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Technology, community and passion – the secret sauce of the smart farmer

Technology, community and passion – the secret sauce of the smart farmer

SATURDAY, March 03, 2018

PRODUCING a sufficient food to meet the rise in global population that will reach 7.5 billion people in 2050 is going to be a huge challenge for the world as a whole. But Thailand, a major food supplier, is entering into an ageing society.

According to data from the Department of Agricultural Extension, the agricultural sector’s labour force accounted for 40 per cent of Thai employment at 13 million people. However, about 75 per cent of Thai farmers, or 10 million people, are over 46 years old, while 3 million are between 20 and 45. There are only 1,700 people aged under 20 years. 
This startling imbalance in the numbers across ages in Thai farmer demographics is partly due to a massive career shift, fuelled by social norms. Some of the most abject poverty in Thailand is concentrated in farming communities. Therefore, baby-boomer farmers worked very hard to nurture their children with a better education in the hopes they could escape poverty by increasing their off-farm income, particularly in manufacturing and services.
Consequently, this ageing society is highly likely to pose a serious threat to food security, too. And that’s why we need a new generation of farmer, the so-called “smart farmer”. 
The deep-rooted cause of poverty among farming communities is mainly due to the high cost of production, the role of middlemen and the monopoly in the Thai agriculture system. This has also resulted in a shortage of human resources in the agricultural industry.
Farmers consider themselves to be only a supplier, which is quite wrong. Based on my experience, I would argue that farmers should adopt the integrated agribusiness model, which involves factoring in management practices, people’s goals and lifestyles, social constraints, economic opportunities, marketing strategies and externalities that include energy supplies and costs. 
Five years ago I was a supplier, providing and shipping my hometown-grown vegetables to Talat Thai, the country’s largest wholesale market for agricultural products. Farmers in my community massively struggled with lock-out specifications and the high quality standards for products as set by middlemen – leading to the use of chemical fertilisers sold by the middlemen themselves. 
Production of food crops is not dependent on any formally acquired knowledge of farming, but is instead solely based on indigenous agricultural knowledge passed from generation to generation through experience, which is no longer precise and effective amid the worsening situation of climate change. It is likely to supply low-quality products that do not meet the market’s requirement. The local farmers finally fell 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” from the market. In contrast, farmers should think more entrepreneurially, creating and focusing on “value”. 
The more the merrier. I joined with the younger farmers in my communities to jointly form a community-based enterprise called “Muan Jai”. It oversees production from downstream to upstream to output high-value products made from cordyceps mushrooms, which contain medicinal benefits such as increasing immune function, improving athletic performance and decreasing diabetes. Each member shares their own expertise, such as planting, designing, or entrepreneurial and technology skills.
For my part, I am good at scientific research, leading me to develop and produce dietary supplements. This also brought me advantages in telling the story of the mushrooms through a Facebook fan page, the major source of our revenue stream.
The revolution in agricultural technology – Internet, biotechnology and information technology – has unlocked new opportunities for livelihood improvement. And to embrace those technologies, we need those who are young, energetic, creative and have passion to become “Young Smart Farmers”, securing the better 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 farmer based in Chiang Dao, Chiang Mai.