Have you ever watched the short film Senior Love or a music video called Khmer helps Khmer? Twenty-three-year-old Oun Batham, also known as Sai, plays the lead role in the film, and in the music video sings and plays guitar.
But do you know what he does outside of entertainment?
Sai has a farm growing peppers, coffee, avocados, durians and lemons. Looking like a real farmer with a suntan, he started as an agriculturist while studying in his senior year of development economic at RULE.
“I have land in Ratanakiri. I was studying economics, so I started thinking of what I can do on the land and imagining what should be planted,” he said.
Sai has 35 hectares. He uses one hectare for pepper, another for durian, 1.5 for avocado, half for lemon and two for coffee.
He started with pepper. With no agricultural skills or experience, Sai began by learning some techniques from the internet and asking friends who had already planted pepper. He discussed the crop with a man he knew who was in Cambodia working for an Israeli company and was advised to first check whether the soil on his land was suitable for pepper.
“He said if I wanted to know whether I could grow healthy peppers, I should get the soil tested first,” he said. “So, I dug the land I wanted to work on and took samples to the Ministry of Agriculture to check on the level of nutrition.”
After checking how well pepper could grow, Sai installed wooden poles for pepper vines to climb up. They had to be watertight and termite-proof.
But doing it wasn’t easy. “At that time, I did not know how to plant, and I ordered many different types of wood with bark. I had to hire workers to peel off the bark so that in the dry season it would not affect the pepper vines. I had to spend a lot of money,” he said.
When planted for the first time, pepper needs shade, so Sai had to hire workers to lop off branches and put a net over the crop. Getting help from his cousin, he was able to get the pepper planted properly, but then another challenge confronted him.
The right amount of water is very important for the growth of peppers. “If they get watered too much, the roots turn rotten,” he said. “There was heavy rain and the land was full of water, which made the peppers become yellow and look like they were going to die. A foreman and I decided to mound up the ground and make a ditch so that the water could run out.”
Then, when the rain stopped and it became dry, the peppers became weaker and weaker. Sai hurried to make a watering system, and because he did it quickly only a little of the crop was lost.
Throughout the whole experience, Sai learnt more and more about how to take care of peppers when the weather changed. Now one year has passed and his pepper crop is growing healthier and could even be sold at market.
Sai is in the testing stages of growing durians, avocados and coffee plants. He is paying more attention to the peppers and coffee because one day they could be commercially grown.
According to Sai, planting durians and avocados is easier than planting peppers. “[Growing durians] is not difficult compared to peppers, but it’s not easy either,” he said. “We need to plant on red soil with nutrition, and we need water and other materials such as manure and something to combat the fruit flies.
“Avocados are also easier to plant, and the way we grow it is similar to durians. Avocados and durians are both kinds of fruit which grow on big trees, and they are mostly insect-resistant.”
Sai expects that in the next few years he will be able to get a good result from the fruit and make a profit.
And why grow coffee? Sai says because his father used to grow it. “Whenever I went to the field, I felt it was the place where my dad used to plant,” he said. When he died, the coffee died. I started thinking, if my dad wanted this land to be the land of coffee, I would grow some coffee for him, and I began studying about how to do it.”
In his childhood memories, Sai saw “the fish in the lake and the coffee on the land”. As a result, he decided to carry on his father’s dream and make the empty land become full of crops. His mother, who is Khmer-Lao, wonders about his agriculture hobby because Sai is from a wealthy family and used to suffer from asthma.
Because he almost died of the illness when young, Sai acknowledges how valuable his time is, and this is why he wants to do many things he likes; he not only wants to act, but also farm.
“Time is very important for me. No one understands that feeling if they do not stand next to hell. Therefore, I want to do what I want to, and if that work makes people happy, I really want to do it,” he said.