CHIANGRAI TIMES – For some Thais, the capital city is just too much. Traffic jams, rainy-season floods and the general stress of day-to-day living in a city of 10 million people encourages many to hanker after a simpler way of life – and some achieve it, at least on the weekends.
Computer programmer Wiroj Suksanunee at insurance company Allianz is among a rising number of urban Thais, thought to number in the hundreds if not thousands, who are taking up farming in their spare time. Last year, Mr. Wiroj took a 3,700 baht, or $120, three-day course at the Khao Kwan Foundation in the central province of Suphanburi to learn how to grow organic rice, and now, as soon as the work-week ends, he rides a bus two hours north to rural Singburi where he tends to growing rice on his family’s land.Mr. Suksanunee celebrates his first harvest.
“I’m bored to death living in such a competitive environment in Bangkok. We use money for everything there, including buying food,” complains Mr. Wiroj, 32. “And rice there is poor quality. My dogs in Singburi eat better rice.”
Weekend farming has sprouted in cities around the world in recent years, including bustling metropolises in Japan and Europe. In many cases it is driven by the part-time farmers’ preferences to eat organic food. But for some, the satisfaction of eating food they have grown themselves is what counts.
In Thailand, a few celebrities are digging in. Television actress Siriyakorn Pukkavesa helped give the trend some momentum last year by talking up rice farming and producing a TV show and book about her project. Called “I Will Be A Rice Farmer”, the show was a hit among Thais who yearn to rediscover their rural roots. Ms. Siriyakorn showed viewers how to buy land, plant seeds and harvest their own rice.
Since then, demand has grown for the three-day farming courses at Khao Kwan, which means “the spirit of rice.” More than 500 people have taken the course at the non-profit organization since 2010. Other groups offer similar courses or simply seek private instruction from a farmer.
“City residents want to delete their materialistic way of life,” says Khao Kwan manager Anunya Hongsa. “Living and working in the big city is tiring and unpleasant, and they struggle to find happiness there.”
Some of these weekend farmers have taken to the Internet to swap tips on the best way to grow rice and other produce. One page on Facebook set up by Supachai Pitiwut urges factory workers and other urbanites to go back to the land, at least at the weekend.
Chonlathep Pandam, an administrative officer in a hospital in Pitsanulok city, took their advice. He drove north to his family home in Sukhothai and told his father that he wanted to grow rice. “He shouted at me, saying ‘Are you crazy?’” Mr. Chonlathep recalls, figuring his son was giving up a paying job to join the ranks of Thailand’s chronically debt-ridden farmers.
And therein lies the rub. It is a point of honor among many rural Thai families to see their children escape the farm and find work in Bangkok and other cities. Parents often hope that securing a job in government or in a large corporation will bring honor and a steady income that isn’t tied to the weather. Indeed, nearly 80% of Thailand’s farmers are in debt, according to the National Statistics Office, burdened by the cost of chemical fertilizer, among other things.
Mr. Chonlathep, though, farms organically, using advice gleaned from the Internet discussion groups and other sources of information – and made a 45,000 baht profit, or $1,500, on his first batch of rice grown on six rai, or just under one hectare (2.5 acres). Today, Mr. Chonlathep’s father, Chuan Pandam, is urging his neighbors to take up organic farming, too, seeing that there money can be made and that the extended family can be together.
“I know he is very proud of me. I’m proud of myself, too. Working in any honest job earns pride and honor,” Mr. Chonlathep says, who now plans to take up farming full time. “Being a weekend farmer frees you from stress, and is not very difficult.”
Mr. Wiroj, the computer programmer, meanwhile, says he still has to work in Bangkok during week days. He is trying to grow his first crop and depends on his salary. “I don’t know how much I will earn, but if it is successful I will expand my farm,” he says.
And if it really takes off, Mr. Wiroj plans to take his rice business a step further by buying a small mill to make sure his organic rice does not get mixed up with other grains – and ensure it maintains a premium price.