Once maligned as a waste product, the hay and rice stalks left over after rice has been harvested are now a celebrated by-product of rice production, able to earn farmers as much as one million riel per hectare.
Since ancient times, Cambodian farmers regarded the stalks as waste with only one use – when mixed with fresh grass, it was a makeshift animal feed for the dry season or when flooding occurred. As a result, most of them were left to rot or burned on the vast paddy fields after the harvest was taken.
The burn offs were not only bad for the environment and the ecosystem of the fields, but also occasionally burned out of control, destroying property, or even claiming lives.
For the Cambodian farmers of today, hay and rice stalks are an important resource which provides great benefits.
Chheav Hong, a 65-year-old farmer in Samrong KhangTbong village, Samrong commune, Sot Nikum district, Siem Reap province, told The Post that besides being used for animal feed, they can be used to grow mushrooms, or as compost, which reduces the amount of chemical agricultural fertilisers that a farmer must buy.
They can also be mixed with mud to build walls for houses and huts. Known as wattle and daub, this method is every bit as effective and woven leaves, he said. In addition, the stalks can be used to line duck or chicken coops, so that the eggs are protected from breakage when they are laid.
Hong, who currently serves as president of the technical committee of the Samrong Meanchey agricultural community, explained the value of the products.
“Thanks to their many uses, there is now a market for this formerly unwanted hay. After the harvesting is done, a farmer can sell them for between 700,000 and one million riel per hectare. If we use them to grow rice straw mushrooms for sale, we can earn twice that,” he said.
He and his family have been propagating mushrooms for more than 40 years. Hong said that in the past, after the rice was harvested, he and his family would collect hay from the fields to store as animal feed and kept some to grow mushrooms for additional income.
Now, he uses a tractor to plow some of the old rice stalks back into the earth. As they decompose, they release rich nutrients into the soil, which contributes to reducing the cost of chemical fertilisers by about 60 per cent.
Four years ago he bought a hay baling machine, so he could bale up most of the stalks to save it for growing mushrooms or feeding his 45 cows.
After being used to grow mushrooms, the stalks decompose. Once broken down, they can be mixed with cow dung and chicken manure to produce a powerful compost mixture. Hong produces more than 200 tonnes of compost a year, which is sold to durian farmers in Preah Vihear and Battambang provinces. He earns more than $10,000 per year through this side business.
Lok Pisey, a farmer in Por village, Kraing Svay commune, Preah Sdach district, Prey Veng province told The Post that until recently, none of the farmers in her village were aware that there was a market for the by-product of rice production.
Villagers used to abandon rice stalks in the fields – just to keep the fields moist so grass would grow for the cattle to eat. When the rice-planting season arrived, they would burn off the remaining material to kill all weeds and then begin re-planting.
“In the past two years, traders have appeared after the harvest and wanted to buy them. We have been offered from 500,000 to 800,000 riel per hectare, so I sold some and kept some as animal feed,” she said.
Pisey said she has 3.5ha of farmland, and generally plants and harvests rice twice a year. She sells 2ha worth of stalks per season, keeping 1.5ha to feed her livestock.
According to Pisey, she earns a little more than two million riel a tear from the sales. Some of her neighbours harvest three times a year, and earn even more.
A farmer from Svay Rieng province’s Chantrea district, 45-year-old Dun Ry, said farmers are very happy at the growth of this new market.
“In the past, selling rice was also difficult. Nowadays there is a market for our rice, but also the hay and rice stalks, and we are getting good prices for them all,” he said.
According to Ry, selling the stalks is not difficult at all. They can be sold to traders who will bring their own baling machine for around 500,000 riel per hectare or the farmers can hire a baler themselves and transport the bales to the Vietnamese border themselves – there are a lot of buyers, he said.
“If we employ a baling machine and operator, they will charge 1,500 riel per 10kg bale. Generally there are more than 200 bales in each hectare. Once we have transported them to the border, we can sell them for five or six thousand riel per bale, so if you deduct the costs of transport, baling and labour, we can earn from 700,000 to 900,000 riel per hectare.
However, Sim Sarom, a farmer in Kampong Speu province’s Oudong district, warned that the sales may provide short term benefits and income, but could have potentially disastrous consequences for the Kingdom’s farmlands.
“Hay and rice stalks – especially husks – are the best natural fertiliser. The increase soil fertility and long-term moisture, meaning that all kinds of crops, especially rice, grow with higher yields,” he said.
“If we tear up the stalks and plow one tonne of them into each hectare of farmland, with just one weeks’ watering they will become compost. In some cases, this could save up to two million riel worth of fertiliser, effectively meaning it was worth two million riel to the farmer,” he explained.
According to Sarom, farmers should think about the long term future of their farmland, and not just sell the stalks for fast cash. It was far easier to make use of them, thanks to the prevalence of modern agricultural machinery, he added.