On a farm in Kampong Speu province, Erm Rim is talking to a small crowd of consumers and journalists, explaining the process of growing vegetables using only natural resources.
It has been hard, she says – more difficult than using chemical fertilisers.
But as the representative of Kaheng village’s organic vegetable producers group, in Samrong Tong district, she has been growing, together with eight other farmers, organic vegetables ranging from cabbages, tomatoes and cucumbers to pepper, chilis and lemongrass.
Rim talks on the sidelines of a consumer field trip organised by the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), an organisation working to build the capacity and knowledge of rural farmers in ecologically sound agriculture. Four times a year, CEDAC visits Kaheng village training farmers like Rim to grow organically.
Organic farming isn’t just a case of not using chemicals, but rather a holistic approach for a sustainable process. “You have this circular thinking – the whole agricultural system should be a closed circle,” says Christian Fink, technical advisor for CEDAC.
“Try to use as few external inputs as possible. There is more to it than just leaving out the chemicals.”
Besides CEDAC, the Cambodian Organic Agriculture Association (COrAA), a nationwide private sector organisation, works for the promotion of organic agriculture in Cambodia.
Organic vegetable farmers in Cambodia still face challenges in a business less developed than organic rice growing. But with rising awareness of the health benefits, organic vegetables are catching on, with supply outstripping demand.
Together with his seven sisters and two brothers, 30-year old Chhim Tin grows organic vegetables, working between 6am and 9am, and from 3pm until 5pm in the evening.
“With chemicals [I] get more profit because the vegetables grow faster than those grown organically,” he says.
But he says growing organically leaves better quality soil and, although they make less money, the vegetables are of better quality.
In neighbouring Oveng village, another group of seven farmers, mostly women, shares a field for growing organic vegetables. In the beginning they could grow very little and didn’t have a market, but with the help of CEDAC they now sell their products year-round and their income has increased.
According to Winfried Scheewe, an adviser to COrAA, for most smallholders in organic vegetable production, it is a great way to increase livelihood.
“Since the main input is their labour, most of their sales contribute to their income. Every kilogram of vegetables sold can add 50 to 75 cents to their income,” he says.
Fink says: “Farmers have fewer inputs [such as chemicals], but they also need better management skills, so this has to be valued somehow. You also have more work – it is easier to just apply chemical pesticides and fertiliser than to read manuals.
At first people think yields will decline if they farm organically and they will produce less. “But it is only like this in the beginning. They realise, with improving skill, yields soon increase.”
Organic vegetables are produced only for the domestic market, but it is already proving difficult to meet demand.
So far COrAA has certified one group of 72 organic vegetable growers in Svay Rieng province and two larger operations in Kampong Speu, based on chemical-free standards.
According to Ayumi Matsuura, project manager and country representative of the International Volunteers of Yamagata (IVY), in 2012 the group from Svay Rieng sold 31 tonnes of chemical-free vegetables in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Trabek market alone, resulting in sales of $39,000.
For 2013, COrAA expects members with certified chemical-free production will produce over 90 tonnes of fresh vegetables. Although supply has increased significantly, this will still be far below potential demand, Scheewe says.
Consumer demand exists but the producers face challenges. Both COrAA and CEDAC have organic standards based on those of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.
“There is a discussion on whether it is possible to agree on a common standard because it would be much more helpful for Cambodian consumers,” Fink says.
There is no government program overseeing the standard either.
“We are also lobbying on this. One of the main tasks of COrAA is to lobby the government to develop a set of standards and develop an organic law,” he says.
According to Scheewe, it is also difficult for smallholder groups to record their farm activities, harvests, sales and purchases. But these records are required for certification.
“Also the management of soil fertility is a problem for some small producers, as they cannot produce enough compost,” he says.
Such challenges do not turn farmers like Chhim Tin away from organic agriculture because they know its worth. Tin now only eats his own vegetables.
“I eat the vegetables I grow so I don’t have to have to worry about diseases caused by chemical vegetables,” he says.
To contact the reporter on this story: Anne Renzenbrink at [email protected]