Organic rice in Northeastern Thailand: Improving farmers’ livelihoods and the environment

Since the policies put forward in Thailand’s First National Economic and Social Development plan (1961-1966), chemical use has significantly increased in Thailand’s agricultural sector. These policies had the intention of increasing the quantity of Thailand’s agricultural production.1 Relatedly, the maximization of rice production for export to generate foreign exchange has played an important role in Thailand’s economic and political history.2 It was a major factor in the transformation of Thailand from a traditional agrarian-based society to one that has become increasingly industrialized. Overall, the country as a whole has benefited from this economic growth and many people’s standard of living has improved. However, there have been costs and trade-offs, and these include in relation to the environment, which also has implications for rice farmers.

In Surin Province, Northeastern Thailand, many rice farmers struggle with accumulated debts, face health problems, and battle with the challenge of environmental degradation as a result of their involvement in so-called “modern farming” practices that are chemical intensive. At the same time, they find that nowadays this agricultural model seems to produce increasingly uncertain rice yields.

Over the past 20 years, a growing number of farmers have started to consider the root causes of their economic difficulties, and the other problems that they face. They have asked how could they take control of their lives, and manage without the chemical dependency that has become endemic to their farming system? How can they revive their own health, and recover the environment, whilst also building a fairer market system and nurturing thriving local communities?

One answer to these questions, they have discovered, is to practice organic rice farming combined with integrated farming systems and farmer-owned cooperatives, which is growing in appeal to an ever widening circle of farming communities.

Organic rice field and integrated farming of one of RFS Organic Agriculture Cooperative members in Prasart district, Surin. (Photo by Tipakson Manpati.)

Farmer’s organic rice field and integrated farm in Prasart district, Surin Province. (Photo by Tipakson Manpati.)

Discovering the downside of “modern farming”

Mr. Samrit Boonsuk, aged 85, was the first chairperson of the Rice Fund Surin (RFS) Organic Agriculture Cooperative. He remembers that his community first adopted chemical intensive farming because they had hoped to earn a good income from selling rice to the market. He says that “In order to gain more yield, we had to take some loans from the bank to invest in chemical fertilizers, which opened the way to indebtedness.”

But there was another crucial factor. Samrit says “After all that, we couldn’t compete with businessmen.”

Mr. Prasong Srisa-ad, 59, who is the current chairperson of the RFS Organic Agriculture Cooperative, elaborated. He said that chemical fertilizer came in to his area around 1964 with the advertisement message ‘Better rice, better price’ but “it was not true,” he said.

Prasong explains, “In the end, the rice price was set inconsistently. The price rate went up and down within a day. When we sold the paddy rice to middlemen, the scales that they used measured a very light weight [compared to our own measurement]. They offered a very low price.”

He laments, “The paddy rice was treated like a dead body going to the cemetery. The ones who controlled the price made us beg them. There was no choice. All of our investment into growing the rice had not paid off, and that drove us into a cycle of debt.”

Year after year, as the farmers became enmeshed in an unfair rice trade system, their rice fields, the wider ecosystem, and their health suffered from the intensive use of chemical fertilizers.

Prasong had inherited farm land for rice from his parent’s. “The soil hardened,” Prasong says, which was an accumulative effect from over 10 years of intensive use of chemical fertilizers that led to the soil quality becoming poor and lacking natural nutrients. The diverse array of wild animals and plants that had lived in the area become scarce or disappeared. This deteriorating ecosystem was felt directly by the communities, because these resources were also an important component of their diet. At the same time, his health also suffered as his debts mounted.

“The chemical is harmful” Prasong concludes. “How can we grow the rice and sustain our lives without it?”

Pioneering farmer-owned cooperatives

In 1985, some farmers from Surin Province were introduced to a growing local peasant’s movement in Thailand by a local NGO called the Alternative Agricultural Network (AAN-Esan). This NGO has worked to draw attention to the benefits of natural and integrated farming practices, and highlight that much knowledge already exists within the communities themselves that could be the foundation of a transition to natural and integrated farming.

These farmers first formed a small group in their district called the Surin Small-scale Farmers Network, which also cooperated with Surin Farmers Support (SFS) now called the Community for Agro-Ecology Foundation (CAEF). They became a member of AAN-Esan network, and attended different workshops to learn more about sustainable agriculture techniques from AAN-Esan, and to exchange their experience.

Prasong joined this organic rice farming movement over 25 years ago when he was 33. He helped establish the Tha Toom Natural Agriculture Group with sixty other farmers. However, in 1990, as the group declared its mission to be against chemical use, only 18 members including himself continued to be involved.

But, as he looks back on his choice, he has no regrets. “From my experience with conventional rice farming, no, I could not go back to it,” he says. “Organic rice farming is an alternative that supports self-reliance, reduced costs, protects health, and improves the environment.”

In 1992, around 100 farmers established the Rice Fund Surin (RFS), and in 2003 it was registered as the Rice Fund Surin Organic Agriculture Cooperative Ltd. Amongst their many activities, they have sought to build an alternative market for organic rice founded on the idea that rice trade should help improve farmers’ quality of life and be fair both for the farmer and the consumer. The intention is also to ensure the good health of farmers and consumers and safeguard environmental sustainability. The cooperative was proud to receive Fair Trade certification in 2005. With Fair Trade labeling, the organic rice farmers consider that they are guaranteed a better income and access to fairer markets.

Good earnings from a healthy earth

Because the farmers have suffered illnesses and had high-levels of debt, and the land was degraded, it took time and effort to recover from the chemical-intensive farming techniques of the past. Furthermore, the process of conversion to organic rice farming at first challenged the farmers, as rice production was variable during the transition. But after a few years, the soil regenerated its natural nutrients and could produce organic rice that was better in quality and yield.

Ms. Botan Saenmee, 46, was among the pioneering organic rice farmers in Surin. She has grown organic rice for over 20 years. Botan’s one-story concrete house, colored light blue, is situated among an array of fresh-looking rice field plots of which she owns 35 rai.3 On this land are also fruit trees, a vegetable garden, a storage house, a pile of hay, and a cow stall.

Botan’s organic rice field and integrated farm growing a variety of fruit trees and vegetables ranging from mangos to eggplants to chili. (Photo by Tipakson Manpati.)

Botan’s organic rice field and integrated farm growing a variety of fruit trees and vegetables ranging from mangos to eggplants and chili. (Photo by Tipakson Manpati.)

“My parent’s generation became reliant on chemical fertilizer,” Botan says. “Back at that time, the Thai government promoted rice production for export. We spent a lot of money on chemicals and were dependent on outsiders.”

As she began to farm organic rice, at first she faced critiques from her relatives and neighbors. They told her that organic rice was a crazy idea. They didn’t believe that it would produce good results.

She admits that “the first three years of organic rice farming was not very productive. It wasn’t successful.” She adds “The soil needed time to recover its fertility. But I joined study tours and workshops to gain new ideas and techniques. I continued to experiment with what I learned to improve the soil and care for the rice. Eventually it became better without using chemicals anymore.”

She also says that organic rice farming provides its dividends in different ways to chemical intensive farming. For example, in organic farming picking out weeds in the rice field by hand takes time, unlike using toxic weed-killer which is quicker. However, the latter places the farmer’s health at risk and also degrades ecosystems.

Growing organic rice within an integrated farming system supports her family’s economic needs well today. However, she considers that growing this diversity of organic food also supports her family’s well-being more broadly defined as well.

“If you only grow organic rice for sale you may buy food from others. But if you grow your own food as well, you don’t need to depend on the market all of the time” Botan explains. “For example, to make a bowl of ‘Tom Yam’ soup you need various ingredients including chili, eggplants, and lemongrass. If you have them in your garden, you can just go pick them from there. So, you don’t focus on how much you will earn in terms of income only, but also think about what you can eat as well.”

Planting an organic rice-forest

Ms. Sa-nguim Chantep, 36, left her hometown in Surin and spent about 12 years working in factories in Samut Prakarn province. In those years, apart from sending money back to her family, including to support their rice farm, she came back during the rice growing and harvesting seasons to work in the fields. As her parents are now getting older, she has inherited her family’s rice fields. She recently decided to quit her factory job and came back to continue rice farming but with a different approach, namely growing organic rice.

She went to a meeting and learned about the RFS Cooperative, which encouraged her to become a member and make the switch to organic farming on 50 rai of her own land. Sa-nguim says “I had the idea about doing organic rice and agricultural farming before but I didn’t know how to start with finding the market that will buy the products”. In 2014, her extended family agreed to register all of their 80 rai of land for growing organic rice.

On a sweltering day in June, 2015, Sa-nguim traveled about 50 km from her farm in Srikoraphum district to join the 12th General Assembly annual meeting, which was her first time as a shareholder and member of the RFS Organic Agriculture Cooperative. There, she also picked up 100 plant saplings from a reforestation program to grow in her rice fields. These saplings are provided by the Surin Crop Husbandry Station of the Royal Forestry Department for the members of RFS Cooperative’s reforestation program. They include Burmese Rosewood, Siamese Rosewood, Black Rosewood, Iron Wood, Yang, Tamarind, and Inthanin Bok.

Sa-nguim collects plant saplings to grow in her organic rice field. (Photo by Tipakson Manpati.)

Sa-nguim collects plant saplings to grow in her organic rice field. (Photo by Tipakson Manpati.)

The idea of growing trees in the rice field is to improve the quality of the environment which can bring about positive effects for farming. Trees in the rice fields have benefits to offer such as food, medicine, firewood, construction materials, fodder for animals, and timber. 4, 5 A study titled “Trees in Paddy Fields in Northeast Thailand” says that it is possible that trees in the rice fields help maintain overall production of the paddy field area (i.e. not just rice).6 Another research on “The Role of Trees in Countering Land Degradation in Cultivated Fields in Northeast Thailand”, indicated that trees in rice fields play an important socioeconomic role and ecological role. The research supports the idea that tree roots help capture nutrient and litter-fall decomposition on rice fields within the soil, and depending on the tree species can bring about positive effects to improve soil fertility that is particularly useful for the sandy soils of Northeastern Thailand that are prone-to-leaching.7

The result of Sa-nguim’s first year of organic rice farming was satisfactory to her. The total organic rice yield for her 2014-2015 crop was about 20 tons from the 80 rai. Previously, the same area produced 18-19 tons, and this was with the use of chemical fertilizers. In other words, she produces more yield, but also saves 40,000-50,000 baht per year from not purchasing chemical fertilizer.

What could be the factors that have helped her improve rice yield without chemical fertilizers?

She says that her rice fields are mostly upper sandy loam soil, and that they depend on rain-fed water to grow the rice without irrigation. In the past, her family would use a little chemical fertilizer to increase soil nutrients. However, this year, after the rice harvest, she didn’t use chemical fertilizer, but instead ploughed the remaining rice stubble into the land so that it decomposed in the soil. That was a helpful process that she says retained some nutrients in the soil and prepared it for the organic rice. Then, Sa-nguim also chose a new rice species to grow considering the specifics of her rice field’s ecology, in particular Jasmine rice (Kao Hom Dok Mali 105), which is well-known for its aromatic scent and adapts well to less water as in her rice fields.

Many of her neighbors are not yet convinced that her organic rice farming will succeed. Despite this she remains committed. She has started to apply natural soil improvement techniques, for example with rotation crops such as jackbean, mungbean, sesame and roselle. These plants are also earning her additional income. In the future, she plans to grow more trees to green her rice fields as well.

The farm has already returned a profit now that she is not spending money on chemical fertilizers. Also, importantly, she says “I feel safe to collect natural grown vegetables and fish in the rice fields.”

Regarding the future, Sa-nguim says, “I imagine my farm to become an integrated farm with organic rice, garden and livestock together. The trees that will grow would cover the area with lush green and be inviting to visitors.”

Shifting to System of Rice Intensification (SRI) farming

In traditional rice farming, broadcasting was a common practice to plant the seeds. According to this technique, farmers throw rice seeds into plowed land, and let it grow naturally or randomly. About 20-40 kg of rice seeds is used per rai with this technique. Farmers used to consider this method as the best way to use their land, especially those who had smaller rice field plots or limited manual labour. However, broadcasting the rice seeds also means using more seeds per unit area, whilst not guaranteeing more rice yield.

Recently, some farmers have transition to a new technique called System of Rice Intensification (SRI). It uses much less seed per area but can produce better yields. According to the SRI method, in the rice seeding stage, single rice seeds are grown in a nursery seedbed. The rice seedlings are 15 days old when they are transplanted. To prepare the rice field plot, the soil is turned over and flattened with water. The area is then soaked overnight before rice transplantation the next day. Because weather, temperature and specific timing are also important, the farmer starts transplanting early in the morning when the sun light is low and the temperature is most appropriate. Each rice seedling is planted at least 30 cm away from each other in order to allow enough space for tillering, and so that each seedling has enough nutrient in the surrounding soil.

Ms. Nattanan Katisart, 34, previously worked as an accountant for a company. She started organic rice farming in 2014, and has been working hard to produce healthier rice for her family members, whilst also producing some rice for sale as well. In 2015, she started to practice SRI for the first time.

Farmers join together for collective rice planting. With the SRI method, rice seedlings are carefully planted 30 cm apart. (Photo by Tipakson Manpati.)

Farmers join together for collective rice planting. With the SRI method, rice seedlings are carefully planted 30 cm apart. (Photo by Tipakson Manpati.)

Nattanan has prepared 30 rai of land to grow 4 kinds of organic rice. The majority of the area is for red sticky rice, red Jasmine rice, and Jasmine 105, whilst she has also dedicated a small 1 rai plot to grow pedigree Black Jasmine rice, known as Hom Nil in Thai, that has been studied for its antioxidant and antimutagenicity properties. Nattanan says she heard about Hom Nil when she was trying to create a better diet for her mother who suffers from diabetes. She decided to experiment with the SRI method on the one rai of Hom Nil rice, whilst using her normal technique for the remainder of the land.

However, the severe drought of 2015 meant that her first attempt had limited success. In July 2015, Nattanan’s SRI rice was growing but many of the seedlings did not survive through to the tillering stage due to the impact of a prolonged drought. As she did not have enough stored water, she then had to wait until the rain arrived to replant the rice.

After replanting, Nattanan’s SRI effort achieved success. She produced 144 kilograms from less than 1 rai. This result was quite a surprise considering the drought. “I supposed the rice tillering would have been much better if there was not drought,” she says. “But, I cannot control the weather.”

Nattanan now thinks about her seeds in the context of climate change. This reflects another strategy of these organic farmers, as they preserve rice seeds from their organic farming for the next planting season. Using the seeds grown from their own rice fields is a way not only to reduce cost, but is also important to preserve a selection of good seeds that grow well in the particular ecology of that area.

Nattanan’s SRI rice field is growing pedigree organic rice. (Photo by Tipakson Manpati.)

Nattanan’s SRI rice field is growing pedigree organic rice. (Photo by Tipakson Manpati.)

Looking forward: The battle with climate change

As experienced by Nattanan, the prolong drought in 2015, linked to El Niño, is forecasted to continue into 2016, which is of concern for all rice farmers, including organic ones. This symbolizes furthermore a deeper concern for long-term climate change impacts.

Prasong, the current chairperson of RFS Organic Agriculture Cooperative, says that climate change puts rice farmers in a difficult situation. In recent years, the weather patterns that farmers are familiar with, and that guides them as to when to plant rice, is changing. In 2015, delayed and less rainfall affected rice growing, and occurred alongside strong sun, rapid water evaporation, and sudden floodwaters. He says, “In some areas the farmers had to replant their rice seedlings 3 times.”

Asides from trying to store more water, and anticipate the weather, Prasong suggests that organic rice farmers need to start adapting by storing extra rice seeds. They also plan to grow rotation crops suitable to their area’s ecology, so that when the weather condition does not allow seasonal rice to continue they still have other crops that they can depend upon.

Prasong, and many other organic rice farmers, hope that alongside the other benefits that they have experienced from their conversion to organic agriculture, it will also make them more resilient to climate change.


Show 7 footnotes

  1. The Analysis of National Economic and Social Development Plan on Co-operative Development Strategy in Thailand: National Plan 1 – 10” by Dr. Sayomporn Yothasmutr, Faculty of Economics, Kasetsart University, Thailand. (Accessed, 16 February 2016)
  2. A history of rice policies in Thailand” by Ammar Siamwalla. (Accessed, 16 February 2016)
  3. 1 rai = 0.16 hectare
  4. Trees in Paddy Fields in Northeast Thailand. Reprinted from Gerald G. Marten (1986), Traditional Agriculture in Southeast Asia: A Human Ecology Perspective, Westview Press (Boulder, Colorado). (Accessed, 16 February 2016)
  5. Trees in paddy fields research in Northeast Thailand: looking back and looking forward. Author: Patma Vityakon, Land Resources and Environment Section, Faculty of Agriculture, Khon Kaen University, Presented at a meeting of Trees-Rice-Termite Ecosystem Research Project at Gifu University during 11-14 October 2013. (Accessed, 16 February 2016)
  6. Trees in Paddy Fields in Northeast Thailand. Reprinted from Gerald G. Marten (1986), Traditional Agriculture in Southeast Asia: A Human Ecology Perspective, Westview Press (Boulder, Colorado). (Accessed, 16 February 2016)
  7. The Role of Trees in Countering Land Degradation in Cultivated Fields in Northeast Thailand, by Patma Vityakon. Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3 December 2001

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  1. Gwyn Thomas said:

    I come from a farming family in UK which when I was a young man in the 1950s/60 all the farming was organic. The farming I first encountered here in Thailand was very much the same as in my youth.
    I am so pleased to see so many farmers reverting to the natural way of farming and to add my support I will search out organic rice where ever I can.

  2. Kaxang Dolesasolith said:

    Next dry season I and my teamwork will start to grow organic rice.So I need some technical information about this.