Thailand’s farming industry has played a big role in improving the lives of Thai people over the last few decades. Developments in farming led to a decrease in national hunger levels and undernourishment in children. The price of food fell by half and there was a large reduction in unemployment levels. Agriculture has helped Thailand to move towards being an industrialised nation.
While many Thai farms use machinery to help with agricultural tasks, there are still farms that use old methods. For some farmers, this is because of insufficient means to purchase or rent mechanical equipment, whereas for others, it is either a reluctance to change or a desire to retain, or return to, more traditional (and cheaper) methods. The water buffalo has long been important in Thai agriculture, used to pull heavy ploughs across the fields. The animal’s manure is also a great natural fertiliser, and buffalo meat is nutritious. Farmers who do not own their own working buffaloes can rent animals during the ploughing season. Traditional farmers generally harvest by hand, taking on seasonal labourers to assist if necessary.
As with anywhere in the world, farmers need to protect their crops and livestock to make a living. You’ll notice scarecrows in fields to deter birds from pecking at seeds and young shoots, and farm cats are commonly kept to keep mice and rats at bay. You may spot large jars in rice fields too. These are to catch freshwater crabs that often live in the paddies. They are seen as pests, as they eat the young rice, but the crabs are also used for food; the spicy papaya salad of som tam often contains crabs from the rice fields.
Glue paper is sometimes used to catch field rats. The rats become stuck to the strong glue and no longer pose a threat to the produce. Catching rats in this way, as opposed to poisoning them, also means that they can be eaten. Electric fences are one of the more controversial ways that farmers stop animals from straying beyond their fields and keep unwanted creatures away from crops. Sadly, electrification of Thai farms can pose a real danger to elephants, pet dogs, and others. People have also been killed due to high currents running through the wires.
Much of Thailand’s agricultural land can be found in Central and Northeast Thailand. Indeed, Central Thailand is often referred to as Thailand’s “rice bowl” or “bread basket”, with the relatively flat and wet lands ideal for growing various items. Most of Northeast Thailand is arable land too. The cooler climate in North Thailand, however, makes that the best place for growing crops like potatoes, strawberries, cabbages, avocados, and bell peppers. Most of Thailand’s coffee is grown in the mountains in the north, mostly in Chiang Rai. Southern Thailand has made huge developments in the farming sector too.
Rice is one of Thailand’s major crops, with almost 60% of all Thai farmers producing the grain. Half of Thailand’s cultivated land is dedicated to rice growing and the nation is one of the largest rice exporters in the world. Rice is also one of Thailand’s staple foods, with each person eating, on average, almost 115 kilograms (about 253 pounds) per year.
Thailand is one of the world’s biggest producers and exporters of rubber. The country supplies around 40% of all the natural rubber in the world. Thai rubber is mainly used to produce tyres for aeroplanes and motor vehicles. Despite great demand, rubber prices are low, leaving many rubber farmers living in poor conditions. Many Thai people believe that rubber plantations attract spirits.
Thailand is the top exporter of durian and one of the top two global sugar exporters. Thailand is also ASEAN’s primary producer and exporter of dairy products; the nation produces around one million tonnes of milk per year. It is also one of the top three palm oil producers across the globe, though almost all locally produced palm oil is used domestically. Other major exports include pineapples, coconuts, tapioca, tuna, and shrimp. Surprisingly, and despite being relatively late to the coffee-growing game, Thailand is among the world’s leading producers of coffee.
Thailand’s Philosophy of Sustainable Economy, as created by the late King Rama IX, urges Thai people to be sustainable in their daily lives, consuming only what they need and in a way that looks at future impacts, the environment, and the community. The philosophy was developed to try and improve conditions for impoverished farmers in Thailand’s rural areas. There are now projects in more than 23,000 Thai villages to encourage sustainable farming, teaching local farmers about the goals and ideals, introducing new methods and techniques, educating those in the farming industry, and supporting local farms.
Despite attempts to improve the fortunes of Thai farmers, the majority of small-scale farmers live close to, if not in, poverty. Many farmers face large debts and a lot have been forced to sell off their lands. In 2011, official estimates stated that only 15% of Thai farmers owned their lands, as opposed to 44% in 2004. Farmers often have lower incomes and higher debts than national averages.
Organic farming is still a relatively new concept in Thailand and there are fewer organic farms than many other places in the world. Most of Thailand’s organic goods are imported. Less than 0.2% of Thailand’s farmers farm organically, and governments generally favour chemical-based production. Thailand is one of the world’s largest users of agricultural chemicals, and the World Bank places Thailand in the top five consumers of toxic substances.
Mutton and lamb are not common meats in Thailand, with pork, chicken, fish, and seafood more prevalent at dinnertime. That’s not to say that Thailand doesn’t have its fair share of sheep farms, though. Sheep farms in Thailand are generally, however, for pleasure, and many Thai people love visiting such farms to feed and interact with the woolly animals. Goats are sometimes kept with the sheep as well, and you may see the odd llama or alpaca. For just a few Thai baht visitors can buy a bundle of grass (or a bottle of milk for younger animals) and enjoy hand feeding the sheep. Sheep farms are most common in mountainous areas, with places like Pak Chong and Wang Nam Khiao, both in Nakhon Ratchasima Province, Ratchaburi’s Suan Phueng, and Phetchabun’s Khao Kho particularly known for their novel farms.