A new agricultural initiative targeting fish farms is helping farmers diversify their crops and farm more sustainable breeds of fish in order to broaden their income base
Photo by: CORNELIUS RAHN
Fish farmer Hong Hen with her daughter in front of her new catfish pond.
SCORES of hungry young catfish churn up the surface of Hong Hen's small pond as they fight for the tastiest bits of fish feed that their owner rains down on them through a sieve.
The fishes' enthusiasm is only trumped by the look on the farmer's face, which glows with anticipation of the fat catch that she is hoping to make in just three months' time.
"I like feeding the fish," she said. "And it gives me some time off from working in the fields."
Hong Hen, from Trapang Srange village in Kampong Chhnang, clearly has high hopes for her catfish. Having invested just US$26 in the construction of the pond and two kilos of baby fish, she is confident that within three months she will have around 100 kilograms of adult fish. At current market prices, this is about $150 worth of fish - a considerable amount of money for her.
Hong Hen is among a growing number of rural Cambodians who are participating in a government initiative to diversify into growing organic crops and enable farmers to augment their income. Raising sturdy and quick-growing catfish is a central component of this program, explained Ith Sarin, chief of the Kop Srau Agricultural Center in Phnom Penh.
[Raising catfish] is great because it is tangible and very easy to put into
Fish is the main source of protein for Cambodians, who on average eat 52 kilograms of fish each year, he said.
But with the country's rapid population growth and fish stocks of the Tonle Sap and the Gulf of Thailand being fished close to capacity, many get far less than that, he added.
"Fish is an essential food for Cambodians," he said.
Ith Sarin brought back lessons from fish farms in Vietnam and Thailand, and set about teaching farmers how to construct micro fish ponds that only measure about 3.5 by 2.5 metres and allow for easy maintenance and harvesting.
Digging a hole half a meter deep, laying it out with a plastic sheet and stabilising the whole construct with bamboo poles and string is all it takes to make one pond, Ith Sarin said. The fish are fed rice bran, white ants and morning glory, which most local farmers can procure free of charge.
Before, Ith Sarin said, fish were only being farmed in big ponds that needed sophisticated drainage systems and cost upwards of US$75,000 to set up - a price well out of reach for Cambodia's rural poor.
While another popular farmed fish, Tilapia, takes six months to grow, Ith Sarin said the Vietnamese catfish reaches its full weight in half the time and is more resistant to disease.
In July, he began instructing 25 farmers in Kandal province on how to raise catfish. He used photos as illustrations, let his students construct a fish pond by themselves, and showed them how to feed the fish and replace the water. He also supplied the farmers with free materials and baby fish to get them started.
Sok Youn from Cham Bok Meas village in Kandal province has already harvested one batch of catfish and calls his pond a great success. The fish grew quickly and without hitches.
"[Raising catfish] is great because it is tangible and very easy to put into practice," he said.
He estimates that micro fish ponds are now being used by over 100 farmers across Kandal, Takeo and Kampong Chhnang provinces.
Spreading the necessary know-how among farmers without the need for workshops is exactly what needs to happen because funding is in short supply, said a man working for the development NGO World Vision who declined to be identified.
"The main goal of development is sustainability," he said. "If [the knowledge] goes out when the NGO does, it's no good."
Ith Sarin said he plans to teach fish breeding in the future to decrease farmers' dependence on suppliers in Vietnam and achieve true sustainability.
But despite keen interest from the minister of agriculture, he says a lack of funds is the main obstacle in the way of expanding the program.
"If we had more money," Ith Sarin said, "we would do more workshops throughout the country and provide more free material to get farmers started".
Micro farms countering malnutrition
In a sign that the government’s new fish-farming initiatives are spilling into the NGO sector, World Vision is now working with the government to provide knowledge and an initial load of free fish to farmers in Kampong Chhnang’s Samaki Meanchey district to help them diversify their crops and enable them to augment their incomes. According to one of their employees, who declined to be named, crop diversification and micro-level fish farming are a necessary step in combating malnutrition in parts of Cambodia, where agriculture suffers from sandy soil and a lack of irrigation. “Before, farmers were only growing rice,” he said. “After harvesting that, they could not do anything with their fields.” With additional crops, they may be able to almost double their income, he said. Breeding alternative fish such as catfish requires an amount of know-how that is not yet widespread among Cambodian farmers, but the government program hopes its recent initiative, which includes educational workshops, will fill these gaps.