Holding a giant three-month-old frog about the size of a bloated football in his hand, Thai farmer Lamai Pangsangsu grabs smiles from the circle of local and Israeli agriculturalists gathering around him.
Pangsangsu, 57, only graduated grade four, but in his northeastern province of Sikhon Nakhon – near the border with Laos – he has become an official “model farmer,” one who receives training in the latest innovations and practices, and then passes on that knowledge to others in his region. He took on this role about nine years ago, acquiring his land and expertise from the adjacent government-administrated Puparn Royal Development Study Center.Click to view special supplement: Israeli to Thai cattle farmers: Cool down your cows.
Puparn is one of six Royal Development Projects, five of which a group of Israeli agricultural experts came to visit last month, providing their advice to local farmers.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the ninth king of the House of Chakri, ascended the Thai throne in 1951, and both he and his wife, Queen Sirikit, have been proponents of development ever since, according to the government. In the early 1980s, the royal couple began opening these development projects for local farmers, which they felt would have grassroots benefit to the people and help encourage the rural population to become self-reliant, through dissemination of more advanced agricultural knowledge and technologies, government material explained.
The centers provide local farmers a “one-stop service” shop to address their problems and take courses in what the king has labeled “living natural museums” and “development briefers.” As such, Thai government officials decided that based on Israel’s excellence in so many corners of agricultural development, a team of Israeli farming experts should come share some knowledge with farmers at these very centers.
Jukr Boon-Long, the royal Thai ambassador to Israel, was responsible for organizing the trip.
“Since I have started my tour of duty as ambassador of Thailand to Israel in April, I was fortunate to have visited many moshavim and kibbutzim around Israel to meet Thai farmers who work side-by-side with Israeli farmers,” he says.
“I was impressed by the agricultural techniques and management practiced in Israel. Not only can Israeli farmers grow all kinds of crops in the barren land, but they can also efficiently produce agricultural products to supply the domestic market and to export them as well,” he continues. “From what I saw and learned from here, I think that if the farmers in remote areas of Thailand could learn Israeli ways of farming, it would improve their productivity and their standard of living significantly.”
The Israeli group started off its tour with a visit to water treatment facilities that were part of the Laem Phak Bia Environmental Research and Development Project at the Huai Sai Royal Development Study Center in the Phetchaburi Province, southwest of Bangkok. Afterward, they moved to the northwestern tip of the country, close to the Burmese border, to the Huai Hong Khrai Royal Development Study Center in the Chiang Mai Province, followed by Puparn in the northeast. They concluded their tour with visits to the Kung Krabaen Bay Royal Development Study Center in southeastern Chanthaburi Province, near the Cambodian border, followed by the Khao Hin Sorn Royal Development Study Center in the Chacherngsao Province, about two hours east of Bangkok.
The sixth center is Pikun Thong in the southern Narathiwat Province, but because Israel’s Defense Ministry recommends that Israelis do not visit this portion of the country – on the Malaysian border – the group skipped this project.
“Whenever I think of the places where Thai farmers in the remote areas can benefit most if I am to send the experts from Israel to teach all these new techniques, I always think of His Majesty the King’s Royal Development Study Centers located around the country,” Boon-Long says, noting that he has visited all six projects in depth and hopes the Israeli experts learned from the Thai farmers as well.
“This project is the first pilot project in agriculture. I wish to continue this type of project in the future,” the ambassador adds. “Perhaps next year I will invite capable and dedicated officers and farmers from those Royal Development Study Centers to come to Israel to learn about Israeli agriculture.”
IN ADDITION to the royal development projects, the group visited the beginnings of an Agricultural Science Park cooperation project between Israel and Thailand on the Kam Pang San Campus of Kasetsart University in Nakorn Pathorn, just outside Bangkok.
The project, which is only in its infant stages, is a result of a memorandum of understanding that the Thai Agriculture Ministry signed with Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon in March.
The project staff members have just begun building a greenhouse and are preparing the land for a drip irrigation system, under the leadership of a Thai farmer who worked for Israel for 11 years. The project’s official launch will be in December, but while visiting, the Israeli experts were able to provide some vital insight as to how to operate the greenhouse and irrigation systems once they are up and running.
While touring the Royal Development projects, the experts stressed the value of “extension” roles like that of Pangsangsu – a middleman to whom small farmers can turn for advice, on a smaller, more personal level that complements their education at the larger centers.
At his model farm near Puparn, Pangsangsu smiles and picks up bunches of a tea leaf that he claims was responsible for curing his wife’s cancer and is being studied at a nearby university. The tea is his highest income generator and sells in bunches of four for 100 baht (NIS 13) – bringing in 96,782 baht (NIS 12,234) per year – while rice, which grows on much larger portions of his land, brings in only 13,410 baht (NIS 1,695) per year.
Although the local farmers of course come to observe Pangsangsu’s lucrative tea growth, they can also observe his rice cultivation, his fruit tree growth, his frog-raising techniques and his methods for producing many other crops.
Equally important to having the farmers visit the model farms, however, is having the middlemen at these sites come visit the individual farmers’ plots to make sure they are implementing what they have learned correctly, the Israeli experts agree.
Such symbiotic relationships have been cultivated already at the center in Chacherngsao Province, about two hours east of Bangkok. In this region, the land initially “was like a desert,” and at the direction of the center, the people developed greenery from nothing, Kritsana Tiwatri – a master’s degree-level land development soil specialist – tells The Jerusalem Post
at the site. The center serves 43 villages throughout the area and helps them cultivate both plants and animals, as well as compost and organic fertilizer, she explains.
“Here we study the theory, and we transfer to the farmer,” Tiwatri says.
While the farmers come to the site to learn, Tiwatri stresses that “our officers go to their farms” as well, to help them implement the technologies and provide them with suggestions.
At the Huai Hong Khrai center, soil scientist Juraiporn Kaewthip tells the Post that the center has many courses to train the farmers, but the challenge is getting them to apply the knowledge they learn.
“At my office, when we do projects, we try to tell the farmer and get them to cooperate with us,” Kaewthip says. “We train them and show them success here and how they can apply [the knowledge].”
THUS FAR, while Huai Hong Khrai receives about 100 farmers daily and also has 35 middlemen leading model farm extension centers in the region, the middlemen are not able to visit the individual farmers’ land plots as in Chacherngsao. The farmers must follow up with their assigned middleman, as the model farmer does not receive an additional salary to do his extension work, explains Sudchai Prommolmard, deputy director of implementation for the center.
With only a few government officers and only a few model farmers, it is impossible to visit each farm, especially since the model farmer also needs to make sure that his own business is surviving, according to Prommolmard.
“They need to learn from guides who come to teach them,” says one of the Israeli experts, a plant disease specialist from the Agriculture Ministry.
Thai researchers might be studying abroad and gaining advanced techniques and knowledge, but there must be a sure mechanism for translating this knowledge into the hands of simple farmers, according to the expert.
The imperfection of extension systems is not specific to Thailand, however, and in Israel, the number of middlemen extensionists has been cut down to only 140 people, another Agriculture Ministry expert, a soil specialist, tells the Post.
“All agriculture around the world lacks extension,” agrees Shimon Carmi, a key Israeli expert on cattle. “An extensionist needs to be so communicative, so attentive, so he can listen to the farmer and understand what he can apply. You have to negotiate with them and understand how you can proceed with them.”
Carmi emphasizes, however, that “there is no other way” besides using such middlemen teachers and that “there is no substitute, even in Israel, where the budget has been reduced extensively.”
OF THE many pieces of advice the Israeli experts offered the farmers in response to their individual questions, one specific recommendation – from the soil specialist – involved employing an irrigation system called Low Gravitation Drip Irrigation at the center near Chiang Mai. This mechanism involves a 200-liter bucket elevated at about two meters, which irrigates 1,000 square meters of land by the power of gravity and at a cost of no more than $250, according to the soil specialist.
The system, he explains, would be “something in between” wasteful flood irrigation and drip irrigation and would help bridge the technology gap the rural village farmers are facing.
“It’s a lot of money to adapt to drip irrigation all at once,” he says, noting that this type of technology is being implemented in rural areas all over the world.
In response, Kaewthip says that for small, poor farmers, “for practical reasons, it’s easier for them to spray or pour directly to plant.” Some of these farmers only make about 200 baht per day (NIS 25), and they are simply looking to feed their families. In slightly larger farms, whose owners have a bit more money, however, she says she could see the gravitation irrigation idea being beneficial.
Another piece of advice, which the Israelis delivered to farmers at the Kung Krabaen Bay center, involved sterilizing portions of their land for temporary periods with transparent layers of plastic. The farmers at this center had largely been shrimp growers before the king established the project there along the Chanthaburi coast.
Now, in addition to continuing to develop tiger prawns – both naturally and in the seawater pools at the research center – the farmers have learned to become more interdisciplinary, engaging in animal husbandry and crop cultivation as well.
The plastic covering can kill all kinds of unwanted and harmful organisms from the soil, but it also means that a portion of the land is unusable during the month or two that it is covered, as the farmers acknowledge.
Eldad Nevo, who runs a large farm in Kfar Yehoshua with his originally Thai wife Noi Nevo, reminded the farmers that they could not always “do, do, do,” and sometimes a short period of losing money could lead to much better quality land and therefore better long-term financial outcomes.
The Nevos have about eight hectares of their own land and 30 hectares that they rent out from others, where they have greenhouses, open vegetable fields, a milking parlor with 60 cows, hybrid seed cultivation and two 50-kilowatt small photovoltaic solar fields with about 500 panels.
Nevo stressed the importance of patience to the farmers, and encouraged them to open their minds to new ideas and new technologies, even if it meant slight sacrifices to begin with. His grandfather started with one cow 85 years ago, and now he and his wife have 120, and adapting to new technology along the way has always been essential, he explained.
“If they make the first small step to cover half a rai [about three hectares] in plastic, then they’ll see it works and next year will do another,” Nevo says, noting that with success comes more ambition.
“They must go outside the box,” he continues.
“I don’t expect big change. Our goal is not to create a revolution, but we can show them that they can have a better life if they just start to think and perform the small steps.”
Touring the Chanthanburi facility, the Israeli experts explored the greenery in the twilight hours of their second-to-last night in Thailand.
The land, lined with prawn and fishponds and lush mangroves, has been converted from a damaged coastal environment into a thriving mixed farm of aquaculture and agriculture that serves 123 local families.
The experts agree that there are still many challenges ahead for the farmers, who must continue to change old habits and adapt to new ways of thinking through ongoing training. But at the same time, Carmi looks at the revitalized land and smiles.
“The dream of the king came true,” he says.The author was a guess of the Royal Thai Embassy to Israel.