Life is slowly draining from the farms

Bangkok Post | 22 April 2009

Fewer young people want to plant rice any more.

By Surasak Glahan in Saraburi

It is a job that produces the staple food of more than 60 million Thais, but rice farming these days is increasingly being left to ageing farmers like Boonma Kantasorn.

At the age of 57, Mr Boonma works on rice farms in a village in Nong Saeng district, just as he has done for the past four decades.

"Rice farmers here are older than before. The majority of them are in their 40s and beyond," he said.

Like most families in the area, his three grown-up children took advantage of educational opportunities their parents never had, and have now opted for jobs in Saraburi town and Bangkok.

"My eldest son, now 28, has worked at a factory in Bangkok since he finished high school."

His second child works for a bank, and the third is employed in a local copy service shop.

"I told my children to carry on with their jobs, because they can earn more than me. Here you cannot get a steady income."

The flow of young people from rural areas to towns and cities could eventually result in the loss of a new generation of farmers, said Rice Department director Prasert Gosalvitra.

"There is a growing national trend which is seeing more ageing farmers and fewer younger ones," he said. "The new generation just doesn't want to do it."

This reflects a reality that, with many rice farmers amassing debt and seeking financial rescue from the government, the occupation is fast losing its appeal with younger generations.

The number of people working in the farm sector is declining across the board, according to the Office of Agriculture Economics (OAE).

In 2006, Thailand had about 25 million farmers, who accounted for 40% of the population. About 10 years ago, half of the country's population farmed, but last year the figure had dropped to 23.8 million.

If the trend continues the agency estimates the number is likely fall to 37% of the population by 2013. This could threaten the country's food-producing capacity.

Witoon Lianchamroon of BioThai Foundation, a non-government organisation campaigning for increased biodiversity, said the situation was worrying and the government must act to reverse the trend, otherwise investors will exploit the opportunity to implement industrial farming methods.

"In the next 30 years, there'll be a much higher demand for food than now," he said. Investors could then rent or buy land from farmers to invest in large-scale farming, agricultural processing plants and hiring local people.

"The state must not encourage such investment," Mr Witoon said.

Farmers nationwide are increasingly selling their land then renting it back to grow rice, Mr Prasert said. "In the central region about 60% of land formerly owned by farmers is now occupied by non-farmers," he said.

OAE statistics show the total area of farm land in 2006 was about 130 million rai. Of that, about 93 million rai was owned by farmers, and 25% of this was mortgaged.

Mr Prasert said it was critical rice farming be made a more secure and profitable occupation by finding ways to reduce production and logistics costs, increase productivity and improve irrigation.

There should be better welfare for farmers and more local cooperatives to strengthen their capacity, he said.

Mr Witoon said farmers should have better access to markets, more negotiating power with traders, and have guaranteed security in terms of income and improved livelihoods.

In an effort to "mark the beginnings of a new generation of farmers", the Education and Agriculture and Cooperatives ministries last year initiated a project in selected colleges to make agriculture more business-savvy.

But for Aekalak Boonma, 22, whose parents are farmers in Phayao, rice farming would not be his ideal job no matter how profitable it was.

"I wouldn't do it. It's a tiring, laborious job," said Mr Aekalak, who moved to Bangkok after finishing high school and currently works in a convenience store to put himself through college.

"Even if we can earn more from it, it's money we only get once or twice a year. At home, people my age have moved out to work somewhere else."
Original source: Bangkok Post

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