As the Cambodian agricultural landscape slowly shifts to large-scale agribusiness taking up huge swathes of tillable land, with small-scale farmers often left outside the fold, local and international organizations have worked together to find profitable farming solutions while also rooting out a niche market.
According to Keam Makardy, field operation program manager for Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), organic rice is one such solution that is growing in not only consumer appeal, but also in productivity. And with the demand for organic rice continually rising on the back of successful annual harvests, CEDAC aims to broaden its reach by expanding into other provinces.
In 2014, local farmers affiliated with CEDAC produced 400 metric tonnes of organic rice, while in 2015 the number doubled to 800.
“This year we are hoping to produce somewhere between 1,000 to 1,500 metric tonnes of organically certified rice,” he said. He added that while 60 per cent of the organic rice harvest is shipped abroad to places like EU countries and the US at a commanding price, around 40 per cent is sold within the local market.
In order to boost production, CEDAC, along with participation from German agency for international cooperation (GIZ), has scaled up their organic rice certification for export from three to six provinces, while also doubling the level of farmer participation from 600 to 1,200 trained farmers, said Claudius Bredehöeft, project coordinator of GIZ ASEAN-SAS in Cambodia.
“A lot of this expansion comes from farmers seeing the monetary benefit of organic farming over the last couple of years,” he said.
“We have had to spend a lot time educating the farmers and convincing them of the benefits of organic rice, not only for their health but to earn a higher income,” said Makardy, explaining that now that the benefits are more clear, it has become easier to engage farmers in this process.
According to Yang Phirom, CEO of Cambodia Organic Farm Enterprise (COFE), the primary distribution arm for CEDAC organic rice, a farmer is guaranteed to earn 1,650 riel ($0.41) per kilogram. Meanwhile, while wholesale inorganic rice fluctuates on regional competition, production and demand, Phirom added that farming cooperatives and agreements provide a sustainable income.
Nevertheless, rice cultivation with chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers leads to more stable yields in the short term, Bredehöeft said, but the risk of soil degradation and run-off to water supplies, plus the cost of chemicals, makes it harder on individual farmers.
“Plus, many farmers have become more educated and concerned about the environmental impact and their own health,” he said.
Additionally, according to Makardy, one hectare of land cultivated with chemicals provides less of an annual yield over the long-term at only 2.5 metric tonnes estimates show, while organic crops can yield three to four tonnes.
While supply chain dynamics is something COFE streamlines, CEDAC invokes a strict three-year long certification process that requires annual inspection to ensure that organic practices remain.
“The CEDAC authorities verify that everything is organic. Sometimes, because organic is becoming popular, some farmers will try to climb on the bandwagon without proper certification. For this, we have quality control that can track where every shipment comes from, whether it is a farmer or community,” said Phirom.
If there is a problem, the organization follows up the supply chain and notifies the farmer that their product is not fit. But this does not necessarily mean that farmers lose their license.
“We have to be active and alert and keep a constant dialogue with CEDAC and the farmers. If there is a problem we let them know and teach them how to fix it,” said Phirom.