RECENTLY I met Son Sukcharoen, an aged farmer in Ratchaburi’s Photharam district, and his petite daughter Walisa.
Unlike the father, Walisa has been trying to break away from conventional rice-farming practices, and in her efforts I could see hopes for Thai farmers who have been caught in a cycle of despair.
Walisa will turn 34 this year. Like her father, she is a farmer but more educated than him, and that has made a huge difference. It is also possibly the key to solve the doomed fate of Thai farmers.
For decades, Thai farmers have been plunged deep in debt and insecurity. According to statistics from the Farmers’ Rehabilitation and Development Fund, from 2003 to 2013 some 490,650 farmers registered with the fund, and their debt was estimated at more than Bt76 billion. Some 139,000 faced assets seizure.
The trend continues, even worsening in some parts of the country, according to the recent study by Local Action Links, a non-profit research think-tank on the plight of farmers.
Those studying the history of Thai farmers have realised that it all started when farmers were pushed to enter export-led rice production decades ago, and the hard fact is that state policies played a big role in this trend.
Farmers were encouraged to grow chemical-intensive rice, which has added to their growing debt. Farming costs have been increasing over time, partly because of loose controls and regulation in the market. Hardly any state policies have seriously addressed the issue of reducing production costs, which would be a huge relief for the farmers.
On the other hand, farmers have hardly been able to control the market as it’s largely export-based, something far beyond their knowledge and capacity to control.
So, considering both uncontrollable farming costs and fluctuating prices in the market, Thai farmers are already in a vulnerable position.
Without the know-how and high education, they are almost crippled from the start.
Several experts have been trying to address Thai farmers’ plight, and they have come up with several sets of good policy recommendations. But after meeting Walisa, I have realised that what is probably missing is a focus on education among Thai farmers.
We have heard about policies concerning reduction of farming costs, and about boosting yields and farmers’ incomes. But the most recent policy, offering price guarantee has been of no great help to the farmers due to a corresponding increase in farm costs. Farmers have been left exposed to the reality that rice prices are sharply dropping, more than 50 per cent below the previously guaranteed price of Bt15,000 to Bt20,000, while farming costs have surged more than 50 per cent for some materials.
As per current market prices, farmers can expect only around Bt6,000 to Bt7,000 per tonne, while they have to invest up to Bt5,000, leaving them a very narrow profit margin, and sometimes, almost no profit.
Walisa was judicious to exit the rice-pledging scheme before facing troubles like her father and other farmers. As a student of a non-formal educational centre in the province who managed to finish Matthayom 6 and had a chance to join the village’s community enterprise promotion centre, Walisa managed to explore how to grow pesticide-free rice. She learned to adapt her farm life to a mere 3-rai (4,800-square-metre) plot.
She has changed the method of growing rice, starting by changing from a normal white-rice variety to Riceberry, which is attractive to the high-end market. As it needs to be free from chemicals, Walisa has managed to cut costs, thus leaving for herself a wider profit margin. Now, her rice can be sold at Bt50 per kilogram and Walisa can earn up to Bt40,000 per rai.
Walisa said she understood that many farmers might still need to use some chemicals for higher yields so they could clear their debts. She said it would be helpful if the government came up with serious policies to help address the skyrocketing farm costs.
Sound policies are one thing, but self-reliance is what is needed.
Watching Walisa analysing her Riceberry yields and the income they would bring to her, I saw in her a new perspective for farmers’ lives and hopes. This cannot be possible without serious emphasis on education and learning.