Through a canopy of palm leaves, sunlight falls onto 1,000 four-month-old pepper plants, each one climbing about two feet up a wooden pole in the ground.
“We will be ready to harvest pepper from here in about 18 to 20 months,” says one of Kep province’s farmers, Ngoun Preung, proudly looking out over his half-a-hectare plantation. On the small strip of land, 20 evenly spaced plants are lined up in each of the 50 rows.
Preung’s harvest will be part of a record-shattering yield forecast by the Kampot Pepper Promotion Association, which represents farmers in both Kampot and Kep provinces.
The association’s president, Ngoun Lay, says the amount of land now under cultivation in the southern coastal growing region is triple what it was a few years ago.
Prior to 2013, close to 32 hectares of land were home to pepper plants. In 2014, the cultivation area has reached more than 90 hectares, largely due to the presence of new foreign investors, Lay said.
Companies from Japan, India and a conglomerate of investors from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China are pouring money into pepper plantations, mostly in joint ventures with local partners.
Once a pepper plant goes in the ground, it takes two to three years to mature and be ready for harvest. A single plant yields between one to two kilos of pepper. With careful care, the same plant will continue to mature in cycles for years.
Pepper harvests taking place later this year are expected to yield 30 tons. With the huge increases in cultivated land, next year may yield more than 180 tons, Lay said.
A third-generation grower, Preung says planting pepper is in his blood. His family, like many others across the province and in Kampot, have been growing pepper since the French colonial days. After being forced to stop during the Khmer Rouge era, many returned in the early 1980s only to face decades of low prices.
Today, thanks to Geographical Indication (GI), a World Trade Organization status upgrade granted in 2010 that links the quality of a product to its origin, exports and prices are on the rise.
The region’s growers are being rewarded for their persistence, and newcomers are quickly jumping on board, looking to capture a slice of the market.
The “Kampot pepper” GI brand covers a very specific area: five of the eight districts in Kampot and one district in Kep, where the plant grows in identical soil and conditions.
January to May is harvesting season for farmers who have plants ready for picking. While most farmers will contribute to the upcoming harvests, many, like Preung, will also watch over new crops planted late last year until they are ready for 2015 and beyond.
No farther than 15 kilometres from Preung’s plot, the Japan Investment Company has helped buy up more than 60 hectares. Five water tanks holding 30,000 litres between them feed 12,750 plants via an irrigation system, according to Mouch Sum, the plantation manager. The company hopes to expand to cover 40 hectares in the near future.
The pepper has a spicy character that will help distinguish it in global markets, said Chan Samen, Kep’s deputy provincial governor. Samen, who comes from generations of pepper farmers, manages one of the new farms in Damnak Changaur district.
“Pepper planted in the Kampot region produces different tastes because of the soil quality and the geographic location of the area that lies between the coast,” he said. “I think that is the effect of the sea weather.”
Asked if the two jobs presented a conflict of interest, he responded that his managerial position is a part-time technical advisor role only, wholly divorced from politics.
The rise of pepper is also causing a rise in land prices and standards of living.
Before 2013, a hectare in Kep’s Damnak Changaur district would sell for $3,100, according to Samen. Today, it is closer to $6,500, he said. Samen added that land disputes, like those that have emerged elsewhere as a result of the industrialisation of agriculture, are nonexistent.
Smallholders like Preung aren’t worried about the bigger companies jumping onto the bandwagon. The plant has been good to him, and he doesn’t think that will change.
“Farmers used to ride bikes or broken down motorbikes,” he said. “Now they have new ones, some even have cars.”