Field Notes

Empty rice bowl looms as Thai farmers grow older

With their children leaving to work in the city, elderly farmers are having to toil in the fields on their own

BANGKOK • They may be separated by a distance of more than 600km but Mrs Pornkaew Suntornkarun, in northern Thailand, and Mr Pratum Ampan, in south central Thailand, have a lot in common.

They are both ageing farmers. Mrs Pornkaew is 79 and Mr Pratum is 67 - and both are tough people used to living off the land, with little money to hire labour. And even as they grow older, they work their fields, largely on their own.

Significantly, in the larger scheme of things, they are not alone. Not just in Thailand but also in advanced countries like Japan, the farmers are getting older, with villages often populated by grandparents and grandchildren.

In Thailand, the generation that is in between the farmers and their grandchildren work in the cities, in jobs that pay better than the measly 88 baht (S$3.50) a day that the average rice farmer earns.


The work never stops. We have to survive on something.

MRS PORNKAEW SUNTORNKARUN, a 79-year-old farmer in northern Thailand


The average age of a farmer in Thailand is 51 or 52. Who is going to work the farm in 10 years' time? Unless something changes, we will have a lot of farmland going to waste - and very quickly too.

MR KORN CHATIKAVANIJ, former finance minister

"The number of people involved in farming has substantially declined in almost all developed countries, and the same thing will happen in Asian developing countries if economic growth continues," says Mr Hiroyuki Konuma, the assistant director-general and Bangkok-based regional representative for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO).

"In Japan, the average farmer is already 66 years old," he adds.

With rapid urbanisation, it is anticipated that 63 per cent of Asia's population will be living in cities by 2050. And unless deep structural issues and economic imbalances are addressed, the few that are left on the farms will labour alone, because the money is not enough to bring the next generation back to the farm.

Mrs Pornkaew wakes up before dawn every day, at around 5am. She prepares breakfast, which she and her husband, 80 - a retired government official who used to work in Bangkok and does not work on the farm - eat at around 6am.

Then, if it is planting season - roughly July and August, depending on the onset of the annual monsoon - Mrs Pornkaew and her 45-year-old niece, who visits from Bangkok for the season, will be busy with the planting.

They first plant rice seeds in trays and, when the seedlings have grown to become shoots a few centimetres high, transplant them to the fields. The work is backbreaking and takes all day.

As the rice is growing, the water level in the paddies has to be monitored. Too little water will encourage the growth of weeds, which will compete with the rice for sunlight, water, nutrients and space. Too much water is not good for the rice. If it rains heavily, the aunt-and-niece team must let the water out. Rain or shine, the work continues.

In the dry season, when there are no paddies to care for, Mrs Pornkaew tends to a few fruit trees. In the mango and longan season, the fruit has to be harvested. If there is nothing to harvest, she goes to the nearby forested hills with a basket to look for herbs and mushrooms. Whatever is left after cooking, she sells in the local market. "The work never stops," she says. "We have to survive on something."

Mrs Pornkaew does not have children, but the situation of those who do is no different from hers because their children have all gone to work in factories, or found city jobs. "We older people talk about this all the time," she says. "There is nobody to take over the fields after us. But we are happy that the kids have had an education and have jobs. They don't want to come back for such hard work and so little money. But that's okay, as long as we know they are happy."

Hiring labour could relieve her of the workload. Her hands are now arthritic. But labour is short during the rice-planting season, so costs go up - between 250 baht and 300 baht a day for a man, and 200 baht a day for a woman. Mrs Pornkaew must also provide a meal and a bottle of local whisky every day. It all adds up.

Over in Ayutthaya's Ang Thong district, Mr Pratum squats watchfully over his water pump amid his 4ha of rice fields, near the historic town of Ayutthaya.

He is also up before dawn every day and, with his 60-year-old wife Prasart, he too must watch the water level, regulate it, remove weeds and occasionally spray herbicide and pesticide on the paddy.

This year, because he started planting amid the drought and had to hire pumps, he will make little money. But he is sanguine about this, for his children are doing well in factory jobs 90km away in Bangkok.

As for the future, if there is nobody around to take over the fields after he is gone, that's fine, he says.


For the world's food planners, however, the question is: "Who will produce our food?" as Mr Konuma puts it. The world's population growth will be driven by developing countries, according to the United Nations. With their empty farms and fallow fields, there is potential for a "tremendous negative impact to world stability and peace", says Mr Konuma.

In Thailand, which is one of the world's biggest rice producers,the big issue is structural - the lack of labour - says former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij.

"The demographics are very negative," he says. "The average age of a farmer in Thailand is 51 or 52. Who is going to work the farm in 10 years' time? Unless something changes, we will have a lot of farmland going to waste - and very quickly too."

And keeping the farms going is a must. The UNFAO estimates that food production must increase by 60 per cent by 2050 to meet the demand of a world population, which will increase from 7.3 billion today to 9.3 billion by then.

"There are still young people who are interested in agriculture and farming, but more needs to be done to attract even more youth from both rural and urban areas to agriculture," Mr Konuma wrote in an e-mail, in response to queries.

To discuss ways to draw more young people into agriculture, the UNFAO will be hosting a forum for agricultural ministers from across the region. Some of the measures being discussed are innovation and new technology - including biotechnology, organic farming, information technology - and low-interest loans to young farmers.

What has kept farmers' incomes down in Asia - and driven young people off the land - is that farm sizes here tend to be small, so it is hard to make sufficient profits to keep up with the incomes of people in other sectors of the economy.

One option is to consolidate small holdings into large ones, but only entrepreneurs or big companies can afford to do so. Experts say Asian farms will never be as large as those in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

 Another possibility is to form farm-management companies that provide mechanisation and nutrient services to the farmers.

But with farming families usually deep in debt,  they would be hard-pressed to pay for such services. Earlier this month, it was reported that more than 1.6 million Thai farmers owe a total of almost 400 billion baht. Full mechanisation is a long way off.

Some farmlands will thus become fallow as a generation of ageing farmers pass on. The best hope is that if supplies run short and prices of agricultural produce rise, younger people will be tempted to start farming again.

In Thailand, high-quality and safe agricultural items, produced through organic farming or advanced hydroponic technology, are becoming popular, even if their retail prices are 10 per cent to 20 per cent higher.

To Mr Korn, who has spent months recently researching farm economies and promoting organic agriculture, this is one clear solution.

"Large-scale plantation agriculture is not an answer for small farmers," he says.

"These small farmers are already growing what is considered the finest rice in the world. In my opinion, they should go more premium, go organic. The government should support this. The rising middle class - in Thailand and elsewhere, including China - is willing to pay more for guaranteed quality."

For Mrs Pornkaew, the workday ends at sunset, when it is time for a simple dinner of rice, fish and fresh herbs, and then a half hour of a soap opera on TV, before bedtime by 9pm at the latest.

And the backbreaking work begins all over again when the rooster crows at the first hint of light in the east.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2015, with the headline 'Empty rice bowl looms as Thai farmers grow older'. Print Edition | Subscribe