The rice harvesting season is just about over and farmers large and small have been gathering in the precious crop throughout the Province.
Having been raised on a farm in England, I am well aware of the importance of harvest time. The weather can be both friend and enemy.
Rain is needed to make the crop grow but too much and the crop can be destroyed. Dry weather is needed to harvest any grain crop and farmers all over the country have been keeping a close watch on the sky.
The traditional method of harvesting is by hand and at one time 90 percent of the rice was harvested this way. However, times have changed and now 90 percent is gathered by combine harvesters. That still leaves 10 percent that is still harvested the traditional way.
Hard Work The Traditional Way
Numerous small farmers still slave away for hours in the paddy fields to bring in the rice. Some are reluctant to embrace modern methods but the majority simply can’t afford the luxury of a combine harvester.
However, it appears now that using combine harvesters is cheaper than traditional labour. Yes, some farms are like communes and everybody “mucks” in so it is cheaper to avoid modern machinery.
But now many harvesters expect to be paid, making machinery a more viable proposition.
Combine Harvester Making It Easy
Combine harvesters cost around a million baht and their owners become contractors. Hire charges are around 600 baht per rai .
The harvest period is normally November to December but it can stretch into January. In countless villages, the pre-harvest parade is held, followed by a ritual dance performed in colourful costumes.
Then prayers are offered to Buddha, asking for an abundant harvest.
When I was young I was often faced with cutting and packing over one thousand cabbages or cauliflowers on my father’s farm. The feeling of sheer hopelessness at the enormity of the task, still haunts me to this day.
I wonder what it’s like for the Thais having to harvest acres and acres of rice by hand.
All the harvesters have a common enemy, the sun. Many farang tourists wear rice hats, but to the workers they are an invaluable defence against the burning sun.
Long sleeved shirts are also worn and often a cloth is wrapped round the face.
Hats And Clothes To Shelter From The Sun
As well as being faced with heat and hours of back-breaking toil, the harvesters have mosquitoes and the threat of venomous snakes to contend with. However, the philosophical Thais just get on with it until the job is done.
Harvesting by hand involves grabbing the top 8 inches of a bunch of rice stalks, grasping them firmly before severing the tops with a casual flick of a razor-sharp rice hook.
The true experts are the old women of the villages who make the whole process look ridiculously easy. The lock of rice is then thrown on the floor in heaps to dry. A few days later they are then gathered into sheaves.
Rice Husks Separated From The Stalks
These are later taken away to be threshed. The traditional way is to tie two sticks together with rope which is tightened to grasp a bunch of stalks. They are then beaten on the ground to separate the grains and the husks are blown away by the wind.
The rice is then spread out on sheets by the side of roads or any available space to dry. In fact even the roads themselves are used, but after all, this is Thailand.
Rice On The Road To Dry
This is a sight that any visitor to Thailand can not fail to see at this time of year.
On The Road Again
A great number of farmers are subsistence farmers, that is they harvest the rice to feed the whole village in the coming year. That’s why the harvest is so important to so many people. It’s all about survival.
For those who have the use of combine harvesters, the process is much simpler, though as stated earlier, it is perceived to be more expensive. These machines cut, thresh and winnow the rice, hence the name. It is much faster so it is easier to beat the weather.
The rice has to harvested at the right time. Too early and the rice will be wet and rot. Too late, the rice will be too dry and crack.
Getting this right is second-nature to the Thai farmers as the crops are safely gathered in. They can harvest anything from 250kg to 500kg per rai and prices are around $450 dollars per metric tonne.
Much of the rice that is grown for commercial purposes is jasmine rice. The yield is not as high as some kinds of rice but it is better quality and can command higher prices in the world markets.
In a future article we will be looking at the harvesting of sugar cane. This crop is becoming more popular as it is hardier than rice and less likely to be affected by the weather.