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Farmers weeding out drudgery with mechanised equipment

Farmers put harvested rice into a mobile threshing machine in Battambang province in 2015.
Farmers put harvested rice into a mobile threshing machine in Battambang province in 2015. Heng Chivoan

Farmers weeding out drudgery with mechanised equipment

Cambodia is shaking off the legacy of the Khmer Rouge’s agrarian dystopia and deploying increasingly sophisticated agricultural machinery to reduce human and animal toil, and increase productivity, according to the latest government data.

A Ministry of Agriculture report released this month shows the use of mechanised agricultural equipment has doubled in the past five years and over 90 percent of farming land preparation is now done by machinery instead of draft animals.

“The use of agricultural machinery is increasing and most farming has transformed from manual labour or cattle-driven equipment to machinery,” said ministry spokesman Lor Reaksmey.

“Mechanisation plays an important role in furthering the productivity of farming.”

According to the ministry report, the number of tractors operating in the Kingdom has risen nearly threefold in the past five years to 18,317. The figures also a marked increase in the usage of harvesters, with the number deployed rising over 320 percent in five years to 6,605. Milling machinery use increased 13 percent to 54,965 during the period, while threshing machines – which remove seeds from cereal grains – dipped 10 percent to 13,765.

Mechanisation is increasingly trickling down to small-scale farming operations. Power tillers, the two-wheeled “walking tractors” favoured by smallholder farmers, are now ubiquitous, with a total of 343,764 nationwide – a four-fold increase since 2011.

Nhoem Sitha, regional sales manager for Kubota Cambodia, a distributor for the Japanese brand of agricultural machinery, said sales grew quickly in recent years as farmers embraced the extra productivity of mechanisation but have begun to level off.

“If we compare to the past five years, we can see the use of machinery has doubled,” he said.

“Farmers are changing from manual labour to mechanised farming because the price of agricultural products is highly volatile so they need to speed up their harvesting by using tractors [and other mechanised equipment].”

Yet even with more farmers using agricultural machinery, sales growth has slowed this year as small farmers making razor-thin profits look for ways to cut expenditures, such as day-use equipment rentals.

“Despite the growing trend of mechanisation in the agricultural sector sales have been flat this year as most farmers prefer to rent equipment rather than buy it,” he said.

Uong Nimol, key account manager for RMA Cambodia, the authorised distributor of John Deere in the Kingdom, said the brand has also seen a slowdown in sales growth. He attributed the trend to both thinner profits in farming and a wider array of machinery brands to choose from.

“Since there a lot of [different brands] now sharing the market our sales have stabilised,” he said

Nimol added that while farmers were adopting mechanisation the low prices of agricultural commodities were discouraging them from investing their small returns on purchases of new equipment. Instead, they were pooling their resources through farmer cooperatives to purchase a single tractor for time-share use.

Cambodia has an estimated 800 agricultural cooperatives, which represent tens of thousands of smallholder farmers.

Dem Sreylim, deputy director of Agricultural Development Chamroeurn Phal Raing Kesei, an agricultural cooperative in Battambang’s Raing Kesei commune, said most of the 228 member farmers own at least one power tiller, a stark change from just a decade ago when nearly all used cattle to plow and harrow the soil. The mechanisation has cut the time it takes to plow a hectare of field from 10 days down to a single morning.

“Almost every household has a two-wheeled tractor for their daily activities in the field,” she said.

“This saves them time and labour, especially as our youth have emigrated in search of work.”

For larger jobs, member farmers can hire the cooperative’s single tractor for use.

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