VANISHING VILLAGE CULTURE
Rice planting has been a back-breaking labor for millennia, but the harvests have fed billions of people. In every aspect of planting and harvesting irrigated rice there has been progress away from muscle-power by animals and human beings to mechanical power by machines. Here in our valley the last bit of rice production still largely undertaken by men and women is planting and transplanting the rice.
This year, for the first time, I believe, one of the farmers in our village hired mechanical transplanting machines to do the job. I got pictures that evening when the machines were transplanting seedlings. It took them about half an hour to do one patch with a team of 2 supplying the labor. That compares to a neighbor who hired a team of 8 workers to do the same job in about an hour and a half in the next field the next morning.
Today, exactly two weeks later, I took pictures of the side-by-side fields. The results do not look promising for the new mechanical innovation. Farmers tell me, no matter how the ripe rice fields look (I may get pictures of that in about 100 days), it’s clear that the loss of productivity will more than eat up the savings on the cost of transplanting.
No matter how this initial foray into mechanized transplanting turns out, rice will have to be produced in new ways. The old rice culture is unsustainable. Reasons for that are piling up. For one thing, the new generation of young village men and women are unwilling to work the family farms. They want jobs with dependable salaries, which also come with easier working conditions. In the second place, the price of rice barely equals the cost of growing it, and that is without figuring in the value of the farmer’s own labor that does not have to be hired. This week the staple for Northern Thailand, sticky rice, was selling for 15 baht a kilo, and it would be cheaper to buy rice at that price than to grow it. The clincher is that as more and more farmers transform their rice fields into orchards or plant better cash crops, the thousand year old irrigation infrastructure is breaking down.
The government has pronounced its development policy in behalf of high-tech industry. That’s two steps removed from agriculture, with high-tech industry slowly replacing heavy industry as the developmental goal. No matter whether the government’s policy is an unattainable pipe-dream or not, HM the late King’s lifelong interest in promoting agriculture through diversified crops and agricultural research institutes as well as better land utilization, is now officially replaced.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.