Wean­ing farm­ers off rice

Rice is out, beans are in as Thai­land’s farm­ers re­turn to school.

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RICE farmer Pra­p­at­pon Rungsa­tien perches on a plas­tic chair in a class­room in ru­ral Thai­land. Ceil­ing fans stir the hu­mid air as she and 49 of her neigh­bours hun­ker down for a talk on South- East Asian eco­nom­ics.

Pra­p­at­pon, 48, re­turned to school last month for a state- funded train­ing pro­gramme de­signed to wean farm­ers off wa­ter- in­ten­sive rice and teach them how to grow other crops. With lessons span­ning ev­ery­thing from ac­count­ing to chicken hus­bandry, the gov­ern­ment is try­ing to re­duce a record stock­pile of the ce­real at a time when farm­ers are fac­ing the worst drought in two decades.

The gov­ern­ment in Thai­land, typ­i­cally the world's largest rice ex­porter, has ad­vised farm­ers on pro­duc­ing al­ter­na­tives to the crop for a decade. Now, in the face of di­min­ish­ing wa­ter and plung­ing prices, it's get­ting more se­ri­ous. A ban­ner at the front of the class­room in a vil­lage in Sangk­aburi dis­trict, Chai Nat prov­ince, says, “Use Wa­ter Wisely.” Out­side, an ir­ri­ga­tion canal op­po­site the build­ing is bone dry, like the sur­round­ing farm­land.

“With the prob­lem of drought, these peo­ple are go­ing to suf­fer,” Finance Min­is­ter Apisak Tan­tivo­ra­wong said. “What we are try­ing to do is to in­ject some money into this sec­tor to help them, by teach­ing them how to sur­vive in this dif­fi­cult pe­riod.”

The El Nino- in­duced drought will drain about 84bil baht ( RM10­bil) from the econ­omy. Agri­cul­ture ac­counts for 8% of Thai­land's GDP.

Go­ing back to school was meant to give farmer Pra­p­at­pon fresh ideas and new strate­gies for sur­vival on her farm in Chai Nat prov­ince, about 190km north of Bangkok. In­stead, she said: “I can’t ap­ply any of this.” A fourth- gen­er­a­tion rice farmer, she’d har­vested three crops a year for 15 years un­til the drought be­gan in late 2014. Her last har­vest was a 10th of the usual yield and mostly eaten by rats. “I thought about grow­ing green beans, but there's not even enough wa­ter for that,” Pra­p­at­pon said. “My land is dry and cracked. How can I grow any­thing? I can’t even get wa­ter from the ground.”

Pra­p­at­pon’s strug­gle ex­em­pli­fies the dif­fi­culty in find­ing vi­able so­lu­tions to drought, even af­ter the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment ap­proved 11.2bil baht ( RM1.34bil) of mea­sures last year to help farm­ers, in­clud­ing en­cour­ag­ing them to plant crops that need less wa­ter and giv­ing them longer pe­ri­ods to re­pay loans. Rice is be­ing tar­geted be­cause flood- ir­ri­gated paddy uses a lot of wa­ter – some­times two and a half times the amount needed to grow a crop of wheat or maize.

With the Bhu­mi­bol and Sirikit dams – the main wa­ter sources for the coun­try's cen­tral plain – at the lowest since 1994, the gov­ern­ment wants to re­duce the coun­try's rice pro­duc­tion to 27 mil­lion tonnes in the plant­ing sea­son start­ing May, a quar­ter less than the five- year av­er­age.

For more than a decade, Thai rice farm­ers were cush­ioned by sub­si­dies. The sup­port won ru­ral votes for for­mer Prime Min­is­ters Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra and his sis­ter Yingluck.

It also led to a 20% jump in rice pro­duc­tion and a record 17.8 mil­lion tonne stock­pile that the cur­rent gov­ern­ment is strug­gling to sell. Cutting out­put will re­verse a global over­sup­ply that has de­pressed in­ter­na­tional prices, but coax­ing farm­ers to plant less rice re­quires care­ful diplo­macy.

Rice farm­ers have played a cen­tral role in Thai­land's last decade of po­lit­i­cal un­rest, turn­ing out en mass to sup­port the Shi­nawa­tra fam­ily, whose al­lied gov­ern­ments have twice been ousted in coups de­spite win­ning ev­ery na­tional elec­tion since 2001.

Junta leader and now Prime Min­is­ter Prayuth Chan- Ocha has taken to the air­waves re­peat­edly to urge farm­ers to plant less rice. With max­i­mum tem­per­a­tures typ­i­cally peak­ing in April and the mon­soon not due for months, the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment is lur­ing farm­ers back to school to speed up change. The gov­ern­ment ear­marked enough money for 250 farm­ers to at­tend 15 days of train­ing over three months in Sangk­aburi, a dis­trict with 8,000 farm­ing fam­i­lies. Be­cause there were four times as many ap­pli­cants, par­tic­i­pants – who are paid 200 baht ( RM24) a day to at­tend – were se­lected ran­domly in a lucky draw.

“We have a lim­ited bud­get,” Apisak said. “They need to help them­selves as well. Not just sur­vive on gov­ern­ment money.”

For farmer- turned- stu­dent Chaiyapoj Phak- on, the past two years have been a harsh con­trast to the heady days of the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment’s in­come- prop­ping rice- buy­ing pro­gramme, which he called “the best time of my life.”

While he’d still pre­fer to grow rice, the 50- year- old said the gov­ern­ment's train­ing has of­fered him en­cour­age­ment. “There are other ways to make a liv­ing,” he said. “There is hope.” – Bloomberg

rice farm­ers at a train­ing pro­gramme on grow­ing other crops in the sangk­aburi dis­trict of Chainat prov­ince. — Bloomberg

An al­most dried up ir­ri­ga­tion canal in Cha­cho­engsao prov­ince, Thai­land. — EPA

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