Coffee Prices Rise as Farmers Abandon Less-Profitable Crop

The price of domestic coffee has increased steadily over the past year as the market compensated for a decline in the number of northern provincial plantations harvesting coffee beans, coffee sellers and officials said.

The price increase has followed last year’s worldwide collapse in coffee prices, distributors said.

A global decline in coffee prices sab­otaged Cambodian coffee growers in 2002, prompting many to abandon the expensive crop be­cause there was no market for it.

But this year, the price of coffee from Ratanakkiri, Mon­dol­kiri and Kompong Cham prov­inces is on the rise, since fewer farmers are harvesting the beans, said coffee buyers and sellers from there.

Ouk Srey, a high-grade coffee distributor in Kompong Cham’s Memot district, sells her goods to Phnom Penh markets for $0.70 per kilogram, $0.30 more than last year’s price. The price of Laotian and Viet­namese coffee also is rising, reach­ing as much as $0.90 per kilogram, Ouk Srey said.

A Phnom Penh coffee distributor who sells his goods at Phsar O’Russei and local cafes said he, too, has raised his prices to keep business profitable.

Ieang Rothhou, one of the city’s biggest coffee distributors, has raised the price of 1 kg of coffee from 14,000 riel to 15,000 riel ($3.50 to $3.75) this year.

Memot district coffee grower Kert Rong said he will replace more than 2 hectares of coffee plants a year with cassava crops because coffee prices have consistently de­clined over the past three years.

Coffee industry observers blame the collapse in coffee prices on Vietnam, which began flooding the international market with inexpensive, low-grade coffee four years ago. Its coffee production more than doubled from 413,580 tons in 1997 and 1998 to 900,000 tons in 2000 and 2001, Agence France-Presse reported in Febru­ary. But market experts say industry buyers may be as guilty, since they have not hesitated to invest in the cheaper, low-grade beans.

Kert Rong said he could not afford to wait out the three-year cycle needed for coffee plants to yield high-grade beans and did not earn enough money to pay the workers needed to pick the crop.

He is not alone. Since last year, about half of the 50 hectares of coffee plants in Memot have been cut down, Kert Rong said.

Ratana­kkiri Governor Kham Khoeun said in September that of the roughly 5 percent of Ratanak­kiri farmers growing between 500 tons and 600 tons of low-grade coffee a year, virtually all had abandoned their plantations.

Mondolkiri Provincial Agri­cul­ture Department Admin­istration Director Chhen Chhean said that  70 percent of 200 hectares of low-grade coffee plants died last year from lack of care in his province.

Successfully cultivating coffee can be a difficult task, depending on the weather. Fertile soil and an abundance of rain are crucial to raising some plants, while a long dry season can make or break other varieties.

Ol Keo, Kompong Cham’s acting district governor, added that most farmers in his province now grow cassava rather than coffee because they sell at a higher price than coffee beans.

Kham Khoeun said that, at the height of the trade, coffee sold for as much as $2,600 per ton in local and foreign markets. Last year, coffee prices fell as low as $200 to $300 per ton.

Khoeu Hog, Ratanakkiri Prov­incial Agriculture Depart­ment deputy director, said last week that, although prices are rising, most farmers consider cash­ews—which are cheaper to raise—more profitable.

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