to construct 58 melon houses on about 300 rai of land in their area.

This enabled them to grow an average of 650 plants per enclosure, with the plants starting to bear fruit 85 days later.

His and his friends’ farms were able to grow a total of 49,010 kilograms of melons in their first crop, and their collective output fetched Bt85 per kilo, or Bt4.16 million in total.

After this initial success, Sawas’s group – Community Enterprises of Melon Rum Chai Pattana Village – expanded its membership to a family of 30 farmers.

The group now supplies an average of 1,560kg of melons per week, with sales made to the Tops Super Centre chain and hotels at prices of Bt80-Bt85 per kilo.

“However, our output was unable to meet demand, so the group has had to expand by building another 45 houses to double our production capacity to serve our existing market – and to export our produce,” said the entrepreneurial farmer.

To support the business expansion, the community enterprise last year received an additional loan of Bt10 million from the BAAC, guaranteed by Thailand Credit Guarantee Corp.

The enterprise now also goes beyond just melon farming, having undertaken research and developed products such as Thai melon dessert, ice cream and dried melon.

These products are distributed both in Thailand and overseas.

“Although facing drought this year, our farm can continue to grow melon, as it is a fruit that needs little water. It is a challenge for farmers to find alternative crops that generate higher returns than rice and other community crops. When we changed what we were growing, we got the best possible advice from the Agriculture Ministry – and it changed our lives,” Sawas said.

“In my view, Thai farmers can grow other plants that will improve their lives, rather than cultivating community crops where they have to wait and see the price quoted on the global market.

“Demand for alternative fruits and vegetables, such as melon, organic fruits and vegetables, is still strong. They should try to learn and switch over to something that would improve their lives, without needing to ask for a government subsidy,” he said.

This year, when the 45 additional houses are completed, Community Enterprises of Melon Rum Chai Pattana Village will double its capacity and expand its business to the export market.

Undertaking integrated agriculture – production, processing and marketing – ourselves is the way to sustainable farming, Sawas added.

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