Considering the Kingdom’s geography, it’s no doubt how farming became the driving force of the economy. Many households in provinces depend on the agricultural sector for living. But while some farmers have sought the aid of commercial products to uplift their yields, Rama Ariadi visits a farm in Banteay Meanchey that proves sticking to organic and traditional farming is still the best way to produce high-quality crops.
While the restoration and further development of Angkor Archaeological Park is constantly being discussed both locally and internationally, the significant needs of Banteay Meanchey province seem to be relegated to the back seat. There has been so little actions to address the urgent need to uplift the province’s agricultural sector, on which many locals rely on to scrape on living, if not mere sustenance to survive for the day.
Little wonder then that many locals often opt to venture to Poipet – merely 40-kilometer away from the outskirts of Sisophon – to cross into neighbouring Thailand in search of a better life.
Oeuy Sairoeu was among those who decided to set out to Thailand as a migrant worker. “I left the country when I was 13 to work in Thailand,” she recounted. “There were little opportunities for locals here – majority of whom are subsistence farmers because of the soil characteristic and the climate of the area, which could be quite extreme.”
For a decade, she lived in Thailand as a hospitality worker where she met her husband, Olivier Collineau. Soon after the couple relocated to Cambodia, and driven by their frustration of being confined in the urban areas – they decided to settle in Ms Saireou’s village in Svay Chek, where her family owns plots of arable land that needs to be reworked.
Almost immediately, the couple set out to work to transform what was once a land whose output lies solely on the mercy of the seasons, into a self-sustaining organic farming co-op, OrganiKH, using solely traditional methods to increase the productivity of the land without the use of artificial fertilisers and toxic pesticides.
It wasn’t an easy task to undertake, especially considering the nature of Cambodia’s geography. With the Dangrek and Annamite Ranges in its’ northern flank, and the Cardamom Mountains down south, what’s left of the rainclouds that formed when the cold, dry air from the north meets the moisture-laden air current from the Gulf is often not enough to irrigate the fields and prepare it for planting.
“Yet when then rain does fall, it often causes flash floods that strip out the essential nutrients from the soil surface,” explained Mr Olivier. “The rather sandy soil in this area also means that it has low, water retention capabilities.”
Taking all these factors into consideration, the couple has had to re-strategise as the only help that they had on hand were members of Sairoeu’s extended family. “This is why we began with one hectare,” explained Mr Olivier. “It was a small operation – and it still is – but within three years we managed to convert the plot into an arable land, with more than 100 different species of organically-grown vegetables, herbs and fruits.”
With the help of volunteers, Mr Olivier and Ms Sairoeu’s dream and hard work is slowly coming to fruition. From its humble beginnings with one shack to protect their family from the elements, the farm has grown into a self-sustaining farm complete with bungalows for volunteers and visitors, a football field for local children to exercise, and most importantly, and an irrigation pond to ensure that their crops can be watered throughout the year. What was once just another hut in the middle of nowhere, now stands out from the flat plains that surrounds it with its’ Mad Max-meets-Mali vibe – complete with solar panels for electricity, its own grey water processing system, and a highly-efficient composting facility – which by no means, is high tech at all.
“In addition to rotational planting to prevent nitrogen depletion in the soil, we rely heavily on compost to fertilise our farm,” explained Mr Olivier. “And here in Svay Chek, we have an unlikely natural ally – the black soldier fly.”
Black soldier flies are prized among those with green thumbs because of their unique characteristic as they are only attracted to carrions and decomposing organic materials, such as food waste. “These flies are considered hygienic because adult black soldier flies are not attracted to fresh food, as their mouth disappears as their larvae assume their adult form,” he continued. “Despite everything, we are lucky because we didn’t even have to buy these larvae. These flies actually live here!”
Aside from food wastes, the couple also utilise other organic materials in their farm. “Rice husks, for instance, can be pressed to create bricks too,” explained Mr Olivier. “Not only do these husks help retain moisture during the peak of the dry season, snakes are not particularly fond of these husks, so it serves a two-fold purpose.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Inorganic materials such as glass bottles are incorporated into the hand-pressed mud and straw bricks that are used to build cottages and bungalows to accommodate their family and volunteers – an easy move that requires no special skills but with a potentially large impact, especially considering that to date, there are no glass-recycling facilities in Cambodia.
“Once you maximise the productivity of your plot, you will realise how little you actually need to live,” said Ms Sairoeu. “And since we apply a hands-on approach, it helps to ensure that our produces are of the highest quality.”
Ms Sairoeu was right.
Despite OrganiKH’s presently small output, their produces have attracted the attention of Siem Reap’s culinary bigwigs, including the famed Siem Reap-based Chef Joannes Riviere of Cuisine Wat Damnak, who wanted to buy rice from their farm. Considering Chef Riviere’s reputation of using only the best local ingredients in the area, it reflects the level of quality from this off-the-grid commune. “But beyond that, it shows what the farmers of Sisophon can do to improve the quality and yield of their products, and thus their livelihoods without having to cross the border like I had to,” said Ms Sairoeu.
The next step, continued Mr Olivier, is to establish a seed bank that could be distributed to neighbouring farmers. “Once we have a stock of seeds that has the right yield and quality, we will start distributing them for free,” he said. “Because ultimately it is not just about business. We want to empower local communities, and restore their sense of pride as farmers.”