Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Growing a better future – Agriculture in Cambodia

Agriculture is the backbone of the Cambodian economy. Most people here are subsistence farmers who grow rice and vegetables to feed their own households and supply the local market. Very little is left over.

The United Nations says that the average income in Cambodia is just $1 US dollar a day and over half the countries GDP comes from aid. Inflation is a major problem. The price of rice, a staple in the Cambodian diet, has almost doubled in recent times yet income remains at the same level.

So how do farmers use their skills to improve the income opportunities for themselves and their families?

Supported by NZAID, Cambodia Agribusiness Development Facility (CADF) is playing a valuable role improving the supply chain for entrepreneurial farmers. This involves providing technical assistance and business advice to strengthen links between farmers and markets and alleviate constraints.

Today we visited two initiatives supported by CADF to see how farmers are embracing new ideas to improve their own livelihoods.
Twenty minutes out of the tourist oasis of Siem Reap, we travel along a bumpy red track, past water buffalo, crops and traditional style small homes to visit an entrepreneurial farmer, Mr Lorn Saruth, who is using plastic to grow crops like cucumber, beans and lettuce all year round – an innovative new way to make his farm more profitable.

After he joined CADF he took part in a trip to Viet Nam to see how plastic could improve his farming techniques and the production of his small farm. This innovative new way of farming has generated a lot of interest from the village and now other farmers are coming to his place to learn about the new techniques so they in turn can emulate his success. Right now it’s the dry season and there are rows of broad beans popping up through the reflective silver plastic.

The plastic is relatively expensive but Mr Saruth believes the savings in production make it worthwhile. The plastic keeps the moisture in the ground and controls the weeds and grass around the crops. Before he started using the plastic, he used to water the crops everyday. Now he only needs to water every other day. And he saves money on fertiliser. With the money he earns, his children will be able to go to university.

The second farm we visit is FFF farming association - an organic growing vegetable farm that is using New Zealand seeds to produce European style vegetables like mesculan and fancy lettuce, bok choy and herbs for the lucrative hotel and tourist market.

The seeds are sourced from Kings Seeds in New Zealand and are germinated on site before selling the seedlings to local farmers to produce. Once the plants are fully grown, the association buys back the plants and prepares the plants for market.

Workers are busy sifting cow dung that will be used for fertilizer. Trays of seedlings are flourishing under shade cloth. 14 workers from remote parts of Cambodia are employed all year round to take care of the farm. This is a model farm that produces seedlings all year round. Farmers are provided technical assistance to learn to grow the unique plants and expand their expertise and tap into the opportunities offered by a burgeoning tourist industry.

Both the farmers I meet today are optimistic about the future and are confident that their farms will continue to flourish. In turn this can make a big difference to Cambodia.

For more information, including a recent National Radio feature by Dean Williams, click on the links below.

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