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Samlot farmers struggling with glut of import durian

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Farmer Heng Hoeun unloads durians from his plantation in Battambang province’s Samlot district in June. SUPPLIED

Samlot farmers struggling with glut of import durian

Battambang was the scene of heavy fighting in the past and was once riddled with landmines and explosive remnants of war. Now, the Samlot district is a tourist destination. People flock to the district to enjoy the abundant crops of rambutan, cassava, avocado, mangosteen, pepper and most importantly, ‘the king of fruits’, durian.

Unfortunately, the districts farmers are facing serious challenges this year, as durian imported from Thailand and Vietnam drive prices down.

In 2019, the provincial Department of Agriculture established the Samlot Durian Cluster to allow for easier production management and to guarantee the safety and source of the fruit to consumers.

Nay Chorn, president of the cluster, told The Post that when he started farming durian in 2000, just three other families were growing them.

”We were the first to plant durian. I began in May 2000, with just 20 to 30 trees. We grew varieties such as Ov Khas, Phuong Many and Monthong, which are popular among Cambodian consumers.” He said.

Chorn said there was wide-spread support for Samlot durians, but it had only begun to translate into improved living standards for farmers in recent years. In the past, the economy of the nation meant there were not many people who were able to purchase the luxury fruit. With the rise of the Khmer middle class, durian became popular once more and demand increased.

Chhim Vachira, director of the Battambang agriculture department, once said that durian grown in Samlot is famous because of its unique taste. A few days ago, Chinese and Thai companies visited plantations in Samlot to explore the opportunity of exporting durians to China. The plan calls for peeled durian to be refrigerated and shipped via Thailand.

Bit Hoeun, one of the earliest members of the Samlout Cluster, said that tourists and farmers were safe, thanks to the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, who cleared the area in 2000.

Agriculture department deputy-director In Sovan Mony said the Samlot farmers had received robust support over the last seven or eight years.

“Each year, about 540ha are harvested, with a net yield of around 6,000 tonnes of fruit,” he said.

Chorn pointed out that there are no large companies producing durian in the district, and that the cluster was entirely made up of small family farms. In the past, he and the 17 other durian farmers in Samlot only sold their crops on the domestic market.

Sovan Mony added that there had been buyers from Thailand in the past, but that was not significant enough to establish plan for exports.

The farmers all agreed that the market had been growing steadily until this year.

“This year, the price dropped. In recent years, we earned between 15,000 and 16,000 riel per kilogramme from the traders. We could also sell directly to the public for up to 25,000. This year, the traders were offering just 14,000 – and at one point it dropped to 11,000 riel per kilo,” said Bit Hoeun.

Heng Hoeun, the cluster’s marketing manager, added, “In the past, we never had any problem selling our fruit, but this year there seems to be a lot of Thai and Vietnamese durian masquerading as Khmer product.”

He described the reasons for the price drops in detail. First, he said, was the imported fruit. Second, he said there were fraudulent claims that the imports were Cambodian. Third, chemicals were being used to improve the longevity of the imported fruit.

He added that although Samlot durian is delicious and unique from the imported product, the imports were arriving in the Kingdom long before the local fruit was ready to harvest. The mix of local and imported durian also brought prices down. As the Samlot products were only ready in mid-June, the momentum of the durian market was also slowing, just as they arrived.

“The increase in fraud is largely due to the difficulties of exporting to China at the current time. Thai and Vietnamese traders have had to look for a new market. They know that Cambodian durians have segmented stalks and long thorns, and they present theirs so they look like ours,” he said.

Another reason for the poorer quality of the imported fruit is that they employ chemical dyes that add colour and preserve the skin. This means they retain weight, he explained.

“For example, 100kg of imported durian might lose 5 or 10kg before reaching the market. Cambodian durians lose 20 to 30kg, and sometime even more. We do not employ chemicals to preserve, or ripen, our fruit. In an attempt to compete it was tried in the past, but the result was a poorer product that would not meet export standards,” he said.

“The ministry urged farmers to follow the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) from the Ministry of Agriculture to prevent fraud,” he said.

Sovan Mony said the district governor had submitted a letter to the Department of Agriculture in 2021 alerting them to fraud in the durian market. He had asked for additional manpower to provide GAP certificates to local farmers.

This meant that Samlot durians were marked with a sticker bearing a QR code which could be used to prove the origin of each fruit.

Chorn added that he was interested in what the agricultural department was teaching, while other farmers were less enthusiastic as they could not see the immediate benefits.

“I always participate because I understand that we farmers may face new challenges in the future. We want to have official recognition, and we want our standard of quality to remain high. One day, I expect that we will be able to export to foreign markets,” he added.

Sovan Mony, advised all farmers to consult with the department before making any changes to their crops. A coordinated approach would avoid market congestion, he said.

He also asked traders to think about the value of selling products with high quality and a proven source, rather than merely focusing on profit, as it could have a positive impact on public health. He planned to educate more farmers about the potential harm of using too many chemicals to grow crops.

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