When 35-year-old Dilok Pinyosee was a university undergraduate, he had no clue he would one day be growing sugar cane in his home town in Khon Kaen province.
Mr Wuttichai (left) and Mr Dilok are dedicated to improving efficiency in sugar cane farming by teaching the benefits of joint investment in labour-saving machinery.
After graduating in engineering, he worked as a robot programmer for a monthly salary of about 20,000 baht but in 2004 decided to return home to help his father, who has been in the sugar industry for two decades.
"It was a stressful time of my life when I was just dreaming of programme codes all day," Mr Dilok recalled.
"The turning point was when my father bought a harvester. I went back home and also studied information technology at Khon Kaen University."
Mr Dilok later purchased another harvester from Australia, which he believed could be a model for the industry in Thailand in terms of tackling labour shortages.
In Australia, only five workers cover an area of 3,000 to 4,000 rai compared with 20-30 workers for 20-30 rai in Thailand.
With workers earning daily wages of 250 baht, the harvester is a less expensive option and can cover 20 rai at a cost of 700 baht for fuel and 250 baht for the driver.
"For me, engineering and machinery expertise can be used in management in the sugar cane industry. Investing in machinery is expensive the first time but cost-effective in the long run," he said.
Now Mr Dilok, who earns about 13 million baht a year and owns 1,500 rai of plantation area, is often invited by Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation, the world's fifth-largest sugar company, to educate the children of sugar cane farmers.
Wuttichai Wanvinai, 27, is one of those participating in Mitr Phol's programme, which has allowed 31 children of planters to return to their home provinces to help their parents.
Prior to joining the programme, he had no knowledge of sugar cane planting but now vows to bring in more machinery after having worked for three years.
Mitr Phol is also working on its model to develop an irrigation system, which is considered the biggest obstacle to cane planting in the Northeast.
Starting from 265 rai in Khon Kaen's Ban Lat community, 29 planters participated in the first year of the Mitr Phol project in 2009. The project has since expanded to 1,300 rai.
Production in the 2009-10 season averaged 17.9 tonnes per rai, up from 7-10 tonnes, followed by 16.5 tonnes in 2010 and 10 tonnes last year. Output is estimated to be lower at nine tonnes in the 2012-13 season that started last month due to drought.
"Whenever everyone sees there is enough water supply, they assume production will increase, but management is also needed," said Apiwat Boonthawee, the vice-president for sugar cane management at Mitr Phu Khieo Mill. "This year has been the worst one for Phu Khieo due to a shortage of rainfall from June-August, resulting in stunted growth of the sugar cane."
Chaiwat Khamkaenkhoon, president of the Northeastern Region Sugarcane Planters Association, said the average yield in the Northeast is already about 10 tonnes a rai but depends largely on the rainfall.
He said the success of Mitr Phol's model depends on how seriously the irrigation plans are carried out.
"The government, for instance, said it will do pipeline irrigation, but it's just talk. Sugar cane needs water. If there is enough water supply, then the yield needs to be higher than nine tonnes unless the soil is the worst kind," said Mr Chaiwat.
Mr Apiwat said Mitr Phol's project lowers costs for planters, as they can jointly hire harvesters, bringing down the expense to 1,800 baht a rai from 2,300 baht.
Over the past two years, Mitr Phol has spent 30-40 million baht on infrastructure at Phu Khieo, while cane planters joining the programme will have to invest in water pipelines running to their fields.
The company has invested a total of 150 million baht, as the project has been expanded to other areas in Khon Kaen such as Phu Luang.
Mitr Phol has four sugar mills in the Northeast _ Phu Khieo, Phu Wiang and Phu Luang in Khon Kaen plus Kalasin province _ with combined annual production capacity of 12.2 million tonnes out of the group's total of 19 million tonnes.
About the author
- Writer: Nanchanok Wongsamuth
Position: News Reporter