02 October 2010

Destigmatizing Farming

As the sun set on my host family’s rice paddy in Yasothon province, turning the sky into a kaleidoscope of different colors, I couldn’t help but utter a sigh of contentment and say, “นี่คือชีวิตที่ดี,” or, “This is the good life.”

For the entire day, I helped my host family manage their animals and crops through cutting down tall, thick grasses for the cows and pigs to feast on, planting tamarind plants and flowering trees, and sorting the white or unprocessed rice kernels from the local variety of rice that had a naturally rich, deep mahogany color. Afterwards, however, I was able to lay back and relax on a bamboo bench under the shade of an awning made out of straw. I was accompanied by the happy squeals of my young host cousins playing near the cow pen, the low-pitched, steady murmur of my host father, uncle, and grandfather as they talked about the day’s business and the laughter of my host mother, aunt, and grandmother while they made the day’s dinner.

Being a part of a family like this made me feel happy, safe – like I had a viable support system. So if this family structure evoked such a feeling from me, why does the farming occupation have so many stigmas attached to it? Why is everyone trying to escape the farming lifestyle?

In Thailand, the rural youth are increasingly migrating to Bangkok and larger urban centers for education and employment. For example, my host parents in Yasothon had one daughter who moved to Bangkok and married a man there with no intentions of coming back to the village. Similarly, my host parents in Roi Et province, where the farming lifestyle is similar, had two daughters who both moved to Bangkok to find jobs have not come back to help around the farm.

Perhaps this disrespect and negative mentality against small-scale farmers has allowed larger farming conglomerates to take advantage of both local and global markets and forced us everyday people to turn a blind eye to the issue. For instance, contract farming is a system in which a company hires individual farmers to grow a certain crop in a certain way and then buys the farmer’s product when it is ready. Although this provides the farmer with a guaranteed market, the company is not responsible for the welfare of the farmers that they hold contracts with. Additionally, some companies even require farmers to pay for certain types of seeds or expensive and nutrient-draining fertilizer from the company itself, thus opening up the possibility of the farmers accumulating a debt with the company.

Plus, contract farming creates other problems including the decision of whether or not to grow only cash crops like sugarcane and cassava to sell to companies or to grow in a more sustainable way without a contract for the sake of their community and livelihoods. If a farmer were to pick the former, then he/she would obviously accrue more money; however, he/she would be required to buy food from somewhere else instead of growing more food for his or herself. On the other hand, if the farmer were to choose the latter, there would be no guaranteed market for their goods, and he/she would have less money to send their children to school or afford electronics, for example. So essentially, I feel that contract farming has the potential to strip small-scale farmers like those in Yasothon and Roi Et from their rights and livelihoods through a system of exploitation stemming from a wide-sweeping disrespect for individual farmers.

In the US, too, I certainly feel that there is an air of, “I will never be like my parents,” if those parents are farmers. But from my experience in Yasothon, I no longer feel that sense of condescension because I now know those small-scale farmers. I’ve had a small taste of how they live their lives and how strong their bonds are. And ultimately, members of farming families are human, just like us. In a perfect world, what I envision is a total overhaul of societal thought in some way, and perhaps then, farming will be looked upon as an honorable, desirable occupation again.

Emily Srisarajivakul
Northwestern University


Brett Srader said...

Emily! I have really struggled with this dichotomy as well. How can you live a self-sufficient, happy and community-focused life while being able to enjoy the modern advancements we all love. I can't imagine not having the opportunity to go to a major-city across the globe and spend a night in a bar where every face is new and the music oddly familiar. This is the beauty of modern globalization that brings a flame of life to my heart. I grew up in a farming community and my ancestors have always farmed, but what if I genuinely want something different. Now that I know something different can exist, how can I throw in my dice and give it all up. It seems sometimes as if the choice is between my temporary happiness and adventure and the existence of a livable planet for my great-grandchildren. Maybe moderation is the answer? Maybe I should just keep indulging in all life has to offer and believe in the power of humanity to fix everything? Maybe I should organize the poor who still find value in the traditional life and empower them to avoid more brain drain from their communities? I don't know the answer but I will continue to move forward asking myself and others these questions.

Anonymous said...

It makes me so sad that farmers are looked down upon in society because I think they have one of the most honorable jobs. Food is something that is vital to life and a farmer is someone who gets to provide this to society. The job of a farmer should be looked up to and people should appreciate the farmer every time they eat, the problem is that most people are so disconnected from our food that we don’t even acknowledge that it has come from a farm and that hard work has gone into the production of the food. This disconnected is part of the reason why the small-scale farmers are disappearing because there is no one to stick up for them because we don’t honor and fully acknowledge their job anymore. Responsible farmers are hidden from the everyday consumer creating the space for large businesses and corporations to take advantage of them.