Yesterday we harvested rice from the acre next to our house for the last time. Pramote has been hinting more and more boldly that it’s time to quit. The reasons are mounting. Lon, the real farmer in the family, has had “heart problems” and can’t handle this sort of hard work much longer. Our neighbors on every side have converted their rice fields into orchards which require a different type of irrigation. Furthermore, the economics of growing one’s own rice are increasingly unfavorable.
Using firm figures and guesses, we can say that a 5 kilogram bag of rice in the grocery store sells for about 180 baht or 36 baht per kilo (roughly $1 in US currency). If the rice is bought in large 48 kilo bags in the market it costs about 1300, or 27 baht per kilo.
We got an estimated 1200 kilos of rice from our 2 rai of land, which will be about 900 kilos when it’s dry. We could have sold the new rice at 8.3 baht a kilo yesterday or 11 baht a kilo when it’s good and dry, ready to store. The cost of production included about 1500 baht for good quality seed, 500 for fertilizer, 1200 for sprays, 2100 for a crew to do transplanting last August, 1000 for harvesting yesterday, but nothing figured for about 4 days of additional incidental labor. Milling the rice locally costs nothing if the miller gets to keep the hulls to sell for pig feed. That comes to a total investment of 6300 baht. We will keep the rice, but it is worth 11 baht a kilo, which is 9900 total for 900 kilos of dry rice ready to cook. That is 7 baht per kilo as compared to 27 in the market or 36 in the grocery store.
The profit for the year can be said to be 3600 baht ($100+).
The question is why have we persisted in growing our own rice?
For one thing, it’s a clan project. In the clan are some who can afford to go out and buy rice and some who cannot. As long as we are growing it as we always have, we share it as we always have. Actual costs are more or less hidden or overlooked. But if someone is putting out actual cash for the rice, the cost is more obvious and the receiver feels the difference as keenly as the purchaser does.
A second reason is that growing rice is a deeply rooted tradition. Despite the fact that the cultural aspects of growing rice are disappearing as village life no longer revolves around the cultivation of rice as well as around the social aspects of planting and harvest, something important will be lost (lost but lodged in the collective unconscious as a lingering memory). Even folks living in the city for two or three generations still resonate to this over-riding culture. We are reminded of it every meal.
Another reason to keep planting rice for these past years is that converting a rice field into another purpose will take an investment. Traditionally, rice fields are open, but land for other purposes is fenced in. Rice irrigation uses a centuries-old gravity flow system of canals and ditches. Orchards nowadays depend on pipes and pumps. There must be land-fill for trees to raise them above the flood level. These costs are rather high. For example, we would be able to support about 40 trees on our rice field. That would take 40 truck-loads of soil at about 750 baht per load, or about 30,000, plus another 15,000 for a new irrigation system, 4000 for saplings and fertilizer and sprays for 6 years before the trees begin to bear a marketable crop. In about 10 years, however, if all goes well the annual fruit will sell for around ¼ of a million baht ($7,000) at today’s prices, which is a whole lot more than the profit for growing rice.
Nevertheless, the decision to convert from rice to fruit is not actually all about money.
[If you found this interesting, you may enjoy last year’s harvesting rumination: Harvesting Rice ]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.