Lemongrass, a traditional crop in Cambodia, has served as a versatile cooking spice and a source of medicinal benefits. Today, farmers have expanded its use by processing it into essential oil for massage, which is now recognised as a reliable treatment for pain and sprains in hands and feet.

In Khun Ream commune’s Tuol Krous village of Siem Reap province’s Banteay Srei district, lemongrass plantations adorn the landscape with their mesmerising light-blue leaves. As the wind passes through, these leaves sway like waves across a vast expanse, creating breathtaking views. These plantations have been cultivated to meet the demands of the present market.

Khem Samrech, a 65-year-old farmer from Tuol Krous village, serves as deputy chief of the Banteay Kraaub Khun Ream association. He is one of 19 farmers who grow lemongrass and extract its oil within an area of four to five hectares.

“Lemongrass proves easier to cultivate compared to other crops, requiring only fertiliser made from rice husks and ash. Its adaptability allows it to thrive in various soil types and grow anywhere with ease,” he said.

Samrech shared before receiving guidance and consultation from Agrisud International Cambodia, an organisation that supported them in 2019, lemongrass was simply sold as a regular vegetable in the market, yielding little profit. However, with the organisation’s assistance, the association acquired two oil-extracting pots and received training on proper techniques for extracting oil from lemongrass.

He said Agrisud International not only provided lemongrass oil refineries but also aided in constructing a dedicated sales site costing over $30,000. The lemongrass refining pot, with dimensions of 80 cm in diameter and 1.8 meters in depth, can hold up to 200 kg of lemongrass and extract 300g of its oil.

“Each day, the association extracts oil from 4 pots of lemongrass, resulting in a yield of 1.2 kg of oil. Both the leaves and stems of the plant are used in the refining process,” he said.

According to Samrech, the process of extracting lemongrass is similar to steaming rice cake. Water is added to a pot along with a steaming rack, and the lemongrass is placed on the rack before closing the lid. Oil flows through a tube, similar to the wine-making process.

He said the association sells lemongrass oil to Agrisud International at $150 per kilogram. While the profitability of this transaction isn’t substantial in terms of costs, the association supports its members by lending a helping hand.

The association collects raw lemongrass from its members at 300 riel per kilogram, a price also available to non-members. Additionally, the association saves the revenue from the sale of lemongrass oil, allowing members to borrow interest-free for immediate family needs for a maximum period of one month.

Samrech explained the oil-refined lemongrass is a Cambodian variety cultivated in ordinary villages. Compared to other crops, lemongrass is relatively easy to grow. Farmers can start harvesting six to eight months after planting as the plant stores more oil in its stems over time.

Older lemongrass is even better for oil extraction. While the market for extracted lemongrass oil has primarily been local since the Covid-19 crisis, it has previously attracted both Cambodian and customers residing in France. The oil’s benefits extend beyond its use in massage—it also serves as a painkiller and an effective spray to deodorise and repel mosquitoes in the bedroom.

According to Kay Koch, the chief of Khun Ream commune, cultivating lemongrass for oil is highly beneficial for the region. The commune’s geographical landscape provides ample land for lemongrass cultivation, making it an ideal location for an oil refinery.

He said the association procures lemongrass from its members as well as other farmers outside the association.

Koch emphasised that farmers in the commune now receive better training in agricultural knowledge. Their understanding of planting techniques has improved, leading to better results in their farm-based enterprises.

Tea Kim Soth, director of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in Siem Reap province, acknowledges lemongrass cultivation is not extensive across the province. However, areas near water sources in Banteay Srei district have the potential for significant lemongrass growth.

“Nevertheless, the market demand for lemongrass products, particularly oil for therapeutic purposes, is not currently high enough to have a substantial impact on the economy. Additionally, the decrease in the number of tourists visiting Siem Reap due to the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a reduction in the use of lemongrass oil,” he said.

Although the market conditions may fluctuate, the cultivation of lemongrass and the production of its essential oil continue to be an important venture for Cambodian farmers. Their dedication to this traditional crop, now harnessed for its medicinal properties, showcases their resilience and adaptability in meeting the demands of the ever-changing market.