Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Rice Is Out, Beans Are in as Thailand's Farmers Return to School

  • Farmers get paid to learn alternatives to growing rice
  • Worst drought in 20 years to cost Thai economy $2.4 billion

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 neighbors hunker down for a talk on Southeast Asian economics.

Prapatpon, 48, returned to school last month for a state-funded training program 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.

Thai rice farmers attend a government workshop training program
Thai rice farmers attend a government workshop training program
Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

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, bears the ruling junta’s logo. An adjacent sign featuring King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s image 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 in an interview in Bangkok on Tuesday. “What we are trying to do is to inject some money into this sector -- try to help them, try to employ them -- teaching them how to survive in this difficult period.”

The El Nino-induced drought will drain about 84 billion baht ($2.4 billion) from the economy and sap demand for durable goods such as vehicles, electrical appliances and farm machinery, TMB Bank Pcl said in a Feb. 19 report. Earnings have been crimped at companies from appliance-maker Singer Thailand Pcl to pesticide distributor Pato Chemical Industry Pcl.

Prapatpon Rungsatien
Prapatpon Rungsatien
Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Agriculture accounts for 8 percent of Thailand’s GDP, Apisak said. Farm output has contracted 7-to-8 percent in each of the past two years and farmers’ debt to agricultural income is hovering around 100 percent, said Santitarn Sathirathai, an economist with Credit Suisse Group AG in Singapore.

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 190 kilometers (118 miles), 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.”

No Quick Fix

Prapatpon’s struggle exemplifies the difficulty finding viable solutions to drought, even after the military government approved 11.2 billion baht of measures last year to help farmers, including encouraging them to plant crops that need less water and giving them longer to repay loans. It budgets spending 10.1 billion baht in the year starting May 1 to stabilize prices and reeducate farmers, including producers of Thailand’s famous fragrant jasmine rice.

Rice, a staple entrenched in Thai culture, 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, the lowest since 1994, the government wants to reduce the country’s rice production to 27 million tons 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 percent jump in rice production and a record 17.8 million-ton stockpile that the current government is struggling to sell.

Cutting output will reverse a global oversupply that’s 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 a day to attend -- were selected randomly in a lucky draw.

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

Rice farmer Sam-oil Pakpraek, 54, said she didn’t see what more the government could do. “The government can’t make water by themselves.”
Rice farmer Sam-oil Pakpraek, 54, said she didn’t see what more the government could do. “The government can’t make water by themselves.”
Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

While some farmers are becoming frustrated with their economic situation, there isn’t a lot they can do to express their feelings publicly under military rule, said David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based academic and the author of books on Thai law and politics.

Security Risk?

“It doesn’t seem like the economic welfare of laborers or small-scale farmers is a huge priority for the government,” he said, adding that any political tension in rural areas isn’t a current threat to security. “The effects of a diminishing economy is not something that is easily going to create a spark and set something off -- at least not yet. It’s just a slow burn.”

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 program, 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.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE