Farmers in five districts in Svay Rieng province are boosting their livelihoods through an initiative being managed by Agro-Products Cooperative.
Svay Rieng province – As drops of rain trickle here at a chilli farm, Ben Sona says he has been able to settle his debts and improve his family’s livelihood thanks to a programme initiated by the Agro-Products Cooperative.
“Before we only had access to the local markets as we grew our crops according to their demand,” Mr Son says. “We found it difficult to sell our products.”
“Our livelihoods are better now – we can afford a motorbike without financing a loan from a bank,” Mr Sona adds.
Before joining the cooperative, Mr Sona was only able to sell his products to local markets, but now through the help of the programme, he is able to sell his products to hotels, restaurants, and casinos.
“We sell what remains to the local markets,” he says.
The 57-year-old father has improved his family’s economic well-being thanks to the cooperative and has settled his debts.
The SAC, an investment initiative by the Japanese government, enables farmers in the province to enhance the quality of their yield and sell their crops to high-end buyers, including casinos and upscale restaurants in Bavet city and Phnom Penh.
The International Volunteer of Yagamata (IVY), a Japanese NGO, works with farmers to help them access the cooperative and what started as 100-members group in 2008 has now ballooned to 348 members.
Through the programme, farmers are able to learn organic farming techniques and utilise refrigerated trucks for transport in Kampong Ro, Svay Chrum and Svay Teap districts, as well as Bavet and Svay Rieng cities.
Mr Son says that supervisors regularly inspect farming activities in the community and will punish those who breach the non-chemical rules.
“In order to ensure that there’s no use of any chemical substances, supervisors inspect our produce on a regular basis,” he says. “If someone is found to be cheating the system, their membership will be terminated.”
The selling price is set by the cooperative, and even though it’s often lower than regular market prices, farmers find it easier to offload their produce, says Mr Sona.
A neighbour of Mr Sona’s, also a farmer, agrees and notes that being part of the cooperative speeds up the selling process.
“If we sell our produce in traditional markets, it takes more time and some buyers want to buy more for less,” she says. “But when we sell to the cooperative, we only need to bring them the produce, weigh it and calculate the price.”
She adds that many farmers in the cooperative initially struggled with the concept of organic farming, but became more accustomed to it thanks to the efforts of IVY.
“What started as a family-run operation for me became a professional business,” she says. “My land is now 20 acres and we need more.”
“Prior to IVY coming to our village, we were losing money when we grew our produce organically because we didn’t have the skills,” she adds. “After training, we began to make a profit and increase our harvests. Now we harvest about one tonne of cucumbers per month.”
For 63-year-old Puth Saroeun, training from the programme has proven to be invaluable as she was able to set up a bio-gas kiln built by fellow members.
“The programme helps farmers by providing bio-gas kilns,” Ms Saroeun says. “And training was provided so that we know how to use it.”
“Prior to becoming a member of the cooperative, it was hard for me to make money from our produce,” she adds. “Now, I can buy a motorbike on my own, whereas before we needed to take out a loan; now I can even pay off my debts.”
Produce from Vietnam is seen as a threat here because it is sold at a lower price than the organic vegetables being grown for the cooperative.
Farmers say that the Vietnamese vegetables are laced with chemicals and unhealthy, but continue to penetrate the market, creating tension between famers.
For Ms Saroeun, the produce grown in her village far outweighs the quality of Vietnamese vegetables.
“Our vegetables are better than vegetables coming from Vietnam,” she says. “Even Vietnamese people don’t dare to eat their own products; that’s why it’s being sent to our country.”
Hong Srey Sros, director of the cooperative, says that sales have steadily increased as the programme progresses and more farmers join.
“In 2017, we managed to pool 10 tonnes of produce per month from the community, and we are expecting an increase to about 11 tonnes per month this year,” Ms Srey Sros says.
Ms Srey Sros adds that experts monitor the quality of vegetables grown in the community in tandem with the farmer growing them.
“We have a team to monitor the farmers’ growing process,” Ms Srey Sros says. “We contract Malaysian technicians to evaluate the growth of our vegetables and we test the produce for any chemicals. Through us, farmers are able to make use of natural fertilisers and pesticides.”
“Our products are about $0.10 to $0.25 more expensive than the Vietnamese vegetables, but they’re healthier,” she adds.