From nursing to sustainable sugarcane farming
Photos & video ©Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro
Former nurse Chiraphon ‘Rose’ Bhunpeng was one of Saraburi’s 26 smallholders to join the assessment undertaken by Saraburi Mill to achieve Smallholder Standard certification. The 33-year-old, whose family has farmed sugarcane for decades, made the decision to become a farmer in 2010, becoming one of the region’s many women smallholders.
“I left nursing in the city to be able to care for my parents, and I was excited to embrace the challenge of working on my own farm,” she says. “I’ve had to learn everything from the beginning, but my family’s background in farming has really helped me build my knowledge quickly.”
She initially supported her parents on their 2,000-rai (320-hectare) farm, and now cultivates 60 rai (9.6 hectares) of her own land under the mill’s Bonsucro smallholder programme, alongside corn and cassava, which her sister sells on to wholesalers.
But life as a sugarcane farmer hasn’t been easy, particularly with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns presenting real difficulties.
“Some years there’s plenty of rain and some years there’s not enough, which can have a significant impact on growing healthy sugarcane and achieving consistently good yields,” she says.
“I rely on rainfall to provide about 60% of the water I need for my crops, so the years without sufficient rain pose a real risk to my livelihood.”
In times of drought, Rose must rely more on irrigation, but gaining access to groundwater brings its own difficulties, as not all her fields are accessible to the nearest pump. In an attempt to adapt to and fight the uncertainties of the changing climate, she tries to overcome this barrier by using rainwater stored in 10,000-litre tanks.
In addition, input costs can be high. Rose obtains loans directly from the Saraburi mill, which are used to pay for labour, fuel, electricity, repairs, fertilisers and agrochemicals – and repaid after the harvest.
When the mill launched the Bonsucro smallholder programme, she was curious to hear how she might benefit. She joined the programme in 2018, and has since learnt to increase yields in a more scientific, sustainable way. For example, she has learnt to analyse the health and fertility of her soil, using testing kits provided by local authorities, to determine the right type of fertiliser for her soil type, and how much fertiliser to apply and when. In this way, she has halved her fertiliser costs. She is increasingly using natural fertiliser solutions such as chicken and cow manure, further reducing her costs.
Similarly, she now relies on biocontrol and uses earwigs – provided by the mill - to help control pests on her sugarcane crop, avoiding the need to buy synthetic pesticides. After harvesting, she has also decided to stop burning the cane leaves and residues to clear the field. Instead, she keeps them on the ground to help retain soil moisture and nourish the soil. Avoiding cane-burning also helping to conserve the quality of her community’s air.
Rose has also found the focus on record-keeping particularly helpful. Using a Bonsucro Farm Diary to keep records of inputs, labour and performance is a condition of the Smallholder Standard, and must be reviewed regularly by the mill.
By measuring and recording my costs, day-to-day practices and input use, I can better manage my farm—Rose
To further improve her profits, she has invested in a harvester, gaining an additional revenue stream by renting it to her fellow farmers. Rose is also guarding against the risk of extreme weather damaging yields and harvests by growing cane seed to sell to her fellow farmers. Because Rose produces them with care from dedicated, healthy cane, farmers can access quality seeds that are more resistant to drought or produce higher yields with greater sucrose content.
And by learning about labour laws, responsible recruitment practices and best practice in healthy and safety, she is better able to protect her workers’ rights and prevent accidents, too. With 70% of harvesting still done by hand, protecting workers’ health and safety is vital. Following her Bonsucro training, Rose is even more careful to ensure that workers wear appropriate safety equipment to cut sugarcane in the heat, including gloves, a long shirt, hat and boots. She ensures that a portable tank of drinking water is taken to the fields to keep workers hydrated, and no-one works longer than eight hours per day. Workers who have travelled a distance from their home town are housed in purpose-built accommodation.
Overall, I’ve been able to both reduce my costs and raise productivity, increasing my yields by 30% in 2018, year on year. The results have been clear to see. I’m also encouraging my neighbours to join the Bonsucro programme.—Rose
So what does the future hold for Rose?
“I’m happy to be farming sugarcane and to be successful as a farmer,” Rose concludes. “I want to keep innovating to be less reliant on manual labour, which is harder to recruit as more people move to the cities to find work, and further reduce my costs.”