Thailand lies between 5° and 21° N latitude and between 97° and 106° E longitude. It is a peninsular country in Southeast Asia sharing boundaries with Myanmar in the west, Lao PDR and Cambodia in the northeast, and Malaysia in the south. The South China Sea touches the east coast, while the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea border the west coast. Thailand has a land area of 51 million ha, of which one-third is cultivated for annual crops and about 7% is under permanent crops.
Thailand is in AEZ 2, characterized as warm subhumid tropics. Four seasons are recognized: southwest monsoon from May through September, a transition period from the southwest to the northeast monsoon during October, the northeast monsoon from November through February, and a premonsoon hot season during March and April.
Temperatures in the Central Plain during the rainy season (May to November) average 27 °C, with only 8-10 °C between the daily minimum and maximum. There is a brief cool period (December and January) with temperatures as low as 2-3 °C in the northern highlands. Rapid economic growth in nonagricultural sectors over the two decades prior to the financial crisis in 1997 greatly reduced the relative importance of agriculture as a contributor to the gross domestic product and export earnings. But agriculture is still the dominant economic activity in rural Thailand and is now recognized as a critical sector to cushion the adverse effect of the financial crisis. The population was 60.9 million in 1999 and grew at 0.9%/yr during the 1990s. Despite the rapid transformation to an industrialized economy, 78% of the population is still rural. The average rural person has a low level of schooling because most of the highly educated people migrate to cities in search of better living conditions.
The GDP was estimated at US$111 billion in 1998, of which only 11% originates from agricultural activities. However, agriculture employs nearly 56% of the total labor force, which shows the large disparity in the productivity of labor between agriculture and nonagricultural sectors. The agricultural labor force grew by only 3.4% during the 1990s vis-à-vis a 17% increase in the total labor force.
Recent developments in the rice sector
The rice planted area grew rapidly from 6.9 million ha in 1968 to 9.8 million ha in 1988, and since then has fluctuated between 9.0 and 10.0 million ha depending on the relative price of rice in the world market. Rice production increased from 12.4 to 21.2 million t during the first two decades of the Green Revolution. Rice yield increased relatively slowly compared with that in other Asian countries, from 1.79 t/ha in 1968 to 2.15 t/ha in 1988, because of the predominance of the rainfed rice ecosystem and farmers' preference to grow high-quality, low-yielding traditional varieties that fetch a premium price in the domestic and the world market. Since 1988, rice production and yield have increased very little. The present rice yield of 2.33 t/ha is one of the lowest in the world. However, farm mechanization has spread widely since the mid-1980s, which has led to a rapid increase in labor productivity and helped sustain the profitability of rice farming and its competitiveness in the world market.
Thailand is the major rice exporter in the world market, currently exporting about 6.5 million t of milled rice per year. The exports continue to grow despite the stagnation in domestic production because of the declining trend in the domestic demand for rice. Thailand has a reputation for high-quality, long-grain white rice, which usually commands a substantial price advantage over lower grades.
Northeast region. Almost one-third of the land area of Thailand is located in the northeast region. Nearly one-half of the rice land is located in this region and the average size of the rice farm is smaller than in other regions. Soil erosion and drought during the dry season are acute. The water-holding capacity of the soil is extremely poor. Less than 20% of the total irrigated land of the country is located in this region, with less than 10% planted to rice in the dry season.
Central region. The central region is an intensively cultivated alluvial area. During the rainy season, rice covers the major part of the region. The central region accounts for about one-fifth of the total cultivated rice land of the country in the wet season. The average farm size is large, and a larger proportion of the rice land has access to irrigation facilities that allow many farmers to grow two rice crops during the year. Almost 75% of the dry-season rice grown under irrigated conditions is located in this region. Farm operations are almost entirely mechanized, and farmers adopt the direct-seeding method of crop establishment to save labor.
Northern region. The northern region contains almost one-third of the land area of Thailand. Upland rice is grown in the lower altitudes of high hills and in upland areas. Lowland rice is grown mainly in lower valleys and on some terraced fields where water is available. The northern region has about 20% of the total rice land in the country.
Southern region. The southern region, touching the west and east coasts of the peninsula, constitutes about 14% of the total area of the country. The region has only 6% of the total rice land. The soil is acidic. With limited rice fields under cultivation, there is always a shortage of rice for local consumption.
The average rice yield in the wet season is stagnant at about 2 t/ha. But the high quality, aromatic Thai rice varieties, which command high prices on the world market, are traditional varieties. So, the low yields do not necessarily reflect low input supply, poor water control, or any of the other constraints normally associated with low yields. Still, maintaining productivity of the system, even at a 2 t/ha plateau, is of some concern.
The major research efforts are on variety improvement, better crop establishment methods for rainfed and irrigated areas, optimum fertilization rates for organic and inorganic fertilizers, efficient chemical and biological pest control, improved rice farming machinery, and basic research on seed improvement and processing.
Crop substitution and diversification are targeted for areas not well suited to growing rice. In addition, more emphasis is now given to crop rotation, organic farming, and other measures aimed at sustainability of rice production.
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