For families that traditionally depend on farming, limited access to international markets is leaving them uncompetitive and forcing many to abandon their land and go abroad in search of employment, according to the preliminary results of a forthcoming study by a local agriculture NGO.
A survey of almost 36,000 households in 14 provinces by the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC) predicts that over the next 10 years, up to 17 percent of farmers will abandon agriculture activities altogether, while another 27 to 44 percent will begin to generate their primary income from non-farming activities while continuing to work their land.
Him Khortieth, CEDAC’s senior communications officer, said there has been a worrying trend of farmers leaving their land to seek work, particularly in Thailand, due to financial pressures at home.
“It’s amazing how many farmers are leaving their land—because there is no incentive to farm—and how much land has become free,” he said.
“Generally, the main problems farmers are facing is the pricing and marketing of the products. They are increasingly reducing their farming work and are moving to neighboring countries, especially Thailand,” Mr. Khortieth continued.
“Post-harvest, farmers are obliged to sell their produce as quickly as possible due to lack of storage and the need to settle outstanding loans and other costs. This leaves farmers forced to sell at low prices,” he said.
Samath Veasna, vice president of the Administration Council of the Federation of Cambodian Farmer Organizations for Development, said the low prices paid for rice paddy and the high cost of goods such as fertilizer have seen farmers leave their children and farmland to their elderly relatives.
“There are many people leaving their farms…creating an old-with-the-baby scenario,” he said.
Mr. Veasna said millers and brokers are colluding to fix the price of paddy. Currently it is about 625 riel, about $0.16, per kg.
“We are unable to find enough markets because millers and middlemen have formed a cartel,” he said. “That’s why farmers get the same outcome of price negotiations from the middlemen as they get from going directly to the millers, and farmers also don’t have the financial ability to build rice mills themselves. It’s costs too much.”
Kuor Song Hing, a cassava farmer in Banteay Meanchey province’s Thmar Pouk district, whose produce is sold in Thailand, said the price of cassava is also unstable and generally low.
The selling price of cassava is about $0.04 per kg. A reasonable price that could see him turn over a healthy profit is about double that at $0.08, he said. The cost of running his 1-hectare farm is about $625 per year, while his revenue is only $750.
“If there are no companies buying my produce, it makes us worry very much because the price is unstable. We want a stable price,” he said.
In a 2012 report by the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research, poor infrastructure and trade connections were factors limiting maize farmers’ access to new markets. Maize farmers have fallen victim to a lack of bargaining power for their crop as buyers in Vietnam, where the crop is predominately sold, offer rock-bottom prices as the cost of seeds rises.
“Japan, South Korea and China markets are potential markets for Cambodian maize. However, Cambodia has not yet taken any initiatives to enter those markets. This could be due to lack of export knowledge and limited connections between Cambodian traders and traders in these countries,” the report says.
Ministry of Commerce spokesman Kem Ratha acknowledged that farming is becoming increasingly unsustainable due to high costs and low selling prices and that abandoning land has become common.
He said that under Sun Chanthol, the ministry was working to turn the tables back in favor of the farmer.
“We are reforming the Ministry of Commerce to solve all problems related to our local products like markets and production costs of farmers and private sectors,” Mr. Ratha said.