In a narrow alley off the main national road in Kandal province’s Takhmao city, a small farm offers visitors the opportunity to learn hydroponics, a gardening technique that is quickly gaining popularity among health-conscious locals.
Gently touching the vegetables that poke out of the white pipes in her farm, Pa Vina, the owner of Kannika Farms, explains that business is good in the hydroponics sector.
She says the number of people coming to her facilities to learn hydroculture is on the rise as people grow more concerned about what they eat.
Now, they are teaching the technique to about 20 farmers, more people than any previous year.
“People are now more worried about their food. They don’t want chemicals in their vegetables, and they want organic products, so a lot of them come here to learn” Ms Pa Vina said.
Hydroponics, a type of hydroculture, is a method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrients dissolved in water.
The government is encouraging farmers to venture into the hydroponics market, arguing that it could help boost and diversify vegetable production, and, in turn, reduce the country’s dependency on imports.
Veng Sakhon, the Minister of Agriculture, announced this year plans for a government-sponsored hydroponics farm that will help spread the technology in the country.
“Hydroponic vegetable sell for twice as much as vegetables that are grown traditionally,” said Ms Pa Vina, taking the opportunity to add that the vegetables she sells are a little more affordable than other farms.
The higher prices make the sector a difficult market to break into, she says, explaining that farmers that want to succeed with a hydroponics business need to make sure they have a wide network of buyers before they even consider getting started.
Dy Seveayuth, a brand manager at Natural Garden, a well-known food store that specialises in organic produce, said the number of home gardens is now on the rise as people are more aware of the effects on their health of chemicals and pesticides commonly used in commercial, large-scale farming.
He explained that hydroponic gardening doesn’t necessarily equate to organic, as some hydroponics techniques use chemical-based products for plant nutrition.
“Hydroponics ensure the plants are grown in a safe and sanitary way, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily organic. Sometimes chemicals are used,” Mr Seveayuth explained.
Worried about the effects of consuming chemical-contaminated vegetables, Phnom Penh resident Kun Sotheary decided one day she would start growing her own garden in the rooftop. She taught herself how to grow and take care of her tiny garden using traditional planting methods, but now she confesses she is considering switching to hydroponics.
“I think the technique has great potential, and I want to give it a try. I am very concerned about contaminated vegetables, and with this method I can grow organic products,” she said.
According to a 2016 report from the Horticulture and Subsidiary Crops Department, market demand for vegetables reached 930,000 tonnes per year, with local producers able to supply only 420,000 tonnes. To fill the gap, Cambodia had to import 50 percent of the vegetables it consumed during that year.
Cambodia now spends about $200 million on vegetables imported from neighbouring counties, with Vietnam coming in first as the biggest exporter of vegetables to the kingdom.