For Many Cambodian Farmers, High Rice Prices No Blessing

samraong tong district, Kom­pong Speu province – Out Phon, a 65-year-old rice farmer from Kom­pong Speu, had heard through the grapevine about the soaring cost of rice.

But when asked Thursday if he personally benefited from selling his crop at peak prices in February and March, he just gave a little smile and shook his head “no” with one sharp, quick movement.

“I have to make sure my family has enough” rice, he said. “I keep it for my family.”

With his 70 ares (0.7 hectares) of paddy in Voasar commune’s Chamka Bos village currently a tangle of post-harvest dried mud and crinkled straw, Out Phon isn’t about to sell his rice provisions and jeopardize the stomachs of his family until he sees that paddy flooded again in a few months.

“If I have leftover rice after the next harvest, I will sell, but I am worried there won’t be enough water for a good harvest next year,” he said, adding that he has 850 kg of husked rice in stock.

Small-scale subsistence farmers such as Out Phon make up the bulk of the rice farming population in Cam­bodia, according to experts, and contrary to claims that the boon of heightened rice prices were felt by all, it is farmers such as Out Phon who beg to differ.

Rather than making a tidy profit, what Out Phon noticed most about rice price inflation was how it raised his production costs.

“I worry because I spend much money to grow, cut and fertilize rice. The prices of these things have also gone up. I cannot save money,” he said.

Yaing Saing Koma, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, said by telephone Thursday that more than 60 percent of Cambodia’s 2 million rice farmers are subsistence farmers whose crop goes directly to feeding their families. Of this group, he said, about half reach a point near the end of the harvest cycle when they run out of rice and need to purchase more on the domestic market.

“I worry about many farmers who are going to be buying rice in the next two to three months,” he said.

Though the price of rice finally settled somewhat during the first week of April—following state-owned Green Trade’s infusion of cheap rice on the domestic market and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ban on exports in the last week of March-prices are still higher than in any year in recent memory.

Som Sieam, 50, who lives in nearby Pneay commune’s Krang Snuol village, said she did not harvest enough rice this year to feed her seven-person family—something she blames on infertile soil and not having enough paddy to plow.

“If I had rice to sell, I would benefit, but I need to buy rice,” she said.

According to Yaing Saing Koma, only about 30 to 40 percent of farmers produce enough of a surplus to sell rice.

Ou Bom, village chief and rice farmer with 50 ares (0.5 hectares) in Pneay commune’s Sampov Ngor village, can be counted among that privileged group.

He said Thursday that he was excited in December when his high-quality rice was selling at 800 riel per kilogram—so excited that he sold 1.5 tons, only to learn a few months later that the selling price had jumped to 1,500 riel.

“I regret this, but it was according to the time. Sometimes it goes up and sometimes it goes down,” he said, adding that many of his neighbors found themselves in the same situation.

“800 riel was the best price in the last two or three years, so they thought it was a good time to sell,” he said.

Ou Bom said he benefited a little from selling some other rice strains at higher prices in the early months of 2008, but that overall he cannot say it has been a banner year.

“The cost of everything has gone up—pork, vegetables. We have had to reduce our diet and search for crabs and frogs to eat that live in the bottom of the creeks on the farm,” he said.

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