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Rice for a better life

Aug 20. 2014
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By PARINYAPORN PAJEE
THE NATION

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Organic crop from Yasothon is finding its way to more dinner tables, thansk to Farmers' Friend
 While Thailand's farmers have finally received the money owed to them under the previous government’s rice-pledging scheme from the National Council for Peace and Order, the projects initiated by members of the public to help farmers by buying their rice show no signs of slowing down.
The motives, though, are not purely altruistic but also reflect a growing desire among Thais to consume only organic rice.
One of the biggest projects is Farmers’ Friend, which is part of the Big Trees project. It has an agreement with the Yasothon Organic Farmers’ Cooperative under Earth Net Foundation to buy its rice. The co-op is one of the strongest farmer groups in the country and its members have been planting organic rice for more than 20 years.
“I am glad to have so many projects. ‘Farmers’ Friend Rice’ can be considered as both an agricultural and social reform. Not only does it help improve the quality of life of farmers but also connects them with consumers. It shows that these changes have been initiated and pushed by the power of ordinary people, rather than merely waiting for government to change its policy,” says Tawatchai Tositrakul, a pioneer of organic agriculture in Thailand. 
When Tawatchai persuaded Yasothon farmers to grow organic rice 22 years ago, Thai buyers were simply not interested and all the rice was snapped up by the European Union. Even today, despite the increased interest in eating organic, more than 80 per cent of the yield is exported.
The Big Trees project is famous for its environmental campaigns, which as the name implies, include saving old trees. Its membership is made up of people from different professionals including designers, architects, lecturers and lawyers. After they launched Farmers’ Friend, they approached Tawatchai’s Earth Net foundation and opted to buy two kinds of organic rice produced by the cooperative: jasmine (white) and brown rice.
“Planting organic rice needs courage. In the early stages, the farmers have a much lower yield but after the entire organic process kicks in, production is higher and we earn more money,” says Manee Sangkaew, a Yasothon farmer who has been planting organic rice for years.
“But you need patience: It takes three years for the land to become totally free of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.”
Compensation also comes in the form of more nutritious food. “We plant what we eat and also eat from what we plant,” says Manee. 
This is in contrast to other farmers, who don’t eat the rice they have grown, as they know the level of chemicals it contains.
For every tonne of rice, farmers in this project receive Bt2,000 more than the standard market price for unmilled rice. Production costs are lower too, as the farmers don’t have to spend on expensive pesticides. 
But the aesthetics tend not to please Thai buyers. Manee points out that rice grown with chemicals looks good and has evenly-shaped grains, making it popular with the public. For him and his fellow organic farmers, though, it’s too beautiful to be true.
“The colour looks unreal. I won’t eat it,” he says. “And while the costs of fertiliser increases every year, we have little outlay as we make our own bio-fertiliser from what we have in the fields.
 He adds that he was delighted to hear about the Farmers’ Friend project. “It was the first time I’d heard that people want to be friends with farmers. I promise to grow a good quality product and also will find more farmers to join us in organic rice planting,” he says.
Tawatchai adds that Thai farmers have long faced three majors problems: lack of working capital for rice production that leads to them getting trapped in debt, natural disasters including drought, flood and plague and the fluctuating market price, which sometimes is too low, even lower than the cost, 
“Farmers' Friend Rice project can solve all these problems. Consumers buy directly from the farmers. Thanks to the advance payment by consumers, farmers do not have to borrow money to plant their new crop. So they do not need to pay interest. Bt20 from every Bt100 is deducted from each farmer. The first Bt8 goes into the Farmers’ Security Fund, which helps them if their rice production is affected by drought, flood or plague. The other Bt12 goes to the Sustainable Agriculture Fund,” says Tawatchai.
But despite its obvious advantages, the numbers of farmers joining the organic co-op is constantly in a state of flux. In 2004 more than 900 families joined the project, the highest number ever recorded. Members rapidly fell away and by 2013, only 450 families remained.
But things are looking up. 
“The Farmers’ Friend project has drawn an enthusiastic response,” says Tawatchai. “More than 120 families have applied to join the project.”
Under the project, consumers are asked to buy 100kg of rice annually, an amount based on the average consumption of a three-member family eating three meals a day. Today, the project is able to sell more than 30 tons of rice with additional sales being made through another farmer-friendly group under the Earth Net Foundation, “Khon Kin Khao Chuay Khon Plook Khao”.
That annual supply of 100kg costs just Bt10,000, though corporate members are invited to commit to 1,000kg or Bt100,000 per year. After the rice is harvested in November, the rice will be milled and packed then sent from Yasothon to Bangkok. Members will receive their rice in small vacuum packages, which make them ideal for New Year’s gifts.
The Farmers’ Friend group holds occasional events to spread word about the project and the most recent of these was held at Bangkok’s Bo.Lan restaurant, which is also a member. The event started with a press conference by the restaurant’s chef owners, farmer representatives, organisers, celebrity members Grace Mahadumrongkul and Machida Techapaibul together with the Big Trees’ founder Oraya Sutabutr and Tawatchai.
Later in the evening, members and guests such as Anand Panyarachun, Korn and Vorakorn Chatikavanij, Dr Jingjai Hanchanlash and Nitra Kitiyakara na Ayudhya enjoyed a dinner of organic jasmine rice and other ingredients from Yasothon. Orders poured in and by the evening, the project was able to pledge another Bt800,000 to the farmers.
Former prime minister Anand bought 100kg but said he will have to give a lot of it away as it would be impossible to finish on his own.
He was delighted to hear that the project had already has contingency plans for this oversupply by inviting donations to the Father Ray Foundation to feed the 850 disabled orphans under its care.
 GRAINS OF TRUTH
  To join Farmers’ Friend, call (081) 643 9240, visit Facebook.com/farmersfriendrice/info or e-mail thaifarmersfriend@gmail.com.
 

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