Empowering Smallholder Farmers in Thailand
Smallholder farmers worldwide make a vital contribution to the products we consume. Yet many smallholders live in poverty, lacking access to the knowledge, finance and resources they need to adopt sustainable practices, raise productivity, address working conditions or improve their livelihoods. Hear from two Thai smallholder farmers about their challenges and how Bonsucro is improving their farming.

In Thailand, smallholder farmers face challenges including water scarcity, soil degradation and disease pressure, all of which could be intensified by climate change. Additionally, record-keeping, lack of clarity around land titles and a huge diversity of farming practices pose obstacles to sustainable commercial viability.

To help overcome these challenges, Bonsucro introduced the Bonsucro Production Standard for Smallholder Farmers (Smallholder Standard) in 2018. Thailand’s Saraburi Sugar Company, a mill owned by Thai Ruang Roong (TRR) Group, has since become the first mill globally to help smallholders achieve Bonsucro certification by promoting capacity building among small groups of farmers and encouraging more farmers to take up good practices.

We spoke to two smallholder farmers in Saraburi, Thailand, about how the Standard has helped them transform their farming practices.

Watcharin Banthat-thiang

Watcharin Banthat-thiang works in the sugarcane fields of Chonnoi, Saraburi province. Joining the Bonsucro programme helped him take his performance to the next level. He is using fewer pesticides and artificial fertilisers, and monitoring his costs and performance carefully. He is also able to keep the ratoon (the part of the sugarcane left underground after harvesting, which then regrows) for twice as long (up to seven years), reducing the investment needed in new cane fields.

“Since I no longer burn the cane, the ratoons last longer,” he explains. “This also means I’m conserving beneficial insects, so I experience fewer pests, which in turn reduces the need to use pesticides.”

To reduce synthetic fertiliser, he buys urea (a nitrogen-based fertiliser derived from urine) from nearby Wangmueng district, and combines this with compost from filter cake (a natural by-product of sugar production), which is provided free by the mill to farmers in the Bonsucro programme. “Relying less on chemicals is also better for me and my workers,” he adds. “I came to realise that our lives and health were improving.”

In addition to benefitting from the on-the-ground practices he has learnt, Watcharin equally values the training he has received on record-keeping. Since joining Bonsucro, he has formalised his Farm Dairy records and provides them to the mill.

My biggest challenge has always been how to improve the yield each year and reduce costs. Since joining, the cost of growing sugarcane has dropped considerably, and I’ve even seen a slight increase in yields. This has really helped me to improve my performance. Now, I can review my records and fine-tune my practices by learning what works and what doesn’t.
Watcharin Banthat-thiang
Chiraphon ‘Rose’ Bhunpeng

Former nurse Chiraphon ‘Rose’ Bhunpeng was one of Saraburi’s 26 smallholders to join the assessment undertaken by Saraburi Mill to achieve Smallholder Standard certification. She made the decision to become a farmer in 2010, becoming one of the region’s many women smallholders. But life as a sugarcane farmer hasn’t been easy, particularly with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns presenting real difficulties.

When the mill launched the Bonsucro smallholder programme, she was curious to hear how she might benefit. She joined the programme in 2018, and has since learnt to increase yields in a more scientific, sustainable way. For example, she has learnt to analyse the health and fertility of her soil, using testing kits provided by local authorities, to determine the right type of fertiliser for her soil type, and how much fertiliser to apply and when. In this way, she has halved her fertiliser costs. She is increasingly using natural fertiliser solutions such as chicken and cow manure, further reducing her costs.

Similarly, she now relies on biocontrol and uses earwigs – provided by the mill - to help control pests on her sugarcane crop, avoiding the need to buy synthetic pesticides. After harvesting, she has also decided to stop burning the cane leaves and residues to clear the field. Instead, she keeps them on the ground to help retain soil moisture and nourish the soil. Avoiding cane-burning also helping to conserve the quality of her community’s air.

And by learning about labour laws, responsible recruitment practices and best practice in healthy and safety, she is better able to protect her workers’ rights and prevent accidents, too. Following her Bonsucro training, Rose is even more careful to ensure that workers wear appropriate safety equipment to cut sugarcane in the heat, including gloves, a long shirt, hat and boots. She ensures that a portable tank of drinking water is taken to the fields to keep workers hydrated, and no-one works longer than eight hours per day. Workers who have travelled a distance from their home town are housed in purpose-built accommodation.

"Overall, I’ve been able to both reduce my costs and raise productivity, increasing my yields by 30% in 2018, year on year. The results have been clear to see. I’m also encouraging my neighbours to join the Bonsucro programme."
Chiraphon ‘Rose’ Bhunpeng
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