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For the Love of Rice

First published 17 November 2020

A more technical post with a touch of philosophy that I felt would be interesting to the hardcore members who want to gain a real understanding of this central aspect of rural life.

To illustrate the drying process, we called into an area I saw in operation when we came back from Udon Thani yesterday.

In previous posts relating to the rice harvest, a couple of comments turned up asking the obvious question of why mechanisation wasn't being used to harvest the rice rather than the multistaged manual operation that happens each year on my family farms and others.

A huge concrete area that was being used as a rice drying area. This used to be a space for storing cassava by a rural shop next door, but permission has been given for local moo bans to use it for their rice.

My answer to this question was to say that the size of the paddies and rice areas under cultivation in our case, and that of farms in our immediate area, didn't make mechanisation feasible. I also mentioned the cultural aspect, in that this is the way it has always been done. In retrospect, this answer was too simplistic based on my being educated by Gaun and Yuan since that comment. I do get caught out by applying my non-farming knowledge to topics when sometimes there is a deeper background as to why something happens the way it does. After reading this, we will all know what it is as applied to rice harvesting.

Drying rice for three or four days doesn't just involve dumping it and letting the sun do its thing and coming back a few days later. The rice has to be constantly turned over this period, which is what this guy is doing here. Yuan prefers just to have the cut rice (on stank) sit in the sun where it dries naturally because it isn't in a bulk situation like this mechanised harvested rice.

Yes, there is an understanding that small areas cause problems for the machines. Yuan points out that they don't capture rice on the edges and corners of the paddies, which have to be cleaned up by hand afterwards. Also, the machine itself can damage rice as it moves around. However, this is minor to a couple of more important reasons, to her mind anyway, as to why the manual process works in the family's situation, which is firstly growing rice non-commercially i.e. for home storage and eating only, and secondly a supplementary benefit connected with running a market garden farm.

Regulars will remember my illustration of plain and sticky rice. The photo may not show it as much as real life but this was a strong yellow, so sticky rice. No surprises there.

Point one - machine harvested rice is extracted directly from the stalks as grown, which means it still has moisture and isn't classified as dry. This rice can't be stored, otherwise it will turn mouldy or sprout. If the rice is being sold commercially at this stage, then it's no problem. A shop will buy non-dry rice at 2 or 3 baht a kilo less than dry rice (the moisture content makes it heavier, obviously) and then they have large concrete areas to dry it, often using machinery to turn the rice to encourage drying.

If however, the mechanised rice is intended for personal use, ending up in one of the many rice storage huts you see in Isaan villages, then it needs to be dried locally for at least three days before storage. That's the process several group members have shown happening, with rice laid out in house yards and streets. I cover this in the photos, so won't say more here.

This is where the hand harvesting provides an alternative if the rice is intended for family use. For those following my rice harvest posts, you will have seen that the rice is cut on stalk, which is then left to dry for several days in the paddies. These are then bundled and collected into one central area and a thresher machine brought into separate the rice from the stalks. The extracted rice goes straight into bags which are then dumped into the family rice hut with no further drying involved. This saves three days of turning rice if you can find a level, clean place to do so.

The other benefit Yuan points out, which is only useful for a farmer in their situation, is that when the rice is threshed the waste rice stalks are blown out into a huge pile. This is free mulch that is used across the vegetable growing side of the business saving the use of rice husk mulch at 10 baht a bag.

From the people we (Gaun) spoke to this is mostly personal rice. Small quantities by commercial standards intended for the rice hut.

So, in summary, there are two distinct processes you see happening at this time of year. There are the commercial farmers where rice is just another crop to be sold at the shop or factory when ready. The use of mechanisation and the drying process may therefore be different from those farmers who are growing rice as an annual food source and storing it. The benefits of a quick extract of rice, might be less attractive in a non-commercial situation when you factor in the effort required to dry the rice and the loss of a free easy mulch.

A supply for the coming year.

With the rice dry, it can now be put into bags and either stored like that or poured on the floor of a rice hut. For novices, the rice is then milled which removes the husk to reveal the white rice you were expecting. This is only done as required in small batches. Rice stores best in its husk until needed. I will cover the milling separately.

Ready to load up and go.

The wonderful Isaan photo moment. This group froze in what they were doing, so I could capture the scene. Lovely.

My philosophical take on this subject relates to the attitude I have found comes to the surface when I talk to the family (via Gaun of course) about the whole subject of their rice. There is a total pride and connection to the process from beginning to end, which stands totally outside the objective and commercialised viewpoint of whether mechanisation is cheaper and easier over hand planting and harvesting. I am not exaggerating by saying there is almost a reverence in the attitude to family rice that has nothing to do with the cost benefit or any 'normal' western based business mindset. I have seen Lud pick a single stalk of rice lying in his path to add to a large bundle he was preparing. It's that simple action that really encapsulates the love of rice to an Isaan farmer. Traditional methods support that social and respectful attitude, and I am sure that is subconsciously factored in to the hard work that is given to the growing and harvest of rice in this situation.

Thanks for reading.



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