Identifying opportunities for the diversification of livelihoods increases the capabilities of farming communities to raise their living standards. Mom Sophon describes a farming community in Prey Veng province that has done that by planting an aromatic herb.
Farmers in Choeung Teuk commune near Prey Veng city have embraced crop diversification wholeheartedly – moving from planting rice to growing rice paddy herb.
They can’t be blamed for switching crops so easily. Rice prices have been fluctuating like a yo-yo on global markets and many rice farmers have come close to bankruptcy. Last year, the government came to the rescue of farmers, millers and exporters, in the throes of a serious financial crisis, with loans of between $20 million and $30 million.
“My rice paddy herb crop grows fast and the harvest has a good market,” said Hun Horn, a farmer, in Choeung Teuk Khor village in Choeung Teuk commune.
“Rice paddy herb can be harvested within a short period of time, unlike rice. Farmers can harvest it almost every month and have a steady income,” added Mr Horn.
He pointed to the nearby rice field which had already been ploughed to plant rice paddy herb, and said, “This new crop can be planted in both the dry and wet season.”
“In an area of close to 2,000 square metres, if just planted with rice, we can only harvest 300 kilograms and sell the total rice crop for about 200,000 to 300,000 riel ($50 to $75).
“However if we plant rice paddy herb in this area, we can harvest the crop within a month and it would yield close to 1 million riel ($250). In a year, we can harvest more than 10 times on a single plot of land,” added Mr Horn.
Rice paddy herb is a tropical flowering plant in the plantain family, Plantaginaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia, where it flourishes in hot temperatures and grows most often in watery environments, particularly in flooded rice fields.
Rice paddy herb has a flavor and aroma reminiscent of both lemon and cumin. It is used most often in Vietnamese cuisine, where it is called “ngò om”. The plant is also used in different parts of the world for the treatment of several ailments.
Rural Cambodians often harvest them and put them on the roof of their houses to dry for later use.
Mr Horn has no regrets switching over from planting rice to rice paddy herb.
“I have been growing rice paddy herb for the past four years and my income has been steady.
“With that income, I have managed to send my children to university and also build a new house,” he said proudly.
For 57-year-old Khun Oeun, the income she gets from harvesting rice paddy herb in farms helps her make ends meet.
“I hire myself out as a harvester to the farms and earn about 20,000 riel ($5) a day in the rice paddy herb fields. This is enough to support my family,” said Mrs Oeun.
“My son is sick and this money also helps pay for his medicine,” she added.
Mrs Oeun said she was a widow and needed to stay with her family.
“If I didn’t get enough money harvesting rice paddy herb, I would have migrated to Phnom Penh or other provinces to find work to feed my family. Fortunately, that has not been the case.”
According to records at Prey Veng’s provincial department of agriculture, between 40 and 50 families in Choeung Teuk commune have switched from growing rice to rice paddy herb.
Ouk Samnang, the provincial agriculture department chief, said agricultural officers have always had dialogues with farmers on how alternative crops could be developed to supplement their income, instead of just depending on rice cultivation as their main livelihood.
“It is commendable that farmers in Choeung Teuk commune have recognised the potential of rice paddy herb and are brave enough to diversify from growing rice to planting rice paddy herb,” said Mr Samnang.
“This is a success story that can be shared with other farming communities,” he added.
Mr Samnang also pointed out that there was a sense of community spirit in Choeung Teuk commune.
“The farmers help each other harvest their rice paddy herb crop to supply markets in Phnom Penh and other provinces.
“In a day, they can harvest at least one to two tonnes,” he said.
Mr Samnang said his department was also trying to encourage farmers in the province to grow vegetables on a large-scale.
“Growing rice paddy herb is good as an alternative to rice. But we also want them to try to grow other crops, like vegetables that fetch good market prices.”
Research conducted by the Centre for Policy Studies shows that between 200 to 400 tonnes of vegetables are imported daily from neighboring countries. The research found that between $150 million and $250 million is spent annually on vegetable imports from Vietnam, Thailand and China.
Farmer Horn said he was willing to plant other crops besides just growing rice paddy herb.
“For the time being, however, I am happy. My rice paddy herb is generating a steady income and also doesn’t need too many inputs – like expensive fertiliser and pesticides,” he said.
“But I am open to planting other crops, like vegetables, for instance. As long as they have a good market price, I am willing to give it a try.”