Ripening rice

A field of rice, almost ready for the harvest makes a lovely backdrop for the macro of a flower that I didn’t recognize. It had been planted along the border of the field, so I suppose it must be an useful plant: either a vegetable or an easy-to-grow spice. Farming is hard, and land is hardly ever wasted. You would think that the wisdom of the market would price our most important commodities, food, high enough to give farmers a living. But it seems that we are willing to pay much more for a device on which to view insta photos or tiktok videos than we are for a month’s food.

This year I’ve followed the main growing cycle of rice in India: the kharif crop, planted during the monsoon and harvested in November. Around Vaitarna lake I saw tractors and oxen plowing fields, whole families engaged in flooding them, before planting and transplanting the seedlings. It is a labour-intensive job which is open to chance. There are years when an unseasonal rain can destroy the ripening crop, or its lack wither the seedlings before they grow. In this region at the edge of Tadoba, there are dangers from pests, the many birds which I spotted around the field, insects, mold, diseases, even wild boars. Although each family owns its own piece of land, families collaborate on the larger projects around the farms: plowing, ensuring deliveries, safety.

I watched the old farmer walk through the field, inspecting it closely, making sure that there is no last minute disease that sweeps through the fields, estimating the day on which the crop would have to be harvested. This is the most productive crop, but he would have to raise at least one more crops in the year to make a living. By December there would have to be a second planting. This land was close enough to a dam for a third crop to be grown in summer. The life of a farmer is hard, and money makes it harder. No family can subsist entirely on farming. Every family in the village has one or two members working in a big city to supplement the income. More than half of the country’s population is engaged in the primary production of food, but this is responsible for only a fifth of the GDP. There is clearly an imbalance here.

Tractors and rice

Half a year ago we’d stopped at the census town of Ghoti to buy vegetables and rice. Ghoti turns out to be the town closest to Vaitarna dam. So we were not surprised by the rice fields surrounding the villages here. On a very rainy morning we walked through these fields photographing every day life. People were hard at work. A light bamboo cage covered with thin plastic sheets was the rain-gear of choice. Umbrellas were less common.

I squatted on small boulders and waved at the people as they worked. They would wave back, and go back to their jobs. Some people have tractors. I watched as one plowed a field. On the margins a cow kept watch on this machine which had made its males redundant. The job was over in minutes, and the tractor drove off to another field. It seems that one or two people in a village own a tractor, and plow others’ fields for a fee. The hardest part of farming rice is the transplantation of paddy. The seedlings are grown in one field, and then transplanted to another, plowed and flooded, field later.

Rice (Oryza sativa) is one of mankind’s oldest technologies. The genus Oryza seems to have first arisen in the islands of the Sunda straits about 18 million years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence of caches of wild O. sativa come from Vietnam. These remains in Xom Trai, are dated to about 11,600 years ago, at the very beginning of the retreat of glaciers. This was the end of the period called the Younger Dryas, the beginning of the Holocene.I call rice a technology because it is the product of a long process. Domestication completely transformed rice. Even the wild rice of today is actually feral rice, technological artifacts which have escaped our control. Our rice fields are attempts to recreate the conditions of the end of the Younger Dryas. The melting of the glaciers left sodden land which would flood often. It is amazing how many human technologies have been brought in to help. Everything helped: metal working, the domestication of oxen, the internal combustion engine.The long wall behind the flooded field in the photo above is part of the Vaitarna dam. Even that is ancillary to the technology of rice!

This is a job for the whole family. Every hand turns up to work in the field. Little breaks become family affairs, like this early lunch that this family enjoyed on the field. I did not go up close to talk to them, but I’m sure that the metal containers held rice and dal. Vegetables are not a constant part of the meal. Another family had recruited one of their youngsters, the guy with a pink umbrella in an earlier photo. While the rest of the family replanted paddy, he dug a drainage channel.

The ox-drawn plow has not disappeared. The next day in another part of the plateau I found a field being plowed by a team of oxen.The nearest village had a cart being pulled by oxen, the only such ancient transport I saw. Relative prosperity has reached this part of the country. The result is that internal combustion engines are replacing animals. Can batteries replace them? It may be a while before electric tractors take over the world.

The Hard Work of Farming

After reaching Lobeysa, we gave ourselves time to do nothing. After breakfast we decided to solve the mystery of the missing men, something that had puzzled us in Ura as well as Tang. The Sullen Celt wanted to walk to the fields that we saw across a small river. After surveying the distance, we voted to take the car part of the way.

The whole village was at work in the fields. Nine years back, the economy of Bhutan was clicking up. Hydroelectric power export and tourism were becoming a larger fraction of the economy, but most of the population was still involved in farming. Around a third of the economy came directly from agriculture.Rice paddy being carried for transplantation in Lobeysa, Bhutan Almost all the working women worked in agriculture, as did almost two thirds of the working men. Lobeysa has water for irrigation, which instantly resulted in rice being the main crop.

Human culture is so centred on agriculture that it is hard to think of it as technology. But this was not how the original humans evolved. The little tribes of humans who walked across continents and land bridges exposed by the frozen seas of the last ice age were not farmers. They were hunters and foragers. Farming was invented in diverse parts of Asia during the explosion of plant life that followed the retreat of the ice. Converting virgin forest into farmland, shaping the landscape by tilling, diverting water for irrigation, planting, transplanting and harvesting rice are technologies as old as the settling of Asia.

Tilling a field in Lobeysa, Bhutan

Farming is backbreaking labour, whether it is carrying the rice paddies in a basket from one field to another (photo, above left), transplanting them in a flooded field (featured image), or tilling the field (above). When I look at this work now, I see in it an effort to recreate the soil conditions of the receding ice age in which Oryza sativa, rice, developed.

One major difference between this part of Bhutan and the Bumthang district is in the crops they cultivate. Bumthang has less irrigation, so the major crops there are millets like buckwheat and barley, or potatoes. On the other hand, the Butanese seem to love rice, so the better off one is, the more rice one eats. Economics is the same in all countries!

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