Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Circle Remains Unbroken - Rice Planting Time

Here in Isaan, we do not have Daylight Savings Time. We are not bothered or burdened with having to adjust our clocks and electronic devices twice a year. Because of Thailand's proximity to the equator, there is no much difference in the amount of daylight over the course of a year. I haven't researched it but it appears to me that on June 21, our longest day, the sun sets around 18:30 (6:30 P.M.) and on 21 December, our shortest day, the sun sets at 17:30 (5:30 P.M.).

Here in Isaan, we have just two seasons - "Hot and Dry" and "Hot and Wet".

Here in Isaan the passage of time, besides being marked by personal milestones such as birth ordination, marriage, and death along with religious celebrations, is marked by the rhythm of the land. There is the time for planting rice, harvesting rice, planting sugar cane, harvesting sugar cane, planting cassava, harvesting cassava, as well as planting peanuts, harvesting peanuts, planting corn and harvesting corn. Working and caring for the land is a year long task that like a wheel carries the people through their life.

Today on our trip out to Tahsang Village to visit family, evidence that the wheel of life and the circle that it tracks was very evident. For the third time since I moved to Isaan, the fields were alive with the sights and sounds of rice being planted. We are two months into our "Hot and Wet" season, and the fields that were parched all that long ago are now flooded. The same fields that were dull brown are now verdant rectangles creating a motley mosaic across Isaan.

Last month some of the rice paddies had been sowed with some of the rice obtained in previous harvests. The rice sprouted to create thick brilliant carpets dotting the landscape. Now it was time for the next stage of rice cultivation. The thick carpet of bright green "grass" is harvested, more accurately - pulled up by roots, placed into sheaves, the tops trimmed, and the seedlings are then transplanted in groups of three or four plants into prepared paddies.
The roots of the seedlings are key to the success of the transplant so care is taken to remove any excess mud from them. The sheaves are then placed back into the water so as to maintain their viability. The seedlings are transplanted within 24 hours so as to prevent them from drying out.

The actual process of planting rice at this time of year is actually a series of ongoing parallel tasks - all in close proximity to each other. The seedlings are pulled from the muddy paddy and gathered into a bunch. The bunch of seedlings or sprouts are slapped against the harvester's bare foot to remove excess mud. The bunch of seedlings is then tapped against the bottom of an overturned plastic tub to square off the roots. Once the bottom of the bunch is squared off the bunch is converted into a sheaf by binding the sprouts together using a couple of the plants as a string. After the pointed tops of the seedlings are cut off with a heavy machete type knife, the sheaves are stored roots down in the flooded paddy. One of the farmers periodically gathers the sheaves, and carries them, often using a long bamboo rod across his shoulder., to a near by paddy that has been prepared for transplantation of the seedlings.

The sheaves are then distributed throughout the flooded paddy roots down awaiting planting into the soupy mud of the paddy. Several workers, male and female, grab the sheaves and break them apart. The worker then selects the seedlings, three or four at a time, bends over and thrusts the seedling's roots into the viscous mud of the paddy. The farmers work in sort of rhythm under the overcast and heavy Isaan sky to place the rice plants in a grid across the paddy. Their efforts are only interrupted at times by their amusement towards a falang (foreigner) spending so much time photographing them.

The workers are a combination of the land owner's or lessee's family and day labor. The hired help make about $3 to $4.50 a day for an 8 hour day. Part of their compensation includes being fed by the land owner or lessee. Payment is made on a strictly cash basis. There is no immigration status checking required. There is no employer portion of Social Security - Old Age Taxes to be paid. There is no employee portion of Social Security - Old Age Taxes to be withheld by the employer. There is no employer portion of Social Security - Medicare Taxes to be paid. There is no employee portion of Social security - Medicare Taxes to be withheld. There are no Federal Income taxes to be withheld. There are no State or Local Income taxes to be withheld. There are no Unions. There are no written contracts. There is only the trust and bond of the employer's and employee's words. It is the free market distilled to its basic components - demand and supply.

In a paddy next to the paddy where the seedlings are being transplanted, a farmer uses a machine to prepare a flooded paddy. The mechanical buffalo ploughs the soil and smooths the ground to create the viscous mud required for transplanting the rice seedlings. In a third paddy a portable pump is set up to be driven by the power drive off of the mechanical buffalo to transfer water in order to flood the paddy.

After photographing two different groups of farmers planting rice, I returned to Tahsang Village to visit our grandson, Peelawat, and to have my lunch.

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