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,” Malinee said recently as she downloaded photos from her camera onto a computer at the local community center. “I’d rather stay indoors.”
Backbreaking 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.
However, in Thailand today, rice farming is the preserve of the old as young people stay in school longer 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 small 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 increased 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 especially challenging for Thailand, where the growing of rice — notably the prized jasmine variety — is entwined with the country’s identity and its livelihood.
Thailand has been the world’s leading rice exporter since 1983, according to the US Department of Agriculture, and rice exports amounted to more than US$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 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, fed by rivers draining from the Himalayas, 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, said 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,” Iam said, 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 ‘Thainess,’ 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, said Nongnut Apiwatnawa, a 51-year-old farmer.