Banan district, Battambang province – As long as Dong Ly remembers, there have been oranges growing in his native province of Battambang.
In his youth, he recalls residents planting, harvesting and eating the sweet and juicy green fruit nurtured by the countryside’s red, fertile soil. A farmer like himself, his father once tended the family’s small orange grove in Banan district that Dong Ly, who has the face of a man in his early 40s, has overseen since 1986.
“After I was born, I saw these trees,” he said Wednesday inspecting the grouping of 300 leafy orange trees.
But the future of oranges in Battambang, a region celebrated for its citrus fruit, has soured in recent years as orange producers wage a losing battle against a disease destroying their crops. Now, a growing number of farmers are forgoing Battambang’s famed oranges, increasingly turning to other fruits and vegetables, like mangos, coconuts, bananas, spinach and other greens, to make ends meet.
“Our time spent with the trees was useless. They gave us nothing.” Dong Ly said of his sickly plants. “We don’t know how to solve the problem.”
For the past four to five years, farmers and government officials say a lethal blight – known to them as the fungal disease “silver leaf” – has threatened the livelihood of their orange groves.
The disease, they say, attacks the roots causing trees to rot. Before long, the leaves begin to fall and the tree stops bearing fruit.
What’s worse, the farmers said they don’t know how the disease spreads from tree to tree or how to combat it. Farmers said they have treated their orange groves with fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides to no avail. They added that the government and organizations have offered them little assistance or advice.
Banan District Governor Toch Soun Nara said about 60 percent of farmers in his area have stopped growing oranges and begun cultivating another crop. He said many make the change out of economic necessity despite the fact that many hold the fruit in high regard and have invested heavily in their groves. A young tree takes five years to reach the fruit-bearing stage, meaning some trees will be killed before ever producing edible oranges.
“Even though this crop was grown by their ancestors and they love it, they have to switch since they can not get any money from it and they will starve,” Toch Soun Nara said by telephone Thursday. “We don’t have any solution yet so far, so the people are growing other crops like banana, mango and cucumber.”
To the northwest in Bavel district, District Governor Tim Dareth estimated about 90 percent of fruit farmers there suffered from the disease.
“I’m afraid Battambang will lose one of its symbols,” he said of the province’s iconic oranges.
Kun Dyneur, who manages about 3,000 orange trees on 10 hectares of land in Bavel district, said the Ministry of Agriculture provided farmers with some pesticide last year but that has not kept it the disease from spreading within orange groves and to neighboring ones. When one of his trees dies, Kun Dyneur said he can do little but dig it up and plant a new one.
“It’s not good. Now, I’m trying to use different kinds of medical treatment,” said Kun Dyneur, adding about one third of his trees are infected. “We just wait and see.”
“Almost all the farmers complain about this disease,” he added.
Dong Ly recalled two research teams, one from Thailand and the other from China, coming to test the diseased trees a few months ago but could not remember who they were with and has not heard anything from them since.
Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun said he was aware of the problem and offered one possible solution: Changing the species of orange trees by using a new seed. He said planting the same variety of oranges has made them susceptible to disease.
The government, he added, is prepared to help the farmers if they remove their old plants.
“As soon as they are ready to clear, we will provide them with a new seed and if they don’t believe it, they can try the new seed first,” Chan Sarun said by telephone Thursday.
Growing oranges on nine hectares of a former minefield in Banan district, farmer Ear Chung Kong once considered his fields to be a safe investment for his retirement. He sank about $160,000 since he started farming nine years ago and hoped to make about $10 to $15 twice a year from each tree.
But since 2005, he’s seen the “silver leaf” disease contaminate about 20 percent of his 3,000 trees and already killed between 200 to 300 of them.
“Now it is dying and I don’t know what to do,” he said walking through his orchard pointing out the leaves of the sick plants spotted with black marks. “It’s getting worse each year.”
Like other farmers, Ear Chung Kong said he has already begun swapping out his failing orange trees for something more profitable.
“I will switch to coconuts and mangos. I’ll stop growing this fruit because it does not give me any benefit,” he said.
Selling crates of oranges along a side street in Battambang town, fruit vendor Heng Sivone said that business is steady. She has had to seek out more farmers to buy from and has overheard them lamenting the rough patch they have hit.
“I have heard many farmers complain about it,” she said Wednesday while stacking the fruit into pyramid-shaped displays. “I get oranges from everywhere.”
Overall, however, Heng Sivone said she is not worried about any potential shortages of the fruit as one farmer’s adversity would appear to be another’s opportunity.
While the disease has hit Battambang’s farmers, orchards are opening up near Pailin, roughly 80 km to the southwest, and farmer there are eager to sell their produce. And they deliver, Heng Sivone said.