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Farmers weigh up US technology

A man ploughs a rice field using a hand tractor in Svay Rieng province in July
A man ploughs a rice field using a hand tractor in Svay Rieng province in July. Vireak Mai

Farmers weigh up US technology

US and Cambodian governments have presented a united front calling for the country’s agriculture industry to diversify, modernise and commercialise.

US ambassador William E Todd and the Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development Yim Chhay Ly led an industry conference at Phnom Penh’s InterContinental Hotel yesterday.

The conference – also attended by US-based agriculture giants John Deere, DuPont Pioneer and Valmont Irrigation – was aimed at bolstering trade between the two nations in the farming sector, however neither Chhay Ly nor Todd detailed how exactly the two would up their financial ties.

“The Cambodian economy is doing very well, but it could do much better,” Todd said.

Chhay Ly said the government wants to modernise and replace Cambodia’s traditional farming methods such as ox-drawn ploughs, harvesting by hand and relying on rainfall to water the crops, by introducing US-style agro-machinery, hybrid seeds and chemicals.

“The vision of the Royal Government is to have a modern agriculture business, to transform the agriculture industry from its traditional methods . . . Farmers are dependent on old and traditional habits,” Chhay Ly said.

It comes three months after Asia Development Bank loaned the Cambodian Government $70 million to “expand the country’s rice sector and promote reforms in the finance sector”.

Nearly 80 per cent of all Cambodians derive their income from agricultural businesses and produced nine million tonnes of paddy rice in 2012.

As of October, milled rice exports for 2013 hit 294,154 tonnes, up 100 per cent from the year before, but Chhay Ly said the government was aiming treble that figure again to one million tonnes by 2015.

The government’s “ambitious” goal adds further pressure to local farmers still recovering from floods, which affected more than 370,000 hectares of agricultural land and completely destroyed 130,000 hectares, according to Mam Amnot, Secretary of State of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The one-million-tonne goal has met with criticisms from deputy secretary-general of the Alliance of Rice Producers and Exporters of Cambodia David Van who labelled the figure as “merely a number”.

“They will not meet that ambitious figure,” he said.

Van estimates a maximum of 350,000 tonnes this year. Van cited a number of “technicalities”, which the Cambodian government needs to address first including the expansion of Cambodia’s largest port Sihanoukville Autonomous Port to accommodate bulk loading vessels of 30,000 tonnes capacity and subsequent reduced shipping fees.

The ARPEC representative contested the suggestion that farmers could afford the modern farming technologies highlighted at Tuesday’s conference saying the only way it is possible is if “organised farmer clusters” combine their money to purchase the machinery.

Srey Chanthy, President of Cambodia Economy Association said there was risk in transitioning Cambodian farming techniques, which had been a topic for discussion for 50 years.

“Everyone knows modernisation of farming will increase productivity. It’s one thing to say it, but another to actually do it,” Chanthy said.

The long-time economist called on the Cambodian government to open a subsidiary fund or attract public investment to launch a modernised farming technology pilot program.

“They are not even sure they will get the expected result. Who will pay for the farmers’ time and money invested?”

Lim Bun Heng, President of Loran Export and Import Company however applauded the US Ambassador and the Deputy Prime Minister’s proposals.

“I really like the idea. Farmers could produce more agricultural products in a shorter time and increase the amount of rice being exported.”

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