'Pat, pat, pat," a trainee-farmer called out, directing his buffalo to turn right. Harnessed with a traditional rope, yoke and plough, the buffalo dutifully turned right without the slightest hesitation and continued ploughing.
Tawee Kanenok and his buffalo partner practice ploughing at Kasornkasivit School in Sa Kaeo province.
The buffalo, which goes by the auspicious name "Thongkoon" (loosely translated as "unlimited gold"), and farmer Boonhome Kaefainok are a team. They registered for the school together, they were admitted together, they will work and study together, they will teach each other and graduate together.
There is no master-servant relationship here; they are totally interdependent, an unbreakable unit. If one does not learn to do his job well, they both suffer - sometimes physically, sometimes financially, sometimes both.
Farmer Boonhome and buffalo Thongkoon are students at the one-year old Kasornkasivit School. It is a vocational institution that trains buffaloes how to plough and perform other useful chores on a farm. It also teaches farmers - men and women - the skills needed to train buffaloes.
Training the untrained
"Before I joined the teaching staff, I thought that every peasant knew how to plough using a buffalo. After joining the school, I learned that many farmers don't know these skills," said Nid Somboon, a veteran agriculturist and the chief instructor at Kasornkasivit School.
"They could use buffaloes to perform the basic functions but they didn't know how to properly train a buffalo or optimise their benefits. This is mostly because farm owners usually buy pre-trained buffaloes," he added.
The course starts by teaching farmers and their buffaloes to work together as a team. "Try to stroke your buffaloe's chin and nose. This will allow the buffalo to become familiar with your smell and show him you are gentle," explained Mr Nid, revealing an old secret. "If the buffalo is not attentive to your commands, just put your saliva on its nose and it will constantly be reminded of you," he added.
Creating teamwork between a buffalo and its owner is vital to achieving the proper relationship between the beast and its caretaker, according to chief instructor Nid.
Each buffalo-farmer team enrols for a 10-day training course, where students learn traditional methods of rice cultivation using the buffalo, a plough, a harrow and other tools.
Ploughing takes place in a practice field from 7.30 to 9.30am and from 3 to 4.30pm. During the course, an instructor guides each ploughing team to a successful completion of each training session, explained Aunchlee Chukit-tiwiboon, manager of the school.
"Our instructors are not senior citizens; nor do they hold sophisticated degrees. They are dedicated community members who are experienced in buffalo training and agriculture," she said.
During the mid-day heat, the buffaloes relax in a wallow while their owners attend lectures.
The intense curriculum teaches farmers traditional rice-growing techniques and how to properly use ploughing equipment and pesticides, produce biogas and organic fertilisers and how to maintain financial records.
Some of the more complicated lessons are taught by officials from the Sa Kaeo Provincial Livestock Office.
Nid Somboon, left, chief instructor at the school, briefs his student-harvesters on how to take care of their buffaloes’ health.
Can't baffle buffaloes
"The heart of the 10-day course is on mastering navigation techniques. The rope, in combination with verbal signals, directs the beast in the four directions of the compass," Mr Nid continued.
The combination rope/verbal commands are very colourful, he said. Saying "hong" while pulling the rope to the left directs the buffalo to turn left.
However, unlike a double-strap horse's rein, a buffalo's rein is only on its left side. So you can't just pull its head towards the right. To go right, the buffalo commander has to quickly flick the left-side rope up and down while saying "pat".
Lobbing the single rein in a bigger up-and-down motion while saying "huei, huei" instructs the buffalo to go forward; and finally, saying "yor yud" while pulling the single rein backwards commands it to stop. Unbaffled by all the simultaneous tricky rein manoeuvrings and verbal commands, it is no wonder why the earthly buffaloes are proud of their remarkable intelligence.
Navigating with a buffalo is sufficiently complex that it takes the rice planters and their buffalo partners two to three days to master.
Kasornkasivit School was officially launched in March last year by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and is now under the direction of The Chaipattana Foundation. Tuition is free, and so far, the school has graduated 14 classes comprising 89 farmers and 81 buffaloes.
The school is situated on 110 rai (17.6 hectares) in the lowlands of Sa Kaeo province, approximately 200km east of Bangkok. The land was donated to the foundation by Somjit Im-erb and his wife Manee Im-erb.
"The princess is keenly aware that it costs farmers much less to cultivate rice using the time-honoured buffalo compared to tractors," said Ms Aunchlee, the school's manager.
Guided by HRH the Princess's vision, the school was established with an aim to train buffaloes and farmers to work effectively in the agricultural sector as well as to serve as a place for the public to learn about traditional agricultural practices, local wisdom and HM the King's sufficiency economy philosophy.
Aunchlee Chukittiwiboon, manager
Thais have had a long affiliation with bovines, and according to the Department of Livestock Development (DLD) of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, as of January last year, there were nearly 1.4 million domestic buffaloes in over 300,000 homesteads all over Thailand.
So, it is obvious that if they can obtain the maximum benefit from their buffaloes, the cultivators can save thousands.
"Using buffaloes reduces expensive fuel costs and eliminates the purchase price of the tractor and its maintenance fees. The waste that comes from the wallows, or the so-called "buffalo spas", where buffaloes live and relax, and the dried buffalo dung are first-grade fertilisers," explained Ms Aunchlee, elaborating on key points taught to the student-farmers.
Mr Nid said that the cost of ploughing a farm using a tractor is about 750 baht per rai. "[In contrast,] a farmer has to pay for a buffalo only once and it can work for many years as long as it stays healthy; and a plough and harrow can be used continually if kept in good working condition," said Mr Nid.
"A good buffalo and a diligent farmer should be able to work non-stop from 5 to 10am every day. Each day, the farmer should be able to plough 1.5 to 2 rai," he said. "Less diligent farmers can plough at least 0.5 to 1 rai in that time."
Another benefit of employing buffaloes is that their calves can be trained as plough animals or later sold for 20,000 or even more.
"It is not necessary for a farmer to own a 100-rai paddy field. The work would be too much for him or her. Five to 10 rai is enough for one buffalo. We encourage farmers to integrate traditional farming methods with modern farming techniques," said Ms Aunchlee.
Boonhome, 70, admits that he once sold most of his buffaloes to buy a tractor to cultivate his 21-rai paddy field.
"I like to use both a tractor and buffaloes," he said. However, he admitted that at his age, it is hard for him to control the tractor and so he may need to return to using only buffaloes.
Buffalo exchange bank
Most of Kasornkasivit School's students and buffaloes are referred by the Sa Kaeo Provincial Livestock Office, which operates the buffalo exchange bank. The buffalo exchange bank donates a buffalo to Sa Kaeo farmers. Many farmers and their new buffalo attend the school and complete the course. Later, if the buffalo produces a calf, the farmer must turn it over to the buffalo exchange.
After five years, the farmer takes ownership of the original buffalo, Ms Aunchlee explained. Independent farmers can also join the classes. They must bring their own buffalo or the school will provide them one, said Ms Aunchlee.
Senior buffaloes teach
The school has about 30 well-trained, experienced buffaloes that are used to help teach the student-buffaloes. "New buffaloes learn to plough by following close behind a teacher-buffalo during ploughing sessions in the practice fields," said Ms Aunchlee.
On day 10, student-farmers take a written examination and a practical test in which planter-buffalo teams demonstrate their skills. If a team fails, it must repeat five days of training. Certificates are awarded upon successfully completing the course.
Sharing the knowledge
Each monthly 10-day class can accommodate eight to 10 teams, with a target this year of graduating 80 teams. The Kasornkasivit School encourages its graduates to teach at least three more farmers what they have been taught. The school has already sent instructors to teach courses in Chanthaburi province, said Ms Aunchlee.
Every month, the school hosts the "Kasornkasivit Young Agriculturist" programme, which is a three-day camp for primary and high school students in Sa Kaeo that aims to teach them traditional rice production processes and the lifestyle of the rice harvesters and their buffaloes. During the camp, youngsters learn alongside the farmer-trainees.
"This is to enable the students to become familiar and have fun with buffaloes, which ultimately will open their eyes to the importance of buffaloes when used as a labour-saving device," the school manager said.
Modern agriculture machinery does not only increase farmers' production costs, but it also diminishes the long affinity between buffaloes and Thai people.
Thanks to Kasornkasivit School's mission, it is likely that this time-honoured association will continue through the generations. Farmer Boonhome and buffalo Thongkoon are certainly doing their part.
- Kasornkasivit School is open daily to the general public. Visitors can practise ploughing with buffaloes, learn how to harvest rice during harvesting season, learn about biogas production and traditional paddy field farming methods. Overnight accommodations are in traditional mud housing. The school is off Highway 33, about 7km before you reach Sa Kaeo's provincial city.
For more information, call the school on 037-435-058.
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