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Spinning straw into food security

Joel Karsten (left) demonstrates straw bale farming techniques during a workshop yesterday in Banteay Meanchey province. KOTRA
Joel Karsten (left) demonstrates straw bale farming techniques during a workshop yesterday in Banteay Meanchey province. KOTRA

Spinning straw into food security

An American horticulturalist is in Cambodia providing training in a unique farming method that proponents believe can improve food security in some of the country’s remotest regions.

Joel Karsten champions straw bale farming, a method that involves growing vegetables from a bundle of straw. In 2013, the Minnesota-native published a book on his technique, Straw Bale Gardens, which became immensely popular among agricultural enthusiasts, according to a review of the book in the New York Times.

Karsten, who is here at the invitation of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) and rural development NGO Ockenden Cambodia, said the method can provide a secondary food source to traditional sources at risk to environmental fluctuations like the current devastating drought.

“[Straw bale farming] is definitely an option for something to do with all this rice straw they have here,” said Karsten yesterday from Banteay Meanchey province, where he is leading his training courses.

“It can solve a lot of problems in areas where the soil is poor, where it’s too wet to grow vegetables or too dry to grow rice,” he said.

In Karsten’s method, fertiliser is used to convert the insides of a straw bale into composted soil, where seeds are planted.

While the method has proven popular with growers in the US and Europe, the jury is out as to whether it will take off in Cambodia, where traditional farming methods are deeply ingrained, said Karsten.

“We’re trying to convince farmers who have been doing something a long time that there’s a different way to do it, a better way. Currently, it’s not part of their paradigm,” said Karsten. “The wheels turn very, very slowly.”

Nhov Nharn, managing director of Ockenden, said his organisation plans to introduce the method to 362 farms that the NGO assists in Battambang, Pursat and Banteay Meanchey provinces.

“Every year in Cambodia, farmers just burn their straw bale,” he said. “But we can use it to grow.”

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