VANISHING VILLAGE CULTURE
Agriculture in North Thailand has entered a transitional era. What was once accomplished by serfs is not yet completely mechanized. A farm couple in Chiang Mai in 2019 has about as much as they can handle to produce two crops a year from maybe 5 rai of fields (2 acres). One crop is most likely rice grown in the June to October rainy season, and the second would be a cash crop grown from November to March. Cash crops in our part of the Chiang Mai valley are either soybeans, corn (maize), or onions. Those are labor intensive crops, which is probably why they are usually profitable as long as labor is cheap. These days, on the other hand, farmers with extra land or lacking muscle power will convert some of their fields into orchards. Lameye orchards produce the biggest cash crops here, but oranges grow farther north, and coffee on the hillsides along with cabbage and other vegetables on land converted from forests.
This photo essay is about the labor needed to make money from growing onions.
Onion growing has three labor-intensive phases.
PHASE ONE Seedlings (See pictures 1and 2)
Onion seeds are among nature’s miniatures. They are not much bigger than the dots at the end of this sentence …. So, the rock-hard soil must be plowed, chopped, and turned into the consistency of sand. This was accomplished in about a week. It takes about 1 rai (4/10 acre) of land to produce enough onion seedlings for 6 rai of onions. Once the seeds are spread on the seedbeds they are sprinkled with what I learned was a “secret ingredient” – bat guano. That was covered with a thin layer of more mundane manure and a protective layer of straw. Then every day a thin mist of water was sprinkled on the fields at dawn and sometimes at dusk. Insects, weeds, and snails were evicted by hand. And the rows were covered with a protective sun shield laid on bamboo staves. The seeds were planted in the second week of October. Phase one involved several hours of labor each day.
PHASE TWO Transplanting (See pictures 3 to 7)
After about 2 months the young onions were ready for transplanting. Before that could take place, of course, the main onion fields had to be converted from rice paddies into long rows with deep troughs in between for irrigation. The hardest work was done by tractors. The whole valley was to be onion fields, many hundreds of acres owned by scores of different farmers, each knowing precisely where their unmarked fields were. When the tractors were finished, the soil was chopped by hand until it was as course as rocky gravel. The annual rains were slacking off by this time, the first week of December. Actual transplanting consisted of carefully pulling up the seedlings, which had grown to the size of spring onions served with dinner. These were bundled and the gangly tops were trimmed off. The bundles were transported to the fields and re-planted. The first week or two were critical. There had to be enough water, and careful watch for fungus. Dead plants were removed by hand. The rows were covered with straw. For the rest of the growing season, labor consisted in monitoring the irrigation two or three times a week, praying and worrying. Toward the end, worry was focused on securing a buyer.
PHASE THREE Harvest (pictures 8-12 in the field, 13-15 in the warehouse)
When the onions were the size of one’s fist and the tops began to wilt, it was time to harvest (mid-March). It was important that the field be fairly dry to deter mildew as well as to make it easier to get the onions. They were almost lying on top of the ground. A team of laborers was hired to get “our” onions, which were actually grown by Pramote’s brother and sister-in-law. We wonder what will happen when they are no longer able to do this. It might be feasible to hire all the work done, but barely so. This harvest was done by women who are migrant workers with homes in ethnic minority villages several miles away. For most farmers, the project ended when the onions were removed from the field.
Counting all out- of- pocket expenses, it cost about 50,000 baht (approximately $1700) to get this year’s crop from seeds to sacks of onions. Brother Lon sold the onions for 120,000 baht, which was about the same as last year. The year before the whole crop had to be sold for 50,000 baht, which would have been zero profit if labor costs had been the same as this year. Three years ago, however, the harvest had sold for 240,000 baht, because of crop failure in China. The farmers would love for the government to provide a greater measure of market stability, but the present government has shifted its help from agriculture to industrial development, which is a change with immense impact on more than half the population, and with serious political effect.
The onions were removed by pick-up trucks to centralized warehouses. One of the largest in our part of the district is in our village. At the warehouse the onions were inspected for rot and deformities, and bagged for shipment to Bangkok or Pitsanuloke where they were gotten ready for big city markets or for shipment overseas. China is the biggest market.
The onion project took five full months, of which about half the time was labor intensive, involving several hours a day, and the other half less so.
Every village family needs cash. There are three ways of getting it. Producing farm products is the most obvious and traditional way. Lon’s land around the house is limited, but he farms a one-rai plot owned by his father who died last September, as well as 4 rai in the middle of the onion fields, owned jointly with his daughter. The two crops per year produce enough rice for the extended family to eat, and cash for Lon and his household. They have 2 daughters, the older of whom has an invalid daughter; she is a teacher earning enough to help the family and to secure a future house and land for herself and her husband. The younger daughter also has a child, whom she currently stays at home to care for (although she is moving back to a job in the mall where there is a nursery). Her husband is a mechanic, also providing cash for the extended family’s needs. A third source of funds, in addition to sale of produce and salaries, is part-time labor. Lon’s wife, Sri, not only takes care of her invalid granddaughter, she cooks confections.
Every northern Thai village family gets along more or less this way. But farming becomes a less and less important source of support as time goes by. There will be no farmer in the family after Lon and Sri. The onion fields will be sold in a few years or sooner, if someone makes an attractive offer. Lon is getting older than most farmers, but even younger men and women without heart conditions (which Lon has) would give up the labor intensive type of farming if they had a source of greater income. Construction or handicrafts workers can make more than Lon can make in an average year like this one, although 3 years ago was a great enough year that Lon and Sri could remodel the house to make it accommodate both daughters and their families. Young people of the daughters’ generation all try to graduate from college in order to get jobs that do not include long back-breaking days in the sun or mired in mud, and which have salaries that not only insure a steady income but qualify them for loans for cars or a plot of land for a house of their own. This very week, Lon’s oldest daughter and spouse bought a piece of land and are making plans for their own house and orchard.
Previous blog essays on related topics include:
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.