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Research project to help small-scale Thai rubber farmers improve economic sustainability

Posted 19 September

“Farmers all around the world face the issue of price volatility and instability. Farming is a good business, but you have to survive during the periods when prices are low. A traditional strategy is to produce more than one thing; you produce several things."

Harper Adams University is working in collaboration with Kasetsart University (KU) to investigate and provide recommendations on how to improve the economic sustainability of small-scale rubber farms in Thailand.

Thailand is the world’s largest natural rubber producer and exporter. Of the 1.1 million Thai rubber growers, 79 per cent are small-scale farmers with landholdings below 2.4 hectares.

The major threat to livelihood derives from rubber price volatility on world markets. When the price of rubber is low, income declines, partly because a large majority of farmers have not adopted on-farm practices to minimise the risk.

The project is funded by the Newton Fund Institutional Links Grants from the British Council.

Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer, Elizabeth Creak Chair of Agri-Tech Economics, said: “This project is focused on sustainable livelihoods for smallholder rubber producers in Thailand.

“Thailand produces 5.13 million tonnes of natural rubber annually. One of the key issues there is the diversification for the rubber producers because the rubber price is high and sometimes it’s low. And the focus of the project is creating tools to guide them in diversification strategy. Do they combine rubber with fruit trees, or with chickens, or whatever.

“To do that, we have specified a linear programming model that would take data from Thai rubber farms producing rubber and other products. Examples of the other products are mangosteen, durian fruit, oil palm, coconuts, chickens and cattle.

“The research team from KU are visiting Harper Adams, after collecting the required data in Thailand over the past couple of months. We hope by the end of their stay at Harper, that we will have the first draft of a model for Thai natural rubber farmers.”

Dr Montchai Pinitjitsamut, lecturer and agricultural policy advisor to the Thai Parliament, said: “We conducted the surveys in person with twenty individual farmers. It’s very detailed data, so it requires some time to carry it out with each farmer.

“To select the farmers for interviewing, there was some criteria that they needed to meet; rubber growing had to be their primary occupation and they had to be growing another crop. They also needed to have sold the alternative crop at least once and their farm has to be less than 50 rai (eight hectares).”

Professor Lowenberg-DeBoer said: “Farmers all around the world face the issue of price volatility and instability. Farming is a good business, but you have to survive during the periods when prices are low. A traditional strategy is to produce more than one thing; you produce several things.

“The question is what things to combine. Some things have natural synergies, such as they grow well together. Other things have marketing synergies. There’s therefore a tendency that when the price of one thing is high, the other is low and vice versa and so they balance each other out. This is the portfolio effect.

“We’re hoping to create tools to help identify the best diversification ideas for rubber growers in Thailand. The answer won’t be the same for every farm in the country as the conditions are different. Southern Thailand is very wet due to its high rainfall and is very warm, while northern Thailand has a lower level of rainfall, temperatures are a bit cooler and the altitude is higher. You can imagine that a rubber farm close to Bangkok may have different opportunities for selling vegetables than one further away.”

Dr Huang and Professor Lowenberg-DeBoer went to Thailand in May of this year to spend time at KU and on rubber farms meeting the Small Rubber Tapper and Farmer Association of Thailand to get a sense of how the rubber business works in the country.

On how Harper Adams and KU started working together, Dr Iona-Yuelu Huang said: “The relationship between the two universities started when Dr Thamthanakoon was our PhD student. Dr Thamthanakoon was a lecturer at KU before coming to join us as a PhD student.

“She has been aware of the potential synergies between the two universities. The British Council Newton Fund provided an excellent opportunity to get the collaboration started. We have Professor Lowenberg-DeBoer who is an expert in advising farmers on diversification and he’d worked with natural rubber farmers previously in other countries and Dr Thamthanakoon is a colleague of Dr Montchai, who’s an expert in rubber farming.”

During the researchers’ visit to Harper Adams, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between the two universities. It’s hoped that it will lead to further research collaborations, staff and student exchanges.

KU is a public research university in Bangkok, Thailand. It was Thailand’s first agricultural university and is Thailand’s third oldest university. It was established in 1943 to promote subjects related to agricultural science. Since then, Kasetsart University has expanded its subject areas to cover life sciences, science, engineering, social sciences and humanities. It is now the largest university in Thailand with over 70,000 students.

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