Rich, red, well-watered soil makes Battambang province the perfect place to grow oranges. In recent years, the small, green fruits of the northeast have gained a nationwide reputation as the sweetest and most naturally grown on the market.
Beating down competition from high-tech Thai growers, Cambodian orange farmers could be a model for a surge in niche-market agricultural production for both domestic and international markets, officials say.
But orange farming is not a simple business. It requires a large initial investment, and a lot of patience. A young tree takes five years to reach the fruit-bearing stage. Once trees mature, however, profits can be good—1 hectare of land holds as many as 400 trees, each of which can produce $5 to $20 worth of fruit a year.
Sor Eng Chay grows oranges on 13 hectares of fertile land in Banan district, Battambang province. He planted the trees back in 1998, but only now are they all bearing fruit. “For farmers, growing oranges is hard work, and you need a lot of money for expenses on the farm,” he said.
“When I started, it was very difficult, because I had to take money from home for all the expenses,” Sor Eng Chay said. “The trees did not bring me any income for six years.” He said he has spent a total of $70,000 on the farm so far, including the cost of the land, hired labor and the trees themselves.
At first, he said, his trees produced few fruit. In the second year, the output increased just a little. Now, five years on, trees on 6 of the 13 hectares of Sor Eng Chay’s farm are bearing fruit.
Like most Battambang orange growers, Sor Eng Chay does not use chemical fertilizer on his trees, and uses minimal insecticide and fungicide. This keeps production low, but quality—and price—high.
“I am very happy with my farm right now, as it is very fruitful this year,” he said. “I want to extend it so I can save some funds from the profits.”
Nearby, Yeang Yet grows 50 orange trees on her Banan district farm. She, too, is satisfied with the income the fruit brings her: “Oranges are my crop yearly, and the money is good enough to fulfill my family’s needs,” she said. “I can rely on getting money from them every year.”
Has Sok, deputy director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s department of agronomy and land improvement, said that Battambang oranges are a product Cambodia should be proud of. But to turn small-scale farming into an export industry, he said production methods need to undergo some major changes.
“The government has issued a decree to the Ministry of Agriculture to work to improve fruit and rice production,” Has Sok said. The ministry has made an appeal for foreign companies to invest in Cambodian factories and farms, and assist with planting trees and building fruit-canning facilities.
Sor Eng Chay agreed that more infrastructure is needed before Cambodian fruit farmers can make an impression on the international market. “Farmers want to plant more orange trees, but the local market is not big, and in Cambodia we do not have factories to can fruit and make it into juice like in developed countries.”
The major obstacle to orange production becoming an export industry is the current scale of production, according to Has Sok. “We do not even have enough orange trees to supply the whole country, just enough for Battambang, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh,” he said. “So how can investors come to build fruit-juice factories?”
Kim Chenda, chief of administration at the Ministry of Agriculture, sees the future of orange growing as a large-scale, mechanized agro-industry. “We need to make bigger orange farms, and make them closer together, so investors can come and build canning or juice factories,” he said.
With changes such as these, however, the quality and natural farming methods that Battambang oranges are famous for will almost certainly be compromised. Mass production calls for intensive farming; more trees per hectare mean more chemical fertilizers and insecticides. The end product is cheaper, and of lower quality—much like the oranges currently imported from Thailand.
Sros Nin is an orange seller in Battambang town. She is proud of the local fruit she sells: “I can sell more Cambodian oranges than Thai oranges. They taste better, are naturally sweet and cost more.”
A Battambang orange retails for up to 800 riel; ($0.20) Thai fruit costs up to 500 riel ($0.12) per piece. “Most buyers look for Khmer oranges, except poor people, who buy Thai oranges because they are cheaper,” Sros Nin said.