Tuesday, July 15, 2008

High prices force a paradigm shift among rice farmers

PETER JANSSEN


His skin blackened by the sun, toes splayed by years of work in paddy fields, fingernails packed with dirt and a voice flavoured by a strong Suphan Buri accent, Chaiyapon Phongphan, 47, appears the classic downtrodden Thai rice farmer. But he isn't.

Unlike his peers, Chaiyapon started experimenting with organic fertilisers and herbal pesticides 16 years ago to cut costs on his 40 rai (6.4 hectares) of rice land.

Today, Chaiyapon has more than doubled his farm to 100 rai (16 hectares) and owns five tractors, two fertiliser spreaders and a 10-wheel truck, all of which he purchased off his rice profits.

This year, with rice prices at a three-decade high, Chaiyapon has already made one million baht ($29,850) off his first crop and he is hoping to make another million baht off the second one.

''My profits are higher because I invest less,'' said Chaiyapon. ''Nowadays, people are ringing me up on the phone every day asking for advice.''

Chaiyapon is an anomaly in Thailand, the world's largest rice exporter, where for decades farmers have been addicted to chemical fertilisers and pesticides to maximise output and minimise labour.

This year rice prices had more than doubled by May to reach $1,000 a tonne, but prices for chemical fertilisers and pesticides, both of them petroleum-based, have doubled as well, pushed up by skyrocketing oil prices.

The high price is forcing some rice farmers to rethink their chemical habits.

Direk Tassannaphan, 55, a district chief in Suphan Buri, watched his production costs double from 3,000 baht ($90) last year to 6,000 baht per rai of rice paddy this year.

''This year I've started to switch to organic fertilisers, mixing pig poop with chemical fertiliser, to cut costs,'' said Direk, who owns 100 rai of rice land.

But the vast majority of Thailand's rice farmers are sticking with their chemicals.

''They tell me it would be easier for them to change their religion than go organic,'' said Daycha Siriatra, chairman of the Suphan Buri-based Khao Kwan Foundation, devoted to teaching organic farming methods.

Daycha has been preaching organic farming techniques to rice farmers in Suphan Buri for the past 20 years, but his converts remain few.

One of his first pupils was Chaiyapon, whose rice fields neighboured Daycha's family rice mill.

''This guy is making a two-million-baht profit this year, but still there aren't many farmers who will follow his example,'' said Daycha. ''Chemical farmers are working under a different paradigm. If you want to get farmers to switch to organic farming you have to change the paradigm.''

Part of the old paradigm is dictated by Thai politics. Fertiliser and pesticide sales are a multi-million-dollar business in Thailand, and many provincial politicians have an interest in keeping sales high.

''The government won't change the paradigm because they get benefits from those who sell the chemical fertiliser and pesticides,'' said Daycha.

Thailand has had a relatively good track record in promoting its agriculture sector over the past three decades. Past governments invested heavily in irrigation systems, rural roads and research in high-yield varieties of rice seeds. Taxes on rice exports were dropped in 1986, freeing up the market and raising prices for farmers.

The kingdom will export an estimated 10 million tonnes of rice this year and has been the world's top exporter of the food staple since the mid-1960s.

But recent government policies have focused more on getting farmers' votes than on improving production and competitiveness.

Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's populist prime minister who ran the country from 2001 to 2006, subsidised rice farmers with a price-support scheme that has arguably undermined the domestic rice market mechanism without helping the poor, said Nipon Paopongsakorn, dean of the economics faculty at Thammasat University.

''Instead of messing with the market, what the government should be doing is setting standards so we can promote high-value rice such as organic or Jasmine for niche marketing. Then farmers' incomes would skyrocket,'' he said.

And rising farm incomes would assure that rice farming has a future in Thailand, which has lost some 4 million younger generation farmers to the cities since 1989, according to Nipon's research.

Of course, more success stories like Chaiyapon may start to reverse the rural-urban migration. ''I'm not worried about the next generation of Thai farmers,'' said organic guru Daycha. ''Many journalists have come to interview me and afterwards many of them quit their newspaper jobs and became farmers, not buffalo farmers but modern farmers. So there is hope.'' dp

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