On the northern edge of the Cardamom Mountains, Pailin Province is an area well known for being rich in precious minerals, as well as being one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge. Surrounded by Battambang province and flanked by Thailand, with cool fresh air and verdant mountains, some believe Pailin could become Cambodia’s primary area for growing coffee beans.
Over the last four to five years, Ms. Menh was likely the first contemporary farmer who has tried to grow coffee in this region on a large scale. On her land of five hectares, she planted seeds purchased from Thailand and Vietnam. In 2014, after her trees grew, ripening the small red cherries that contain the coffee bean, she collected her first yield.
“That first year my harvest did not provide that much. But by the next year, we collected about five tonnes of coffee beans,” she said, adding that at $2 a kilogram, her beans were easy to sell to buyers in Phnom Penh. However, because coffee is generally more expensive to grow and maintain, needing a steady supply of water and additional care, she didn’t bring in the profits that she hoped for.
Although Menh believes Pailin Province could provide sustainable coffee production for Cambodia’s market, without proper irrigation systems, the dry season caused many of her coffee trees to wither and not bear fruit.
“We could get better profits if we had enough water,” she said, adding that if the irrigation situation was sorted out, coffee trees could thrive year round.
Chel Chan, deputy director for agriculture in Pailin Province said that the territory could hold the potential for large-scale production, as well as providing incomes for individual families who plant coffee trees on their land, but that presently industrial sized farming was confined to the Ou Ta Vao district.
He added that although agricultural experts have yet to research and analyse the terrain to gauge suitability for coffee growth, village elders from the Toul Lovea district in western Pailin remarked that since the French first introduced coffee to the region back in the colonial era, it had been a traditional source of livelihood.
While the northeastern highlands of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, with its rich red soil, has historically been suitable for Arabica coffee growth that requires higher altitudes and a more hospitable climate, coffee farming has continued to diminish in the face of the predominant growth of cash crops like rubber, cassava and cashews.
Sam Roeun, Director of the Office of Agronomy for the Department of Agriculture in Ratanakiri Province, said that while he recorded a 70 hectare coffee plantation in 2014, by 2015 it had been reduced to 50 hectares as the older trees had been cut away. He added that coffee production has continued to decline in the region over the last decade.
Roeun added that even though coffee trees require close attention, once they take root they can be cultivated for up to 30 years, thus being a sustainable and profitable investment.
Rithy Sok, marketing manager for Three Corner Coffee Roaster, said that his company was trying to find solutions that would encourage coffee growth across the country.
“In late 2014, our company planned to buy 20 tonnes of coffee from Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri Provinces, but we only ended up buying 5 to 6 tonnes due to low cultivation,” he said, adding that currently one kilogram is valued at $2.20.
Three Corner Coffee Roaster is aiming to supply both the domestic and international market with Cambodian beans. Rithy said that demand is high, and that US, European and Japanese consumers have been willing to pay 20 per cent more for Cambodian coffee compared to its regional neighbors due to the novelty and quality of the coffee beans.
But unfortunately, as coffee production has continued to decrease as other crops continue to take up wide swaths of land, there is only enough of a supply to try to meet the local demand, he said.