Last week I wrote, somewhat sceptically, about a CNN report that high petrol prices in northern Thailand were encouraging a return to buffalos for ploughing. I was interested to hear what people thought about this in Baan Tiam, the northern Thai village were I have been doing research for several years.

On the face of it Baan Tiam would be well placed for a return to buffalos. Agricultural plots are small. There are plenty of people around who regularly worked with buffalos when they were younger. There is still some of the old equipment used for buffalo ploughing in the village (though a lot of it has been sold). And there is ample forest nearby in which buffalos could be released to graze (as they were in the past).

So I arranged for a colleague in Thailand to do a couple quick interviews with farmers in Baan Tiam. It is rice planting time now, so farmers are experiencing first hand the impacts of high petrol prices on the cost of ploughing. What did they have to say about buffalos?

Interview 1

How does a buffalo compare with a tractor?

In the past I think it took about one day to plough one rai with a buffalo. I’ve got two rai so that would be two days. And you had to plough a second time to make the soil ready for planting. So that was more time. You didn’t have to use any money but you had to use a lot of time and labour.

Buffalos like to do their own thing. The farmers could not just determine the time it would take. The buffalo just follow what they want to do. You have to sit and wait while they have a shit. While they take a rest. Feed them some grass. It’s just impossible!

But ploughing with a big tractor takes just 10 minutes per rai! If it is a big tractor it costs about 850 baht per rai (including the fuel). But that is not fine ploughing . We have to hire a small tractor to come and finish it. So in total it is about 1600 baht per rai. But it is quick.

This year I did it like this. I hired Mr Lek to come and plough with his hand-held tractor. In total two rai cost me 2000 baht. We didn’t have to hire two times because his tractor is a small one. My dad went and helped him a little bit. They ploughed two times. It was very quick. We got a special price because my dad went and helped with the ploughing.

Does anyone want to return to use buffalo?

Of course not. Because buffalos are slow. They don’t fit with our economy. We plant several crops per year. We can’t wait for buffalos. I already had my pigeon pea seedlings prepared and needed to plant them. I can’t wait for the buffalo to do the ploughing. And it’s not just me planting pigeon peas. There are lots of people competing for exchange labour. There is certainly not enough time to be waiting around for buffalos!

There are lots of people in this village who hire themselves out to plough fields for others – Lek, Noi, Kon, Pon, Ta, and several others. Mainly we hire someone who is our relative or perhaps just whoever is free to do it. Like Mr Pon, he just got a new tractor. He can borrow money. And he is going to hire it out in the village. I’m not sure if it will be worth it. He rents his rice land and has to pay half of it as rent.

Apart from that the ex-kamnan [sub-district head] just got two big tractors – a million baht or more – to come and hire out for ploughing in this district. 805 baht per rai. Each day they can do many rai, and he has two tractors! He will make a killing! And the company lets him have the tractor for free for one year and then he can pay it off. So he will make a lot of money and pay later. They’re good tractors. Just like you see advertised on TV. They can plough one rai in just a moment!

Is anyone thinking about using buffalo?

Some people think about it for fun but no one is actually going to do it! It’s not something that can be done easily. Everyone has sold their old equipment. It’s all gone. They are antiques. They have good price! Come and have a look. We’re progressing every day. No one wants to go back to old techniques.

How much does one buffalo cost?

Now a buffalo that is ready to plough costs about 20,000 baht. It depends on how big it is and what type of buffalo it is. Its not easy to look after them. You have to watch them very carefully.

The price of petrol is over 40 baht per litre. Too expensive to sell 10 baht‘s worth! Minimum of 20 baht! Grandmother La [who owns a shop] has to keep a close eye on her pump. Its getting stressful – she has to make sure she has sold the correct amount. Have to watch closely. The villagers here joke that petrol now costs 10 baht a mouthful!

Interview 2

How does a buffalo compare with a tractor?

It definitely takes longer with a buffalo than a hand-held tractor. A lot longer! I used to see my father plough with a buffalo. The ploughing took a month [her father was a substantial land owner]. Its not a matter of talking about one rai per day. Several days and you only had one rai done.

In the old days people didn’t work the buffalo too hard. They let them rest often. They just made them work a little bit each day – one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. The afternoon was when the buffalo would rest. My father would take the buffalo to rest and eat grass and drink water. When I was a child I used to go and help look after them. In those days we weren’t as busy as we are now. It was an easier life. Just growing rice to eat. We weren’t hurrying to plant other crops. Now I don’t have time!

The ploughing prices depend on the type of the tractor. If it is a big tractor it can do one rai in about one hour. And it costs about 800 baht. If it is a handheld tractor, like we use in this village, it takes about one day for everything and you pay between 650 and 800 baht. But the price is changing a lot because of the increase in petrol prices. And some people have special agreements.

Is anyone thinking about going back to using buffalo for ploughing?

No one is talking about going back to use buffalos. Even though petrol is expensive we don’t really have any choice. We have to eat rice and grow crops. It’s just a normal thing to hire someone to come and plough. For example the ex-kamnan [sub-district head] has several large tractors. He doesn’t just use them to hire out. He has his own land that he has to plough. But if we just have a little bit of land we can just hire a small hand-held tractor in the village. They can do all the soil preparation because it is easy. We have to prepare the soil carefully. And the tractor owner will hire out the tractor to do everything to make the soil ready for planting.

Personally I suppose it could be possible that some people are thinking about bringing back buffalos. If they cannot handle the price of fuel. If they have no other option they might go back to thinking about buffalo. But there is another problem. The old ploughs and other equipment – most of it has disappeared. It has been sold as antiques. Some houses in this village don’t have any at all. And if you use a buffalo you have to use these things. The younger people wouldn’t even know how to use them. I didn’t sell them. I have them behind the house. I keep them as heirlooms. We have to protect things like that.

How much does it cost to buy a buffalo?

At the beginning of this month there was a Karen that came and sold a pregnant buffalo to Grandfather Num. The price was 12,000 baht. So grandfather Num got the profit from the calf too. But he didn’t buy it for ploughing but to sell. He is old and has got plenty of time. He doesn’t do much cash cropping at all. He has time to look after the buffalo. But you have to wait a year or so while it grows up before you get any profit.