Saturday, July 10, 2010

Out In The Rice Paddies

Rice is truly the staff of life in Thailand, and has been for over 4,500 years. It not only provides the staple food for the Thai people, it shapes the structure for much of the kingdom’s working life and life style.

Rice is planted on over 55% of the country’s arable land, and involves over half the working population in Thailand in its production; producing not only enough for the Thai themselves but allowing them to keep a firm grip on the title as highest rice exporters to the rest of the world: somewhere around 6.5 million tons of processed (hulled write) rice per year, by the latest figures I can find.

Flying over Thailand during the growing season gives one a view that can take your breath away: a patchwork quilt of paddies in varying tints of green, stretching as far as the eye can see.

These photos were taken in the Northeast (Isaan) region, which is home to half of the country’s rice land. Although over a third of the country’s total land mass is located here weather, soil erosion and the lower availability of water for irrigation make it difficult for farmers, and overall farms are smaller. Areas such as the North and Central plains tend to have larger farms.

Nevertheless it is farm land, inhabited by farming families that have worked it for countless generations. It is their past, and many times their future. “It what we do,” my friend told me with a soft tone of resignation as we walked along the banks dividing the checkerboard squares of paddy space one afternoon, watching his uncle work. “Maybe I will work here until I die.” I tended to doubt that, coming from a young man who had already had a taste of the world past his small village and who had taken loans out to become the first of his family to get a degree.

Uncle Sek was standing in his knee-high rubber boots in the rich, muddy seedling paddy next to us, and waved a greeting to his nephew and the Big Pink Stranger who walked unsteadily along the mini-levees. He was amused at my lack of balance as I (being a good Westerner) tried not to ruin the two week old shoes I’d thoughtlessly worn to visit the family farm that day by sliding into the muck. “Step in my feet,” said my friend, pointing to his footprints – and I did, gratefully, trusting his experience from walking similar paths all of his life.

Before we’d arrived – perhaps earlier the same day, perhaps the previous day – Sek had pulled the seedlings from the mud and bundled them neatly into handfuls, wrapping a length of scrap stalk around them, securing them into a bundle, then placing them root down back into the water.

Sek had the blade of a field knife taped cutting edge up to a bamboo stake in the mud near him and was now picking up each waiting bundle and smoothly slicing the tops off of them with quick downward strokes against the blade’s razor-sharp edge. Countless repetition made the action appear effortless, but I knew better; this was tough, back-breaking work. One only has to observe the older men and women in the village to see what a lifetime of it can do to a body.

The water buffalo wandered aimlessly nearby, looking up occasionally at the stranger if he got a little too close, making them walk a little ways away. Their hardest work – double-plowing and smoothing the paddies before the flooding and seeding – had been finished months before. A neighbor led his buffalo past where we were standing, taking him to a different grazing area off around the corner where we’d see him later that afternoon on a walk to the reservoir.

My friend describes the paddy area beside the family home as “small”, but they also farm another larger batch of paddies off in another area not far away. Their annual profit from the rice sales comes to a humble total of $250 to $300 USD, but it provides enough rice for the members of his extended who share time and labor to tend it to survive on… and that’s what it’s all about, anyway.

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