While in Thailand during the 80’s I had the opportunity to spend a few months in the rural areas of the North and Northeast. Thailand is and was one of the world’s largest exporters of rice. Accordingly rice paddies were ubiquitous, and at that time water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis ) were the primary implement of rice agriculture.
Coming from an agricultural background I was captivated by how closely the Thai’s lived and worked with their buffalo. I grew up on my family’s farm in southeastern Idaho. My father, who was born in 1940, remembers as a boy working with horses and he clearly remembers the first tractor purchased by my grandfather. Regrettably the last draft horse (a gelding named “Dime”) had died on the farm long before I was born. Consequently, having not farmed with draft animals I was fascinated with a culture still heavily relying on working animals.
Buffalo were a very important part of everyday life, not only in the fields but around the house. Many rural Thai homes were built on stilts because of the periodic and extensive rains resulting in widespread flooding. The area under these homes often served as a paddock for the families’ buffalo.
I often saw them plowing fields, pulling carts and many times would see children riding on the beasts as they went to and from pasture. In addition to their draft and transportation capabilities, water buffalos are used for meat, hide and milk. The milk is higher in fat than cow’s milk and is becoming a popular source of mozzarella cheese.
One summer day near Lampang Thailand when I had a break from my daily activities I saw a farm boy ridding one of his water buffalo. I offered him a few baht for a chance to sit on and ride his buffalo for a photo op. I sought the opportunity partly on my observation that the animal seemed very mild mannered. As soon as he got off and I approached the buffalo, the situation changed dramatically. Whereas he was previously docile and cooperative he immediately became agitated and truculent as I attempted to mount. It soon became apparent that I was not getting a ride without an attendant rodeo. My desire for the photo op rapidly waned in the face of potential injury. I gave the boy the money for his trouble and left them alone. It was then that I realized how individual these animals’ personalities were and that there was a genuine bond between the buffalo and the boy. That afternoon in Thailand is one that I will certainly not forget; it opened my eyes and my heart to a culture now mostly vanished.
Since the 80’s, Thai agriculture has followed the pattern of farmers in many parts of the world in an increasing reliance on mechanized farming1. Accordingly the numbers of water buffalo have fallen dramatically in recent years1.
A part of me yearns to return to that afternoon and lifestyle. I realize nonetheless, that it is overly nostalgic to reminisce about a pastoral past that will probably never again be reality for most of us. Having been engaged in farm work for the first twenty three years of my life I have first-hand knowledge as to how mechanized farming has revolutionized and permanently altered farming culture. Farming has become much more efficient, not to mention the significant reduction in the physical effort required to produce food.
It has been nearly thirty years since I walked the dusty roads of rural Thailand. I acknowledge that since that time the world has forever changed. Despite that acceptance, in a society where many people have no idea where their food comes from, a part of me wants the world to reset and embrace a culture that includes animal agriculture.
1. Conservation and Developing Indigenous Knowledge of Using Water Buffaloes Samanchai Suwanamphai, Songkoon Chantachon, Kosit Paengsoi and Niwat Thongwol. Journal of Social Sciences 7 (2): 146-148, 2011.