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‘Smart Farms’ Making Thai Agriculture Sufficient and Sustainable

Smart Farm

By Kalinga Seneviratne

This article is the 20th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

CHANTHABURI, North-East Thailand (IDN) – Thai farmers are going back to basics under a “Smart Farms” formula supported by modern information communication technology (ICT) integrated into a Buddhist concept of ‘sufficiency economy’ to make the kingdom’s lifeblood – agriculture and its small-scale farmers – sustainable into the foreseeable future.

“Some farmers use chemical fertiliser to get more fruits [from their trees] (but) their trunks die in three to five years. We use organic fertiliser here and our trunks will last for 30 years” said farmer Sittipong Yanaso, speaking to IDN at his lush multi-cropping durian plantation here.

“We get enough dry leaves for our fertiliser,” he added, pointing to the green mountains surrounding his plantation. Showing the banana plants growing in between his durian trees, he explained that the trunks are used after harvesting the fruits, a technique that has been handed down from ancestors.

Sittipong’s durian plantation also has banana, papaya, rabuttan, mangostean, pepper, coconut and longon plants, which serve to give him an income in between his durian harvests. Recently he has planted some coffee and has a small area of rubber trees that adds to his income. He has also planted bamboo as wind-breakers and the tall bamboo tree trunks provide him material as support for banana trees (when fruits bloom) as well as for picking fruits.

“This is a very mindful orchard,” argues Professor Kamolrat Intaratat, Director of the Centre of Communication and Development Knowledge Management (CCDKM), whose organisation has assisted Sittipong in adopting ICTs to improve his knowledge of organic farming and marketing.

“The philosophy of CCDKM is that we work with conceptual base integration and a partnership model, working with marginal people,” explained Kamolrat, after accompanying IDN on a tour of the farm. “Most important is to create income generating projects… the majority of Thais are small farmers, so we look at how to use ICT to facilitate smart farming in Thailand.”

Kamolrat went on to explain that farmers are trained in ICT literacy and how to access information. “After that we train how to analyse this information (to know) the price of the farm product, and they gain access to many farm pricing [models] … from the government, private and export markets. Farmers can then decide what is the best price for them to sell the product.”

“We show how ICTs can be used with the organic ecological farming systems … Smart farming is not only about ICTs, but also mindset and innovative processes in managing their farms.”

At the end of 2015, around 35 percent of the Thai workforce was engaged in agriculture, mainly as small-scale rural farmers. To safeguard Thailand’s rural farmers and make their livelihood sustainable, the Thai government has introduced many programmes in recent years under the philosophy of ‘sufficiency economics’, which was first mooted by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1998, when the kingdom faced a grave economic crisis.

Drawing on Thailand’s deep Buddhist tradition, this concept emphasises the ‘middle way’ – the importance of balance. Both sustainability and sufficiency are at the core of this philosophy, with human development as its principle aim. Sharing (knowledge and resources) rather than competition and exploitation are important aspects of this system.

The Thai government has thus been promoting the formation of area-specific farmers’ cooperatives using notions are similar to the ‘risk management’ and ‘stakeholder’ philosophy in Western economics which came into prominence in the 1990s.

To improve the livelihood sustainability of the rural sector, the Thai government has laid out a number of measures under this philosophy, such as loans through village funds and village development programmes for the improvement of people’s livelihood through Pracharat grassroots projects.

One of the campaigns under the Pracharat (“state of the people”) approach is a scheme developed with Kasetsart University and the Thai Chamber of Commerce to develop the “Thai GAP” standard, which is a system for fruit and vegetable safety according to good agricultural practices (GAP), which takes into consideration the quality of land management, soil, seedlings, water management, fertilising, pest management, consumer safety and environmental protection.

Once certified by Thai GAP, producers will receive their own QR Code so that smartphone users (consumers) can find information about the product. This initiative is a way of uplifting the farming sector into the digital era where consumers who want healthy products can reach farmers directly.

CCDKM has been working with ‘Smart Farmers’ to gain this GAP certification and Sittipong’s farm is one of those that have achieved this status. “For most of the GAP (certified) farmers, their produce is not enough for the demand because people are now very concerned about their health,” said Kamolrat. However, “durain and banana in this farm have pre-orders … right now the durian orchard is already booked three months in advance.”

“Our farm is very self-sufficient. Right now the demand is so much we can’t satisfy all,” confirms Sittipong’s wife Narisara. She explained that the farm’s sufficiency is achieved through maximising family labour that includes her daughter and son-in-law.

“We don’t use outside labour. We plan our farm well,” she added, showing her banana plantations where “we get a regular income (in between durian harvests) because we space out planting.”

She also added that the use of ICTs has helped the family to market its produce profitably and obtain a higher price for its fruits, especially supermarkets buying its bananas at a premium price “given that GAP certification indicates it is export quality.”

Sittipong told IDN that he is able to keep his income from the durain harvest “in the bank” because he obtains a substantial income from others crops such as banana, pepper and coconut spread throughout the year.

Sittipong has now become an e-agriculture evangelist in the region, converting other farmers to the sufficiency and sustainable philosophy of organic farming. He points out that even if you buy fertiliser from outside, organic fertiliser costs one-third of its chemical counterpart, so that when other farmers visit his farm and observe his comfortable lifestyle, it is not difficult to be converted.

“This is a pilot farm to tell others that even if you have a husband and wife team, you can do your own farm,” said Kamolrat. “What is important is to plan your crop all the time.”

Meanwhile, the Thai government has begun to spread its sufficiency economics development philosophy overseas. When Thailand took the chair of the Group of 77 developing countries in January 2016, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai told member states that the ‘sufficiency economics’ model on holistic farm management could be adopted by most of them to achieve all the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

He pointed out that this philosophy is at the core of SDG 12 which calls for reasonable consumption and production, and its ability to provide food security aligns well with SDG 1 on eliminating poverty and SDG 2 on eliminating hunger. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 January 2018]

* IDN would like to acknowledge the assistance of Professor Kamolrat Intaratat and CCDKM for facilitating the visit to the ‘Smart Farm’.

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May they attain Nibbana