I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about contract farming, in Thailand and other countries. One interesting case that I came across was that of baby corn. In a report published almost 20 years ago veteran journalist and activist Sanitsuda Ekachai wrote about the fate of Thai peasants who had been caught up in this particular form of contract farming:

A one rai plot of land grows 30,000 corn plants. [Really? That’s about 19 plants per square metre. Pretty crowded!] That means 30,000 tassels to strip and each plant bears three cobs, so that’s 90,000 baby corns to peel off… At home the family will gather round the piles of fresh, green corns to slit the husks with a knife, remove the corn silk and pull out the prized, pearl white vegetable they have worked to hard for – a finger sized corn, perfect for canning. To meet the factory deadline, it is not uncommon for the family to husk the cop until well after midnight before going out before dawn for another day’s work in the fields. [I’ve taken this Sanitsuda quote from an article by David Burch in Globlization and Agri-Food Restructuring 1996.]

For this hard work the farmers were reported to receive only about 14 baht per day. Another source suggests about 16 baht per day. [Citing Burch again.]

A more recent source also suggests that returns from baby corn are relatively modest. This is from

Baby corn is an important commercial plant and export item of Thailand. Baby corn fresh, frozen and canned becomes more and more popular both in Thailand and abroad. It earns the country more than 1 billion baht each year. With a short period of cultivation, only 45-60 days, farmers can reap the crop and fetch 2,000-3,000 baht per rai. Also, there are few pests to disturb the plant. Moreover, parts of baby corn trees after harvests can be used as animal feed, especially for meat and milk cows. In the global trade frame, Thailand is estimated to account for 80 percent of the world trade volume of baby corn. In 2000, Thailand exported fresh baby corn to approximately 30 countries, and preserved baby corn products to almost 100 countries. In 2000,Thailand dominated the world baby corn trade with both fresh and canned products, thus having earned 1,731,942,373 baht from the export volume of 58,536,378 kilograms. The U.S. is Thailand’s largest export market for canned baby corn, accounting for 42.75 percent of Thailand’s total export volume and value of baby corn. As for fresh baby corn markets, Malaysia is the biggest importing countries with the share of around 50.70 percent of the export volume.

3000 baht after 60 days is 50 baht per day from one rai. Still seems to be a rather modest return given the labour involved. How many rai of baby corn can a farmer reasonably manage?

Perhaps there is a New Mandala reader out there with some insight into the economics of baby corn cultivation. Baby corn has become a significant export crop for Thailand so there must be something that makes it attractive for farmers to grow.