Major Investment : Water Buffalo Pull Most of Thailand Load

Times Staff Writer

A heavy night rain had soaked the surrounding rice paddies and muddied the market grounds here--perfect weather for the business at hand.

Farmers gathered under the trees or squatted on benches lining the corral. Squinting in the morning sun, they appraised the hulking beasts before them.

It was trading time at San Sai's biweekly buffalo market. Steady rains and the planting season were just two months off, and farmers were prepared to take the plunge on a new water buffalo, the John Deere of Southeast Asia.

A massive animal with swept-back, crescent-shaped horns, the Asian water buffalo, Bubalus bubalis , still pulls the major share of the load in this mechanized age.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization puts the world water buffalo population at about 130 million, including the 5 million in Thailand. About 20% of the rice land in this primarily agricultural country is irrigated, and there the two-wheeled tractor, or "iron buffalo," is popular. But in the rest of the country and around San Sai, just outside the northwestern city of Chiang Mai, rice farming is little changed from centuries past.

First Plow, Then Harrow

The buffalo pulls the plow through the rain-filled paddies in June and July, and then the harrow. At harvest time, in November and December, its big hoofs help with the threshing.

Whatever the season, the buffalo is a walking investment, often the major one for a poor farmer. When its working life is done, the buffalo can be sold for its meat and hide. In the meantime, it provides fertilizer.

At San Sai, farmer Ma Kumping was looking for a buffalo in its prime. He took two hours to make his choice.

Settling on a 5-year-old animal of 1,100 pounds, he opened the negotiations. The bargain was struck at 7,000 baht, about $260, a tough decision in a country where per-capita income is about $800 a year, and less than that for a farmer.

The 57-year-old Ma had looked the buffalo over carefully--"in the eyes, the ears and the mouth," an onlooker said--and figured it could give him five years of good work, maybe more.

Remainder Sold for Meat

Ma named the animal Black, for its color, and led it out of the corral and headed for home five miles away.

Farmers picked off the best of the lot that morning. The rest of the animals, too old or too weak, would be bought at bargain prices by butchers' agents.

Black will become a member of Ma's family. When the buffalo is not working, it will be pampered. Farm boys will take the animal out of the village each morning to graze in the dry paddies. They will provide it with fresh grass picked from the roadside. And they will lead it to the buffalo's favorite hot-season haunt, a cooling mudhole.

"The farmers take good care of them," said Suwat Rattanaronchart, an assistant professor of animal husbandry at Chiang Mai University. "They are good Buddhists and they are thankful for the work the buffalo has done."

Suwat said the relationship makes the sale of an animal painful for the farm family, but the economics of rice farming in rural Thailand often leaves them no choice. Many farmers can afford to keep a buffalo only through one season, selling it after the harvest and buying another at planting time. Few families have more than two. Others, who cannot afford to buy a buffalo, rent one for a share of their harvest.

'Buffalo Bank' for Poor

The really destitute can turn to the "buffalo bank," a program authorized by Thailand's Royal Family that gives buffalo to poor families. If there are calves, the farmer keeps the first and returns the second to the buffalo bank. Applicants are often chosen for their Buddhist piety, Suwat said, and none of the buffalo in the bank can be sold for slaughter.

Despite its ominous size and fearsome horns, the farm buffalo is a gentle beast. Because of its plodding gait, some question its intelligence, but the buffalo was made-to-order for the rice paddy. Farmers say it can pull a plow into paddy corners that the iron buffalo cannot reach, and mechanical breakdowns and the price of gasoline are not a problem.

Suwat and others see a continued, growing role for the buffalo. They note that the population of Southeast Asia continues to increase while the buffalo, which is not bred in managed herds for either numbers or size, has not kept pace.

Beyond its traditional use on the farm, Suwat said, the buffalo could be an important source of food in the future.

Case for Buffalo Milk

Few Thai menus advertise buffalo steaks, but Suwat said ground beef in many parts of the country contains the meat of both buffalo and Thai cattle, a breed similar to the Indian Brahman but with a little better fit to its skin. Some argue that buffalo meat in fact is superior, if it is taken from an animal in its prime rather than from one at the end of its farming days.

Suwat also makes an argument for buffalo milk, which he said has a higher fat content than cow's milk and is more nutritious.

Milk of any kind is not as popular in Thailand and some other Asian countries as it is elsewhere in the world. Buffalo milk is widely used in India, and a herd in Italy is a source of mozzarella cheese.

But if not in the herds of Suwat's hopes, the buffalo will always have a place in rural Asia, bowing its huge neck against a wooden yoke, the plowman behind, outlined against the endless paddies.

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