CHIANGRAI TIMES – During 18 years living across the road from rice paddies, Malinee Khammon has never planted a single seedling. The daughter of farmers who is in her last year of high school, she has become adept at deflecting increasingly desperate pleas from her parents for help on the farm.
“It’s hot and exhausting — I don’t like it,” Ms. Malinee said recently as she downloaded photos from her camera onto a computer at the local community center. “I’d rather stay indoors.”
Back-breaking and muddy, rice farming in Thailand has long been the domain of the young and able-bodied who had the strength to stoop for hours in the searing sun, transplanting rows of rice plants, one seedling at a time.
But in Thailand today, rice farming is suddenly the preserve of the old as young people stay longer in school and as the vast metropolis of Bangkok lures the country’s best and brightest to careers in air-conditioned workplaces.
“All they can do with their hands is use a cellphone,” said Sudarat Khammon, who at 33 is the youngest farmer in Baan Khlong Khoo, a village of stilt houses outside the central Thai city of Phitsanulok.
Only 12 percent of Thai farmers today are younger than 25, down from 35 percent in 1985, according to government statistics, and their average age jumped to 42 in 2010 from 31 in 1985.
The move away from the rice paddies is not altogether surprising: Thailand and other rice-growing countries in Asia are following patterns of industrialization seen elsewhere.
But the transition is particularly charged for Thailand, where the growing of rice — notably the prized jasmine variety — is entwined with the country’s identity, and its livelihood. The country has been the world’s leading rice exporter since 1983, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, and rice exports amounted to more than $6 billion last year.
Rice is highly politicized in Thailand, and this year, partly to appease disgruntled farmers, the government put in place a price guarantee system that has hurt competitiveness, leading to stockpiles of unsold rice.
In the long term, as the older generation of farmers dies off, experts worry that Thailand may have trouble finding people to work its 13 million hectares, or about 32 million acres, of rice paddies.
Beyond the basic question of who will take up the plow, some Thais see a more immediate but less tangible threat to the society as a whole. The fertile soils of central Thailand are the heartland of Thai culture and one of the reasons that Siam, as the country was formerly known, thrived.
As young people flee the farms, the values and knowledge of rice farming and the countryside are fading, including the tradition of long kek, helping neighbors plant, harvest, or build a house, says Iam Thongdee, who grew up in a farming family and became a professor of humanities at Mahidol University in Bangkok.
“This has alarmed me for a long time,” said Mr. Iam, clutching an ancient manuscript handed down through generations in his family and used to instruct farmers in the rituals of village life. “We are losing what we call Thai-ness, the values of being kind, helping each other, having mercy and gratefulness.”
In Baan Khlong Khoo, there are two visible signs of the abandonment of rice farming. When farmers meet to discuss prices or other rice-related issues, the room is filled with men and women in their 50s, says Nongnut Apiwatnawa, a 51-year-old farmer. The other visible sign is a gaping hole in the ground near Mr. Nongnut’s home. Several of his neighbors decided to sell their topsoil to construction companies, who have hauled off the dirt to build houses.
The precise reasons the young are turning from farming include some universal explanations: the belief that life in cities is easier, or at least more exciting. But some of the reasons are more specific to Thailand.
In some parts of the world, the image of farmers is bound together with thoughts of self-reliance, strength and nostalgia for the countryside, but the Thai farmer is seen as “poor, stupid and unhealthy,” said Mr. Iam, who specializes in studying the culture of rice growing. “Farmers say that if I’m reincarnated 10 times, I don’t want another life as a farmer.”
Television shows regularly portray farmers as the embodiment of uncouth. And farmers’ skin, darkened by the sun, has become a marker of lower social status in a country so obsessed with light skin that television and women’s magazines are packed with advertisements touting skin-whitening creams. But there are also economic drivers.
As a group, farmers are increasingly indebted, last year owing on average 104,000 baht, or $3,350, the equivalent of about five years of their average income. The reasons are rising fertilizer prices and the legacy of crops lost to flooding, drought and other natural disasters.
The debt figures may be inflated, says Robert M. Townsend, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has led a project surveying Thai villagers every month for the past 15 years. The farmers he has studied have debt levels that on average are equivalent to less than one year of their income. But it is also increasingly rare to find families who do nothing but farm, he said. The Thai countryside is filled with small entrepreneurs who open grocery shops, hair salons and other businesses.
The declining number of rice farmers is a “pretty generalized phenomenon across Asia,” said Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
Binh Nguyen Ngoc, a professor of Asian cultures and linguistics at Hanoi National University, says young people in Vietnam, also a major rice exporter, are fleeing the farms. “Everyone says the farmer works the hardest but gets the least amount of money,” he said.
Mr. Zeigler says he expects the declining number of rice farmers to cause “stresses” in the short term, but said labor shortages are also usually catalysts for the increased use of efficient machines, like those that transplant rice.
“We’re having the beginnings of a pretty significant revolution in mechanization in Asia,” he said. “I was stunned late last year to see them being used in India and places where you’d think there’s an abundance of labor.”
But for now in Thailand, the problem is acute enough — and the farmers who make up about a third of the population are still a strong enough political constituency — that the government is taking measures beyond the price guarantee system.
The Rice Department of the Thai Ministry of Agriculture is devising a farmers’ welfare fund that seeks to give farmers pensions, workers’ compensation for disabilities, and subsidized equipment. The goal of the law, according to the ministry, is to make rice farming more “honorable and secure.”
The transition in Thailand from a rural and feudal society to one of the foremost producers of computer hard drives and a hub for Japanese and American car companies has been abrupt.
That is causing a stark generational divide between parents who had no other choice but farming and their children who are exposed to a range of possibilities in high school and at universities.
Boonmee Khammon, 41, the father of Ms. Malinee, speaks bitterly about his two daughters’ refusal to help him in the rice fields.
“They live in their own world,” Mr. Boonmee said. “They’re not interested in working on the farm — I’ve tried to force them. It’s difficult.”
Ms. Malinee says her dream is to become a teacher. Her friends at school, some of them also the children of farmers, want to be doctors, pharmacists and engineers. She seems slightly embarrassed about her farming roots.“She’s afraid of getting dark,” said Namaoi Taengbang, a friend.
Kwanchai Gomez, the executive director of the Thai Rice Foundation, a research center financed by the Thai royal family, believes the decline of interest in such hard work is inevitable, but a decade ago she set up an annual summer camp to keep at least some young people engaged in the ancient skill of coaxing rice from the ground. They meet with experts and spend time in laboratories experimenting with new rice strains. But the effort has met with limited success.
“Many people who came to the camp,” Ms. Kwanchai said, “want to further their studies.” -By THOMAS FULLER