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Sugar Cane Farming in Northeast Thailand

While traveling the Sakon Nakhon countryside, you’ll not only see lush, green rice paddies, but also verdant sugar cane fields. Over the past decade, the Thai government has tried to help farmers increase their income by giving them subsidies to replace rice crops with sugar cane. This is because rice prices have been dropping, and sugar cane can bring a higher profit. 80% of the world’s sugar comes from sugar cane, while 20% comes from sugar beets (which are also grown in Thailand)

Thailand has had large sugar cane farms since the 1950s (after the first mill opened in 1938), with the country now being the second largest exporter of sugar in the world. Sugar cane is thus one of Thailand’s most important crops, with 1.76+ million hectares cultivated, 130+ million tons of cane crushed, and over 7 billion dollars generated. It’s only in more recent years that small sugar cane producers have dramatically increased, and while higher profits can be had, a number of problems have also emerged.

Thailand Sugar Cane Farm
Sugar Cane Field in Sakon Nakhon, Thailand

One issue is that small sugar cane farmers in Thai provinces like Sakon Nakhon either don’t have access or the resources to rent sugar cane harvesting machines. Thus they burn the sugar cane stalks to make the harvesting of the leaves much easier (It’s the leaves of the sugar cane plant which are processed into sugar). This burning contributes to air pollution.

Another problematic situation which can arise is the weather. Sugar cane is more sensitive than rice to droughts, as well as too much rain. And in recent years, Northeastern Thailand (Isaan) has be subject to fluctuating weather patterns that have affected the sugar cane yields. This has been especially true for Sakon Nakhon weather and sugar cane cultivation.

Despite these issues, sugar cane farming continues to grow, as demand is strong. Both Sakon Nakhon rice and sugar cane are noted for their high quality. The 4 main types of sugar that local Thai factories produce from sugar cane are: raw sugar (which is dark brown), golden cane sugar (light golden brown), white sugar (used in both homes and restaurants), and refined sugar (used frequently in food manufacturing).

David Alan