According to data from the Department of Agricultural Extension, 13 million workers in the agricultural sector accounted for 40% of Thai employment. However, about 75% of Thai farmers or 10 million are aged above 46 years old, while 3 million are aged between 20 and 45. There are only 1,700 people aged less than 20 years old.
This imbalance is partly due to career shifts, fueled by the country’s economic development. Some of the most abject poverty in Thailand is concentrated in farming communities. Therefore, baby-boomer farmers worked very hard to give their children a better education in the hopes to escape poverty by increasing off-farm income, particularly in manufacturing and services.
This means Thailand’s aging society is likely to pose a serious threat to food security, too. And that’s why we need a new generation of farmer–or the so called “smart farmer.”
The deep-rooted cause of poverty among farming communities is mainly due to the high costs of production, the role of middlemen and the monopoly that controls the Thai agriculture system. This has also resulted in the shortage of human resources in the agricultural industry.
Farmers consider themselves only as a supplier, which is misguided. Instead, farmers should adopt the integrated agribusiness model, which involves management practices, goal setting and taking into consideration social constraints, economic opportunities, marketing strategies and externalities including energy supplies and cost.
I was a supplier five years ago, providing vegetables grown in my community to Talat Thai, the country’s largest wholesale market for agricultural produce. Farmers in my community massively struggled with lock-out specifications set by middlemen, leading to the use of chemical fertilizer sold by the middlemen themselves.
Moreover, production of food crops is not dependent on any formally acquired knowledge of farming but is solely based on indigenous agricultural knowledge passed from generation to generation through experience, which is no longer precise or effective enough amid worsening climate change.
These methods are likely to produce low-quality products, which do not meet the market’s requirements. As farmers struggle to keep up, they fall deeper into the poverty trap, caused by high production costs.
To be sustainable, farming should be based on research, technology and invention to avoid being controlled by middlemen instead. Farmers should think more entrepreneurially, creating and focusing on “value.”
To achieve this, the younger farmers in my community and I formed a community-based enterprise called “Muan Jai.” It oversees the whole production chain from downstream to upstream to produce high value products made from cordyceps mushroom, which have proven medicinal benefits, such as boosting your immune function, improving athletic performance and decreasing diabetes. Each member shares their own expertise, such as planting, designing, marketing and technology skills.
In my case, my knowledge of scientific research lead me to develop and produce dietary supplements. This also led me to tell the story of mushrooms’ health benefits through a Facebook fan page which has now become a major source of revenue.
The revolution in agricultural technology – internet, biotechnology and information technology – has unlocked new opportunities for the improvement of farmers’ livelihood. And to embrace those technologies, we need to call on those farmers who are young, energetic, creative and have passion to become a “Smart Farmer,” securing a better future for Thailand.
Jirawan Kamsow is the winner of the Young Smart Farmer Awards 2017, jointly granted by dtac, the Department of Agricultural Extension and the Sam Nuk Rak Ban Kerd Foundation. She’s a doctoral graduate and a farmer based in Chiang Dao, Chiang Mai, where she holds the ambition to create a sustainable agricultural model through advanced research and technology.