A soil-less solution to growing veggies

The farm already grows a range of fruits and vegetable including lettuce, pumpkin, melon and morning glory.​ Photo supplied
The farm already grows a range of fruits and vegetable including lettuce, pumpkin, melon and morning glory.​ Photo supplied

A soil-less solution to growing veggies

The founder of a new farm 22 kilometres west of Siem Reap is hoping to change the way that businesses and individuals in the city get their greens, and without relying on Siem Reap’s notoriously poor soil quality to do so. 

Happy + Co is a hydroponic farm on 3.5 hectares in Sasar Sdam commune, on the far side of Puok district, where they’re growing an ever-expanding range of vibrant veggies.

The farm already produces okra, spring onion, pumpkin, melon, morning glory, snake gourd, lettuces, papaya and passion fruit delivered on the day that they’re picked. Later this year, tomatoes will also be added to the list. 

Hydroponic farming is a method of growing fruits and vegetables in mineral and nutrient solutions water instead of soil. Where Happy + Co does use soil for some of its produce, as not everything can be grown hydroponically, they have spent almost four years enriching it with a blend of buffalo dung and rice husks.

Founder Gary Elton, an English businessman who for several years has been quietly supporting students in Puok district, was in large part spurred to start the farm as a way to provide more local employment.

“Because vegetable farming is labour intensive, we decided that this was an opportunity to encourage people to remain in their community and not have to go to Thailand at the end of the rice harvesting season,” he said. 

“Happy + Co now employs 40 people who receive monthly salaries. Families remain together; in fact, several married couples work together on the farm. This is a great social outcome.”

Among the reasons often cited for why Siem Reap — and Cambodia in general — imports so much of its food is the inconsistent quality and availability of produce here, and uncertainty over which and how much chemicals have been used in their production. 

Happy + Co is a new Siem Reap farm that grows most of its vegetables without soil. Photo supplied
Happy + Co is a new Siem Reap farm that grows most of its vegetables without soil. Photo supplied

Christian de Boer, general manager of the Shinta Mani boutique hotel and one of Happy + Co’s first customers, said he was thrilled to find a local, virtually organic solution. 

“Happy + Co definitely addresses these issues for us. They’re still very young, and are growing and learning, but it’s fantastic to see the movement for healthy and clean food growing from ‘the ground up’,” he said. 

Ironically, according to proponents, hydroponics uses less water than soil-based farming. Among the many other benefits cited, it is also held to produce better yields, higher rotations, consistent quality, and does not require chemical insecticides. 

“We’re not certified organic,” said Elton. “But we operate on green principles avoiding synthetic pesticides and applying organic farming practices designed to encourage soil and water conservation. 

“We don’t grow vegetables that require chemical spraying, and in the controlled environment of their greenhouses, plants are protected from insect infestation and therefore not in need of spraying.” 

For Elton, the current structure not only makes no sense, it is actually damaging.

“It’s estimated that Cambodia pays more than $500 million a year for vegetable imports from Vietnam. This won’t change without government infrastructure investment, capital assistance to farmers, improved water supply and cheaper, more reliable power,” he said. 

“Hydroponics require considerable capital investment, and until small economically operated units are made available to poor farmers, the benefits won’t be felt in the short term.”

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