Bunthiang Pholthongsathit, head of a farmer-development group in Khon Kaen. (The Nation)
While the government’s controversial rice-pledging scheme has now been begrudgingly accepted by the majority of Thai farmers, a hardcore group of independent rice growers has stayed loyal to organic cultivation ― and has taken the process further by developing productive new rice strains.
One pioneer of this self-reliance scheme is Bunthiang Pholthongsathit, the head of a farmers’ cooperative in Khon Kaen’s Muang district. The 58-year-old turned to growing organic rice after defaulting heavily on a scheme to breed cows, which left him with debts of over 500,000 baht ($16,100), despite a 10-year repayment term.
Bunthiang said he began growing rice using the same methods he had learned from his parents and grandparents ― using conventional rice strains with no irrigation ― earning him little in the way of profit. But after one year, he turned to growing organic strains of rice and found he was quickly able to pay off all debts he had accrued over 10 years.
Since organic rice is a premium product, farmers do not have to rely on pledging quotas, and can therefore sell their organic rice yield ― free from chemical fertilizers and pesticides ― to health-conscious consumers who are prepared to pay more for the product.
This potential for profit has led Bunthiang to develop other strains from the original fragrant rice which are highly nutritious, as well as a very nutritious rice drink.
These value-added products have helped to substantially boost his income, along with other farmers participating in the scheme.
“Relying on selling rice to millers or pledging it under the government scheme does not guarantee long-term self-sufficiency. We can now live comfortably without needing to get rich, but everyone can enjoy life together,” Bunthiang said.
While the rice-pledging scheme enables farmers to make easy profits, it has also burdened them with higher costs and the need to lease land to increase their yields, he said, adding that the scheme has mainly benefited millers.
“The scheme could face yet more changes if a new government takes power, leading to even more unstable rice prices in the long term,” the farmer said.
He said organic rice was now popular, even among Chinese and Singaporean customers, and farmers could still make a profit by selling it directly to Thai buyers, even though the price for Thai buyers remained competitive.
Bunthiang said he and 35 participating farmers also bred fish in their rice paddies and grew other crops that could be grown and harvested during seasons when rice was not cultivated.
Bunthiang owns an 11-rai (25,600-square-meter) farm in an area now surrounded by housing estates in Muang district. He said he wanted to demonstrate to younger generations that organic farming could yield a good income and be carried out in almost any location ― as long as one was determined and prepared to try a new approach.
Bunthiang initially had only a high-school diploma, but three years ago he earned a bachelor’s degree through an adult-education course. After serving out his term as a local politician, he was elected as an assistant to the village head and returned to farming to grow organic rice. One of the first things he did was to build an underground well, which has since yielded sufficient water to supply his paddies.
Bunthiang is now planning to extend his organic rice-growing cooperative to three other provinces ― neighboring Kalasin, Maha Sarakham and Roi Et.
The network, with over 2,000 members, will continue to expand to provinces with potential, and should help provide local farmers with an independent means and protect them from risks posed by the government’s rice-pledging scheme.
By Jitima Chunprom