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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Should Cambodian rice go organic or focus on mass production?

Farmers of organic rice are paid at least 20 per cent more for their produce than farmers of ordinary rice
Farmers of organic rice are paid at least 20 per cent more for their produce than farmers of ordinary rice. Photo supplied

Should Cambodian rice go organic or focus on mass production?

While the government pushes for an increase in the exportation of rice, individual Cambodian farmers may benefit the most from growing high-quality aromatic organic rice, which has won the first prize in World Best Quality Rice Competition numerous times.

For three consectuive years, Cambodia has been champoined as the country capable of producing the world’s highest quality rice. Kun Pidou – as the aromatic smell of the rice is called in Khmer – may be a chance to promote natural, agricultural products – especially rice – in the regional and international markets on a larger scale.

However, the government’s ambition to export one million tons of rice on the whole seems to be encountering obstacles. Business people in the rice sector lack the investment capital while farmers lack proper technical support.

In the first four months of 2015, Cambodian rice exportation only reached 201,183 tons, according to a report from Cambodian Rice Exports Association.

Even so, Dr Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development of Agriculture, (CEDAC) said he believed that Cambodia seems to have more ability to compete in the organic market.

Over three million hectares of rice fields are spread out over Cambodia, of which 10 to 20 per cent were not chemically treated, according to Dr Yang.

“That land has potential to produce organic rice and other organic crops,”he said.

CEDAC has taught thousands of farmers about organic products and how to increase yields over the past few years. However, high numbers of farmers attend seminars for organic planting, less then half follow through with the method.

“To transform rice fields into a natural or organic land, we have to reduce chemical fertilizers or pesticides for three years and replace them with fertilizers and pesticides composed of plant extractions instead,” he explained.

This three-year transition process was what was affecting farmers’ daily lives in some of the biggest provinces, as they needed more yields to sell in the market in order to make income.

“In order to get the proper amount of organic product, the land needs to meet specific rice type, harvesting and plantation methods, transportation and stock conditions,” Dr Yang said.

“Generally, organic rice is worth at least 10 per cent more than ordinary rice, and organic fruits and vegetables cost even more,” he added.

Cambodian Farmer Rice (CFR) president Khim Bunlene said his new company focuses its business on supplying rice into local markets, such as Phnom Penh.

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“Natural rice products by CFR sell for a 20 per cent higher price than others,” Khim said.

“It is a good market and is not hard to sell, because most customers know the price and the benefits of natural rice quality.”

Bunlene added that among their 1,500 clients, more than half prefered and ordered naturally grown rice. “We have a high demand for natural rice products from our customers. We almost sell out completely from our stores, which is why we haven’t thought about conquering the export market yet.”

“The natural rice products that we buy from producers cost 20 per cent more than normal rice,” Bunlene added.

Both Dr Yang, an expert of organic agriculture, and Khim, an organic seller, are proud of the organic rice seed produced by Khmer farmers. They seem to agree that many provinces, in both North and North-East Cambodia have a large amount of paddy rice fields able to produce natural rice products.

To make Dr Yang’s dream a reality, CEDAC has been conducting analyses on the organic agricultural community by having expert observers take notes on every process from planting to harvesting to transporting the product into stores.

“Both the national and international monitoring team of CEDAC experts give certifications to famers who are producing rice according to the organic method,” Dr Yang said. “Members in the organic community increased to 500 families in 2014. This figure will double in 2015.”

One of CEDAC’s initiatives is to set up a new guide line called “Sethey Srok Sre – Millionaire Farmers” in 2022, which means that farmers will become some of the richest families with high living standards through sustainable farming and good health that accompanies organic farming principles. To ensure the rather ambitious – if not utopian – project moves forward and reaches its target, CEDAC will launch a book which features the organic agricultural method – which shall eventually lead to “Millionaire Farmers”

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