Two passersby explored an exhibition of fresh produce and processed agricultural products displayed in front of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries along Phnom Penh’s Norodom Blvd on Valentine’s Day last week.

The allure of these offerings extended beyond mere curiosity, as visitors sought to purchase items for cooking or as thoughtful gifts.

Cambodians are embracing a novel trend: exchanging beautifully packaged, locally-grown vegetables instead of flowers for special occasions, supporting domestic producers and offering a sustainable alternative to perishable blooms. 

The ministry organised the exhibition of organic vegetables, safe food products and processed agricultural goods on the occasion to promote healthy gifts and food safety. 

Nineteen vendors from farming communities showcased their organic and processed goods at the exhibition, including fruit and vegetable bouquets featuring roses, for a creative, eye-catching twist.

Rin Rachna, a 34-year-old resident of the capital’s Tonle Bassac commune, says she prioritises buying organic produce for cooking, emphasising the confidence avoiding harmful chemicals brings her, as a consumer.

Regarding Valentine’s Day, she says that giving a colourful bouquet of vegetables to loved ones is more practical and beneficial than offering flowers. Although beautiful, they are short-lived, while greens can be enjoyed together in delicious dishes, creating a lasting and shared experience.

“People often spend large amounts of money on flowers, only to discard them once they wilt. However, when we invest in fruits and vegetables, we not only spend less money but also reap the benefits by consuming nutritious and natural Cambodian produce, promoting our health and well-being,” Rachna says.

Keo Navy, a 65-year-old Tonle Bassac resident who came to buy vegetables at the ministry on the February 14 occasion, praises farmers for growing safe, high-quality produce, highlighting their contribution to local food safety and community health

“People always buy flowers for friends and parents [on special occasions], but they’re useless as you can’t eat them. I’m happy that this exhibition offers Cambodian products – it’s good news,” she says.

Encouraging support for local agriculture, she urges the public to consider purchasing naturally grown goods from Cambodian farmers. She also suggests that young people seeking unique gifts should opt for safe, locally-sourced veggies to express their love for one another.

“Supporting locally grown vegetables promotes self-sufficiency and food security for all Cambodians. By choosing domestic produce, we reduce our reliance on potentially chemical-laden imports and ensure the quality and safety of our food,” she says.

 Safe veggies redefine love

Heng Bunny, a 57-year-old agriculture official, marked the day with gifts purchased from the Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) in Phnom Penh.

He bought a basket of greens, a traditional condiment paste and agro-industrial products for his family: a bottle of local fruit wine, cashew nuts and dried banana chips.

Bunny, who serves as director of the ministry’s human resources department, believes that promoting the sale of natural products during holidays would inspire young Cambodians to appreciate their benefits and consider gifting vegetables as a thoughtful, healthy expression of love.

“We aim to elevate the quality and safety of locally farmed goods, making them compelling alternatives to flowers or other gifts. It offers both food and sentimental value – a unique and healthy gift option,” he says.

Soy Somaly, owner of the Khmer Community Market, supports such initiatives.

“This exhibition-sale is great. It helps farmers from remote regions showcase their organic fruit and vegetables, and educates urban consumers about these products, opening up new markets for their produce,” says the 45-year-old.

She says visitors to the exhibition appeared confident and unconcerned about health implications. Many buyers expressed an interest in crafting mixed vegetable bouquets, noting that they considered them superior to flowers for gifting to family or friends due to their aesthetic appeal and longevity.

Somaly notes that buying locally grown goods from farmers is preferable to purchasing imported produce. She cites several reasons, including the health benefits of organic, pesticide-free food, the positive impact on local farmers’ income and the potential to curb rural-to-urban migration.

Men Song Hor, owner of the Khmer Natural Vegetable Market, highlights the importance of organising fairs such as this. He explains that these events serve a dual purpose: raising awareness of food safety and creating market opportunities for businesses and enterprises.

“I have been involved in efforts to expand the market by advocating for more regular exhibitions like this, as I see them as an opportunity to promote and encourage the consumption of locally grown organic produce, ,” he says.

Ministry spokesperson Im Rachna spotlighted the variety of agricultural products on display at the event, including vegetables, dried fruits, milk, palm sugar, fruit wine and cashew nuts, noting that this marked the second time the ministry had facilitated such an event.

“This year was far bigger. Last year, we exhibited and sold only vegetables, but this time we introduced other products from different sub-sectors of the Kingdom’s agricultural industry,” she said.