Four of Ratanakkiri cashew farmer Kek Srey's six children pose for a photo at her farm just outside provincial capital Banlung. Kek Srey, like many other small-scale farmers in the province, has started growing cashew nuts in the last five years.
Ratanakkiri puts small-scale farms at centre of economic plan
Ratanakkiri – Nestled along the side of the new road being carved through the hills between Ratanakkiri’s capital Banlung and the Vietnamese border are hundreds of small farms.
The lopsided dusty wooden dwellings may not look like much, but they are the new engine driving the remote jungle province’s agricultural growth.
Typical of local farmers, 32-year-old Kek Srey lives with her six children in a ramshackle house surrounded by cashew trees, the leaves of which are rusted red with dust from the as-yet unsealed dirt road.
About five years ago, Kek Srey began growing cashews when she realized they were easy to cultivate and harvest, grew well in Ratanakkiri’s soil, and fetched a decent price – this year, 3,000-3500 riel per kilo unshelled – on the local market.
“Rich families grow rubber, poor families grow cashews,” she told the Post on February 15. “Planting cashew is cheap and the market price for cashews is good now. The price is increasing.”
The cashew harvest begins in February and lasts through May, and even early in the season meter-high piles of cashew nuts still in their gray husks appear at the side of roads and in the center of the Banlung market.
“There is a buyer in the market during harvest season so we take our stock into town or they come out here and collect it,” Kek Srey said.
Over the past five years or so, encouraged by the provincial department of agriculture, many of Kek Srey’s neighbors have also started growing cashew.
The director of the province’s Agriculture Department, Soy Sona, said the department first launched a campaign to encourage families to grow cashew nuts in 1999.
“Since 2005 we have exported cashew nuts and cassava and soy beans and we also grow a lot of rubber,” he said. “In 2007 we exported 6850 tons of cashews and 3120 tons of soybeans.”
Most of the exports, which usually go just across the border to Vietnam, are coming from the private family farms.
“We encourage the individual farms to grow cash crops and we encourage the larger businesses to buy their products. It is much better that the companies do this than if they do everything and just employ locals as wage labor,” Sona said.
Rubber production is also dominated by private families. Sona said there were 3,794 hectares of rubber being cultivated by families compared to just 2,300 by private companies.
“In Ratanakkiri we have a lot of potential for agricultural development and we will encourage families to grow more cash crops like rubber, cashew and cassava,” Soy said.
“The problem now is that the market is still small. We have the product but we have to identify and break into markets.”
The new road to Vietnam will help. When it is finished – the current estimate is late 2009 – the countries have agreed to open a farmers market on each side of the border to facilitate cross-border trade, Sona said.
Sona said agriculture could help improve the living conditions of Ratanakkiri’s population of 133,000, which includes about 20 percent ethnic minorities.
With better security and reasonably priced farm land, there is room as well for new arrivals, said Sona.
One such newcomer is Lis Ror, 32, who moved to Ratanakkiri from Kompong Cham province a few weeks ago with his wife and child because he couldn’t afford the farm land in his native province. He landed a job working for a small rubber and cashew grower. Eventually he hopes to be able to buy land himself.
“I was hoping to buy a small plot of land here to live on but the land is really expensive and my savings are not enough,” he said. “We will stay here and make a new life.”