Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Cassava Harvest In Isaan

Harvesting Cassava In Northeast Thailand

These are busy times once again in the fields of Northeast Thailand, a region known as Isaan (Isarn, Esarn, Isan).  The sugar cane harvest which started in December continues albeit winding down.  The weather is changing headed towards the rainy season.

The sugar cane harvest that commenced in December continues albeit tapering off and will be over in the middle of next month. In addition to the cutting of cane, workers are busy planting the next crop of cane.  Some of the cut canes are reserved and not sent to the local refineries.  The reserved canes are laid flat in narrow shallow trenches across the fields. After being sprinkled by hand with dry commercial fertilizer, the canes are covered with dirt.  In short time especially with the return of the rains new canes sprout up from the old buried canes.

In anticipation of the full return of the monsoon rains in the next one to two months, farmers are preparing their rice paddies.  Dikes are being built and maintained as necessary.  The land bounded by the dikes are being turned over to bury vegetation, aerate the ground, and prepare it to receive and hold the rainwater to come - water necessary for the wet cultivation method of rice cultivation.

Now is also the time for harvesting and selling sweet corn along the side of the road.  Unlike the USA, sweet corn is sold cooked and not raw at roadside stands.  Next to the stand you will typically find large pots or kettles filled with salted water and husked corn.  On the shelf of the primitive stand recycled plastic shopping bags of cooked corn are displayed for sale.

Two weeks ago we had some rain 6 out of 7 days.  The rain was not a great deal, roughly six millimeters each day, but it was significant in the sense that it allowed activities related to local agriculture to commence.

The recent rains have allowed the harvest of cassava to proceed.  Cassava, also known as Brazilian Arrowroot, Manioc, and Tapioca, is one of the important crops here in Northeast Thailand.  Cassava is drought resistant and can grow in poor soils - two conditions that Isaan has in over abundance.  The rains end in September and do not resume until April or May.  The soil of Isaan is a combination of sand and clay with very little, if any, organic components.

Cutting Cassava Stalks

Cassava is a woody shrub that has tubers that are a source of carbohydrates.  Thailand is the world's greatest exporter of dried cassava.

Here in Isaan, the cassava is harvested when the stalks are about two meters (six feet) tall.  The plants achieve two meters height about six months after being planted.  Besides being drought resistant and capable of growing in poor soil, cassava presents other advantages to the Lao Loum farmers of Isaan.

First of all, it is not always necessary to purchase seeds, or cuttings to plant a crop of cassava.  If you harvest a crop of cassava, the stalks are kept, processed, and replanted to produce a new crop.  If you do not have a crop to process for the next crop, you can purchase cuttings for 2,000 Baht (approx $66 USD) for one rai (0.39 acres) of land.

Secondly, it is not necessary to purchase fertilizer for the cultivation of cassava. There is also no need to purchase insecticides to apply to the crop.

Thirdly, once the crop is planted, no additional labor is required until the crop is ready to be harvested.

The market price for cassava today is 60,000 Baht (approx $2,000 USD) for 5 rai of crop delivered to the processor in nearby Kumphawapi.

Cassava is harvested by hand,  Duang's Aunt had called to let us know that they would be harvesting 5 rai of her cassava crop the following day.  The harvesting crew was comprised of 3 hired hands and 3 family members.  It would take 4 days to harvest the crop and an additional 2 days to process the stalks for replanting with one day to plant the stalks for the next crop.  The hired help receive 300 baht ($10 USD) and two meals for an 8 hour day.

Duangchan Cutting Cassava Stems

The harvest crew was split into two groups, each with distinct tasks to perform.  The women, whom Duang joined in working, used sugar cane knives to cut the tall slender stalks about 25 cm (10 inches) above the ground. They then skillfully used the knives to lop off the branches and leaves.  They walked along the rows of stalks continuing this process until their non-knife hand could no longer hold anymore stalks at which point the bar stalks were placed in a neat bundle on the ground to be collected later.

Duang Trimming A Cassava Stalk

In the meantime the men were occupied extracting the tubers from the ground.  The men used a special tool to pry the tubers from the ground in which they have grown deeper and bigger over the previous six months.  The tool was a simple tool based upon the engineering principle of the lever. The tool was a stout bamboo pole, about 2.5 meters long (8 foot) with a chisel point on one end.  About 76 cm (28 in) from the chisel tip there was a metal collar around the pole with a stepped metal plate extending from the collar.  The function of the metal plate is to grab and secure the stem stub sticking out of ground to convert it into a fulcrum necessary to create the mechanical advantage associated with a lever for pulling the tubers out of the ground.

Base of Cassava Tuber Extraction Tool
To extract the mass of tubers, often entangled together, the worker positions the pole so that the stub of the plant stem is grabbed and captured by the metal plate of the extraction tool.  Once the stem is secured, the worker lifts the free end of the pole as high as is necessary or as high as he can to pull the tuber roots out of the ground.  This is physically demanding work since the tubers are large, deep, entangled, and have not been disturbed since they were planted six months earlier.

Pulling Cassava Roots Out of the Ground
Once the majority of the plant's tubers are pulled above ground, the worker uses his hands to completely break them free from the Earth's grasp.  Many times the worker has to bend down or kneel on the ground so that he can remove any broken roots still embedded in the ground.

The masses from several plants are stacked together to await loading into a farm wagon or truck to then be transported to the local commercial processor in Kumphawapi.  Soon the field is dotted and lined with mounds of cassava roots and stacked  stems.

Stacking Cassava Tubers
Unfortunately with the anticipated return of the seasonal rains, the temperatures are increasing.  Our high temperature for the past week has been in the high 30's ... that is high 30's Celsius ... 38C - 100F.  Mid-April is our hottest time of the year with highs of 100 -105F and lows at night of 85-90F.  The high temps and rainy weather are part of the cycle of life here in Isaan.  They are necessary for life to continue.  They are necessary to nourish the people with their staple rice for the up coming year.

The cassava harvest is a milestone along the cycle of rural life here in Isaan for the Lao Loum people and those who choose to live amongst them.

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