Boonlert Rattanayaem earns 200,000 baht each year from his eight-rai tobacco plantation.
Workers carry tobacco leaves in Sukhothai, which has a plantation area of about 50,000 rai.
Located in Sukhothai, the plantation is a family business passed on from his parents' generation. Mr Boonlert himself has looked after it for 20 years.
But now the 46-year-old, like many tobacco farmers, fears he will have to quit his occupation after a law was brought up last year aimed at reducing the plantation area of tobacco.
"People here do not own much land, but tobacco yields high returns. The only problem for us is natural disasters, particularly during the rainy season," he said, recalling the severe floods of 2011.
There are roughly 18,000 tobacco planters in the province with an overall plantation area of about 50,000 rai, according to Somnuek Yimpin, manager of the Burley Tobacco Farmers Association of Sukhothai.
Up to 70% of the crop, with an average yield of 550-600 kilogrammes per rai, is given to the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly (TTM), with the rest sold to tobacco companies.
Boonlert: Tobacco part of our culture
Consisting of 501 members, the farmers' association recently submitted a letter to the government asking for a revision of the draft law, saying it was unclear and would affect planters whose opinions had not been heard.
"Tobacco planting is considered a culture of Sukhothai since our grandparents, and it is the main source of income for the province," Mr Somnuek said. "If there is heavy rainfall and the crops die, we won't be able to buy a pickup truck or motorcycle."
A farmer earns 30,000 baht from one rai of tobacco, compared with 11,000 baht from rice and 10,000 baht from corn. The cost of upkeep is 13,000 baht per rai, leaving a profit of 11,000 baht for farmers.
Mr Somnuek estimates that this year the province will reap 1 billion baht in tobacco revenue, compared with 800 million or so in the past few years, after TTM hiked tobacco prices from 60 baht per kilogramme to 67 baht.
The agency and other tobacco firms are also buying more from farmers.
According to Mr Somnuek, TTM faces a shortage of over 3 million tonnes of tobacco leaves for production. He said that while the soil in Sukhothai suits many crops, only tobacco has a guaranteed price, and the farmers will lose hundreds of thousands of baht if forced to plant something else.
"There is no other crop that can replace tobacco, and the association will not welcome replacement crops either," Mr Somnuek said.
According to TTM, tobacco plantation area last year totalled 207,147 rai, with Sukhothai and Phetchabun the country's top producers.
Nationwide there are 74,900 tobacco planters and 372,000 workers in the industry. The supply of tobacco leaves in the 2010-11 season was 60.5 million kilogrammes.
According to the Excise Department, revenue from tobacco totalled 59.91 billion baht in the fiscal year ended October 2012, accounting for 15.7% of the department's total revenue.
Figures from the Commerce Ministry, meanwhile, valued tobacco exports at 2.67 billion baht in 2012.
A Thai unit of US-based Philip Morris International is said to have a 20% market share. It pays 24% of the country's overall tax collected on tobacco. The company last year purchased about 1 billion baht worth of tobacco leaves from Thailand.
About the author
- Writer: Nanchanok Wongsamuth
Position: News Reporter