The cream of the crops

Farmer Krajang Chuenrung has learnt from experience that natural disasters have wiped out numerous farms that relied on a single crop. His farm on the fringe of Bangkok was one of them. He has since switched to integrated farming which provides him with a more stable income. His farm is also a learning centre for the integrated farming technique.

Rubber farmers suffering from freefalling crop prices are being urged to consider a departure from their traditional practice of sticking to one crop and embrace integrated farming to balance out their investment risk. Authorities in the southern province of Songkhla recently held a meeting to exchange ideas on how to create jobs and boost the earnings of rubber planters following years of plummeting rubber prices.

The meeting gathered representatives from the provincial offices of commercial affairs, cooperatives, land development, public health and public relations as well as shopping malls, universities and state and private sectors.

Songkhla deputy governor Kajornsak Jareonsopha urges farmers to grow multiple crops on rubber farms to supplement their income.

The discussion touched on crops which should be grown alongside rubber in the farms to boost earnings and minimise the risk of monocropping, where one crop is grown over many years in the same area.

Experts said monocropping is a preferred farming technique where technology or advanced agricultural measures are introduced to reduce the risk factors such as soil deterioration and unstable irrigation. The technique, while promising substantial returns on investments, is not suited to small traditional farms run by owners with limited capital who also live at the mercy of nature.

Integrated farming, on the other hand, tends to make small-scale farmers more resilient to the fluctuating prices of cash crops as they grow a variety of plants including garden vegetables which they can use for home cooking, helping to reduce household expenses. At the same time, the vegetables can be sold daily to bring in extra income.

Integrated farming was a focal point of the meeting, which was also attended by commercial businesses. Suggestions included ways to market the plants so they can be grown alongside rubber.

Participants at the meeting agreed that Prince of Songkla University will serve as a knowledge centre for integrated farming for rubber farmers in the South. This knowledge, which also extends to crop production and marketing, can also be distributed to their peers in other regions.

Set aside within integrated farms are areas for raising poultry, pigs or even small herds of livestock producing manure which is used for making natural fertiliser for the crops. Growing a variety of crops, as a opposed to monocropping, for household consumption and sale helps cut down on family expenses and boost income. Photos by Saiarun Pinaduang

The plan incorporates the essential elements of integrated farming, from preparing soil to marketing the vegetables grown alongside rubber, into a programme with a clear framework to follow for interested farmers, according to participants.

Farmers who join the programme will help with the cost of running it as related government agencies will only partially finance the scheme and certify the produce’s quality, create brand awareness, and assist in finding markets for the integrated farming crops.

Songkhla deputy governor Kajornsak Jareonsopha said the government has a policy of assisting farmers troubled by the tumbling rubber prices. The Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives has appealed to farmers to reduce rubber farming areas and grow integrated plants and crops on their plots.

The rubber farmers were recommended to grow multiple crops in parts of the rubber farms to supplement their income, he noted.

The integrated farming concept has been around for decades and has saved many farmers dependent on monocropping from financial ruin.

The 2011 flooding catastrophe which destroyed vast tracts of farmland in the North and Central Plains made farmer Krajang Chuenrung realise that natural disasters had wiped out numerous farms that relied on a single crop. His farm on the fringe of Bangkok was one of them.

Farms with diverse crops can better withstand the effect of disasters as some plants are more resilient to floods than others. Most monocrops cannot bear the unusual changes in weather patterns and die out quickly when disasters strike.

Mr Krajang transformed his farm into Bangkok’s third learning centre for integrated farming some three years ago.

Up North in Phayao, an integrated farming technique has given Pompet Kapueng, 61, a sustainable income after he attended an agricultural foundation workshop which trained him to produce compost and organic fertilisers.

The result was that he was able to completely forgo chemical fertilisers and reduce pesticides, which were taking a toll on his health. He also managed to save money from not having to pay for these expensive chemicals.

Now his physical and financial health have never been better, he said.

Back in Songkhla, Taweesak Niyombandith, dean of Prince of Songkla University’s Faculty of Natural Resources, voiced his confidence that integrated farming, with the government’s support, would provide an extra revenue stream to make farmers more financially independent.

If farmers focus only on one crop, they would have too much spare time on their hands and likely see their crop output fail to surpass their expenses, he noted.

“Farmers must learn about production, sales and marketing,” said Mr Taweesak, adding they must keep abreast of the news and what goes on around them so they do not lose track of market conditions for their produce.

In the meantime, learning by example should be encouraged as successful integrated farmers are counted on to lead the way for their peers.

Athikom Kunkaew from Phatthalung stands out as a success story in this area.

He was chosen by the Phatthalung Provincial Agricultural Extension Office as a so-called “young smart farmer” with the technological knowhow and knowledge at his disposal to make the most of the rubber farm in terms of utilising the land to plant multiple crops.

For Mr Athikom, it was about overcoming the old idea of living within one’s comfort zone. It had been a tremendous gamble trying his hand at something that was, to many farmers, unthinkable.

Yesterday, he opened a learning centre for integrated farming in Khuan Khanun district.

According to Mr Athikom, members of the centre who attend his integrated farming course can learn everything from scratch. It was a reeducation some traditional farmers dreaded.

Farmers are taught how to grow crops in pots or prepare soil to suit different plants. They learn about plant diseases and insects as well as how to cultivate palm trees, grow flowers and use vegetables to decorate the interior of a house.

For a fee, the farmers undergo on-site training sessions at the facility where they are given accommodation with full board for the duration of the course.

The centre also runs a flea market on specific days when farmers and locals can bring their products or produce to sell. They do not pay rent for the trading space on condition that the items they sell must be produced themselves, Mr Athikom said.

He said he advised integrated farm owners to cultivate edible crops, which sell easier, such as garden vegetables and fruit.

“We must first grow what we need to eat and then sell the surplus,” said Mr Athikom, listing a number of “safe bets” including ginger, galangal, turmeric, long pepper, lemongrass, lemon, chili, kaffir lime, cabbage and morning glory.

About one-fifth of the rubber farm should be devoted to integrated farm vegetables and garden herbs, experts say. Growers should also jot down what crops they can use for household consumption and how much money they can save from buying them.

According to Mr Athikom, the key markets for these farm vegetables in Phatthalung are restaurants and temples. The vegetables are supplied to the temples for cooking dishes at funerals or other merit-making ceremonies.

A lot of temple-event dishes are familiar fare that require basic ingredients. Since funerals are commonplace, many integrated farm owners say they struggle to match the demand for vegetables.

He said that Malaysia, among a small number of countries, has placed many orders for chili paste from Thailand, of which galangal and turmeric are some of the essential elements.

Referring to the cost of growing integrated farm vegetables, Mr Athikom said a pack of vegetable seeds costs around 20 baht. The vegetables can be grown in pots or in old tyres. If the integrated farming methods are followed properly, the investment can easily generate handsome profits.

“If you grow what you eat, you’re on the right track,” Mr Athikom said.

With his strong educational background and experience, Mr Athikom started his integrated farm venture three years ago and steadily accumulated his knowledge. He mainly grows palm trees on his 3 rai of farmland.

It is a mixed-use farm with vegetables plots occupying just one section. He also has measures in place to mitigate natural disasters such as floods and drought that could wipe out everything.

Thodsapol Kwanrod, chairman of the network for rubber and oil palm farmers in Thailand, said growers associated with his group in eight provinces have pursued integrated farming. This complements the sufficiency economy principle prescribed by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, he added.

The most successful village is in Prachuap Khiri Khan’s Bang Saphan district, and a lot of farmers in Thammarat village say integrated farming now runs through their veins after they adopted it so many years ago.

They have conducted various experiments to come up with a list of best practices. They also find support from the Prachuap Khiri Khan provincial authorities, said Mr Thodsapol.

He said some farmers who grow pineapples in their rubber farms take home half a million baht a year from farming the fruit. Ginger can also earn them between 300,000 baht and 400,000 baht per year.

“The Bang Saphan district is a home to integrated farming and that is because the soil there is rich with nutrients,” Mr Thodsapol said.

“At one point when the economy was in good shape, people talked about how they made a few extra millions from selling vegetables.”