Up Until the 1950’s work bees were common in Grey and Bruce counties. Neighbours would gather to help a farmer raise his barn, help thresh his grain, pick stones, or put up a new common fence.
Here in eastern Thailand, where I have been travelling this winter, is the center of agriculture in this developing country of 65 million. When it’s time to plant or harvest rice, the main crop, neighbours get together to help each other with the work, but there is plenty of chatter throughout the day, with a small break at lunch under a tree. Rice is planted as seedlings, mostly into low water by individual hands. Once one farmer’s fields are finished, everyone goes off to the next, with more family members being involved.
The animal used for the preparation of the land for planting for harvest, for pulling carts and special holidays, is the water buffalo, much like our oxen in pioneer times. The Thais have a special fondness for the water buffalo, its nickname is, “jao-tooy,” which is heard throughout the villages as the great beasts pass by pulling carts filled with of rice, rice hay, wood, or other agricultural burdens. The Thai water buffalo is generally smaller then is seen in other parts of the world, such as India, and are much less excitable. The fully grown work beasts, which average between 400 and 600 kilograms, have wide, long bodies, protruding bellies, are big boned with long legs and splayed hoofs. The head is relatively small compared to the body, with curving outward horns.
Lately the traditional plowing by water buffalo has given way to the, “mechanical buffalo,” a small, hand guided tractor, with wide paddle wheels, almost like a large roto-tiller that could plow or pull a large cart. Recently, modern tractors have also appeared where a group of farmers pitch in to buy one. In my local community near Chesley farmers used to band together to buy a square hay baler back in the 1960’s, and then help each other in turn to harvest fields of hay.
Although the water buffalo are still valued, it’s now the meat value that is becoming more important. Today’s price for a 400 kilogram market buffalo is around $600. Given that farmers’ work and produce is generally undervalued here, like in Grey and Bruce, the average yearly income of farmers in Thailand is around $2,000. Water buffalo than, are prized for bringing in much needed cash.
The taste of the meat from the water buffalo is similar to beef but the water buffalo is more lean, with high levels of Omega 3, a fatty acid that is generally found in marine and plant oils. The significantly lower fat content makes it about 40 percent less cholesterol than beef. Water buffalo meat, which is darker in colour, is less prone to marbling (white flecks of fat within the meat), which is often valued in choice cuts of Grey Bruce beef.
Thailand cities are often congested with traffic and noise, but in the village where I am staying, morning comes quietly, people usually are getting up at 5 am, before the heat of the day comes, and smoke begins to drift from breakfast cooked over charcoal fires. There are still mostly houses on stilts made of bamboo or local hard wood, with a ladder or rudimentary steps, a roof of grass or steel, while underneath the raised floor, in the shade, is where the days’ events unfold. Water buffalo pass by, or the mechanical buffalos on the way to the fields along narrow dirt tracks that turn into mud during the rainy season. Villagers call out to each other to pass on news or talk about the upcoming day. The village is surrounded by paddy fields (small rice fields surrounded by dikes to hold water in when needed), streams, swamps and grazing lands. Each family owns some land that has been subdivided for individual family members over the decades, so the walk to the fields may be long. Land is valued here, one rai (.4 acre) sells from $3,000 to $12,000. Sometimes big debts are paid for in this way, or more land can only be afforded if a member or members of a family go to work in Bangkok, where wages are much higher. In this village, where the older generation came from 10 or more children, today’s generation is often having only two or three children, and most are leaving for the bigger centres, much like in our part of the rural world. What will happen in the near future in rural Thailand when there is not enough farm labour, or enough children to fill local schools, is a question we are also asking in Grey and Bruce counties.