Rice Fund Surin members agree that organic agriculture is a solution for small-scale rice farmers in the province. And the organic food market that has developed is a result of a strong people’s movement for sustainable livelihoods and safe, healthy food. Yet, given how farming is inherently risky, the transition to organic farming is difficult for many farmers. The expansion of the organic market has taken a long time in Surin, but for many, the movement seems stagnant – organic farmers keep farming organically, and conventional farmers keep using chemicals.
The Rice Fund Surin meeting on Jan 14 sought to look further into the possibilities for local fair trade to help revive interest in organic farming among villagers and further develop urban consumer awareness about food systems. Fair Trade has always been an important part of Rice Fund’s ideology (the mill is Fair Trade certified and farmers’ groups have independently managed fair trade premiums for yeas), but is often overlooked by producers and consumers on the local level. “Domestic Fair Trade” is a small movement in the U.S., and is organized by a network of organizations and producers cooperatives, including Equal Exchange.
There are many similarities between Domestic Fair Trade and what Rice Fund Surin would like to do on the provincial level. With the small-scale farmers’ quality of life at it’s base, local fair trade focuses on 4 main points:
- A fair price between producers and consumers
- Environmentally-friendly business (processing, packaging, market management)
- Safe, health-oriented food
- Group-based process of production and marketing
P’ Kanya, a community leader and organic pig farmer in Tabthai village pointed out how focused farmers and consumers continue to be on price. With prices at a record high in 2007 and government income support this season, many farmers don’t see a reason to farm organically. Conventional producers simply wait in the middle for good prices.
This year, however, with the implementation of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA), most conventional farmers will be unprepared for price fluctuations and insecure markets for their rice. Cooperatives like Rice Fund equip their members with information about what policy changes imply for farmers, which in turn helps them make smart decisions about how to organize their farm plans each season. Many Rice Fund members agree that themselves and fellow members of the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) are well prepared for AFTA – they mill and sell rice independently in alternative market approaches. Planting indigenous rice varieties, while they are well suited to the local ecology, are also beginning to earn good prices at AAN Green Markets and other market channels – here farmers can set their own price, based on the needs of themselves and consumers.
For farmers who may transition towards organic farming, but through contracts with larger mills or rice corporations, their market is growing, but possibly insecure – if organic rice is not viewed as profitable, then farmers can easily be cut off or put back into conventional production systems. Further, rice corporations are increasingly purchasing large tracts of land and growing themselves – one company in Surin has bought a large piece of land in the northern part of the province and is growing “Kao Hom Nin” an improved rice variety which combines characteristics from a black Chinese rice with Thai Jasmine (this variety is not a hybrid, but it’s short growing season allows it to be grown during the off-season). These processes may be viewed simply as economies of scale, but farmers continue take on considerable risk and the organic standard may also be compromised.
Farmers in Surin understand that consumers abroad are concerned about health, food safety and the environment when they purchase food, but most local consumers are not yet taking much interest. More work is also needed to develop farmers’ way of thinking about organic farming and fair trade. In turn, Rice Fund Surin, Surin Farmers Support and the Alternative Agriculture Network will work together to develop a consumer campaign on fair trade concepts. This campaign will also be a way to work together with state organizations and provide clarity for outside groups and organizations about what fair trade really means.
As P’ Ubon concluded the meeting, we can think of fair trade as supporting a fair economy, fair environment, fair health and fair society – these issues are all here, but few people understand. It is up to our farmers’ movement to transform a consumer trend into proof that fair trade is better for society, especially those who grow food.