Samorn is not alone. Each year, Thailand’s sugar cane farmers go through the now-familiar cycle of fluctuating prices, mounting expenses coupled with rising debt, and crop losses due to uncertain rainfall.
While sugar cane has long been cultivated in Thailand, government policies promoting the expansion of sugar production capacity and subsidies to the sugar industry enabled sugar cane cultivation areas to double in the 1980s: from 480 000 hectares (3 million rai) in 1985 to 960 000 ha (6 million rai) in 1997.
Since 2017, sugar cane has also become more tightly linked with Thailand’s bioeconomy plans, which aim to enhance industrial development by focusing on “developing high-value products from existing economic crops, starting with sugar cane and cassava.”
Thailand’s bioeconomy is steered by important corporate actors: the institutional support for bioeconomy comes from a high-level “Steering Committee on Cluster Development for New Growth Industries” that includes the Mitr Phol Group, Thailand and Asia’s largest sugar and bio-energy producer; and Charoen Pokphand Group, Thailand’s largest food and agribusiness conglomerate.
But on the ground, sugar cane farmers face huge challenges from price fluctuations, debt, water scarcity and soil degradation as well as crop disease. Meanwhile, the open burning of sugar cane stalks to make harvesting easier is one of the leading causes of air pollution in Thailand.
A way of life
Farming sugar cane is a key livelihood occupation for villagers living here. “The farmers who live in northeastern Thailand have very few other choices for doing farming,” says Chanaphat Seedakaew, a small-scale sugar cane farmer in northeast Thailand’s Khon Kaen province.
“The area under sugar cane has increased, many rice paddy areas have been converted to sugar cane cultivation. After the sugar cane harvest, we plant cassava in the same farmland before we start the next sugar cane cultivation,” he said.
“When compared with rice or cassava, I choose to plant sugar cane because the price of cassava varies depending on seasons. For sugar cane, we still need more technology to help us improve quality and products,” he explained.
High investment costs and uncertain weather
Many farmers prefer sugar cane over rice or other crops because they could get a better price. But prices can often fluctuate, with farmers often having to wait to see if they can recover their investments each year.
The price last year [2019/2020] was low and it has been low for the past two to three years. The price this year [2020/2021] might be a bit higher. The price last year was 750 baht per ton, but this year it may reach about 900 baht per ton because the global sugar price has risen,” said Phaiboon Jisak, President of the Sugar Cane Farmer Association, Northeastern Thailand region and a committee member of the Office of Cane and Sugar Board (OCSB).
The uncertain weather patterns in recent years have posed another challenge for farmers, especially in the northeast, one of the more arid regions of Thailand.
“In some years, there is a drought. In other years, there is too much rain. If there is too much rain, it’s not a big problem. But drought affects our production. Two years ago, a severe drought caused a drop in production. Many farmers have stopped planting sugar cane because they cannot break even, some have turned to tapioca planting. This year [2020/2021], I expect there will be even fewer sugar cane farmers than last year,” he said.
Jiraporn Sae-ngow has been a sugar cane farmer for more than 40 years in Udon Thani province of northeast Thailand.
Now 79 years old, Jiraporn did not start as a sugar cane farmer. “Initially, my husband cultivated sugar cane on about 25 hectares (162 rai). But after he passed away, I took over the cultivation by learning about sugar cane farming from the farm workers,” she said.
“In the last three years, sugar cane farming has made me lose money because the costs keep getting higher. I cannot break even. Another reason is there’s more frequent drought.
“When the sugar cane begins to grow, they need rain. In this growing period, if there is no water, they cannot grow well. Even if we dig for groundwater [in this region], the water runs out very soon.
Most sugar cane farmers burn the crop just before harvest, to make it easier to harvest the sugar cane crop and clear the weeds. This has been a significant cause of air pollution in Thailand and the Mekong Region. Recently, the government of Thailand attempted to prevent the burning of sugar cane by placing quotas: that the harvest comprises fresh (non-burnt) cane of at least 70% of the product that is delivered to the sugar mills (so only 30% of burnt cane is allowed).
“Last year , we had a big problem with drought that damaged a large area of sugar cane. This year , we are forced to harvest fresh sugar cane stalks due to the government policy to reduce fire and smoke from burning,” said Samorn.
“This is a big problem for us because we do not have sugar cane harvest machines. Normally, we burn the sugar cane stalks before harvesting. It’s the only one way for small-scale farmers like us because we have a shortage of harvesting machines,” she added.
Somrudee says the farmers have their own constraints: “We, as farmers, want to help. We also want good air. But sometimes we need to burn the sugar cane crop. We choose to burn only as the last resort. The problem is that sugar cane harvesters are a big investment if we have only 2000 tons or 5000 tons of sugar cane to send to the factories. We do not have enough profits to buy a harvester which costs 6–7 million baht. It is a big burden.”
Thailand is the world’s second-largest exporter of refined cane sugar. The expansion of sugar cane cultivation in the late 1980s coincided with attractive sugar cane prices and sugar factory relocations as well as favourable weather.
At present, around 300 000 small– to medium-scale sugar cane farmers in Thailand cultivate 100 million tonnes of sugar cane annually, providing 5.5% of the world’s sugar supply. In 2019, the area planted covered around 1 740 000 ha mostly in northeastern and central Thailand.
The sugar cane supply chain – consisting of the growers, millers and associated logistics personnel – provides jobs for more than 1.5 million people and generates almost US$ 6 billion per year.
Since the last couple of years, to drive its plans for bioeconomy, the government of Thailand has promoted the rapid expansion of sugar cane plantations along with providing a big portion of the state’s farming subsidies to the sugar industry.