kompong trach district, Kampot province – It’s ironic that the man recognized as the best peppercorn grower in Kampot is unable to enjoy the taste of it himself.
“I can’t eat spicy food,” Nguon Lay, 56, said in a recent interview, raising his shirt to reveal a huge gash along the length of his stomach where he had several operations to remove a large artillery shell fragment. “My insides aren’t good.”
After 20 years of hardship as a Khmer Rouge soldier, including the loss of his left eye, Nguon Lay is now president of the Kampot Pepper-Farmers Association, and the pepper-growing industry his family helped drive in this area for generations has begun to reawaken.
Just a few families are producing a few tons of pepper corns at present, according to Jerome Benezech, CEO of Farmlink, a local agricultural group set up to link Kampot farmers and international buyers.
But, Benezech added, the future of the industry is looking brighter now that Kampot pepper has been identified as a product with origin-specific qualities. At its full potential, the business could be worth up to a million dollars annually.
Nguon Lay’s family have been the main Cambodian pepper growers in the Kompong Trach region of Kampot province since the 19th Century—his father, Pok Pong, even earned the local nickname the “Pepper Tycoon.”
Now 85 years old, Pok Pong lives in a small hut in Damnak Kantuot Khang Choeung commune’s Angkor Chey I village.
“Three generations of my family before me grew pepper,” he said. “The Chinese came many years ago and we learnt it from them. We never grew any rice.”
Today pepper is the number one spice in the world with a supply volume of around 400,000 tons per year, according to Farmlink. Vietnam is the leading producer worldwide, at around 100,000 tons, followed by India, Indonesia and Malaysia.
At its peak in the first half of the 20th Century, Cambodia yielded about 1,000 tons on 100 hectares, according to growers here.
Benezech said a realistic target today would be around 50 hectares of top-drawer pepper. Quality, not quantity is the key, he said.
While other countries produce far more of the spice, Kampot pepper is prized above others by chefs worldwide for its particular pungency and quality, he said.
In the 1930s and 1940s the quality of the pepper produced in Kampot made many people wealthy.
At that time there were many tycoons in Kompong Trach, Pok Pong recalled, the majority of them being Chinese.
“It was a major business back then. A lot of cows and water buffaloes were fed especially for their dung to be used as manure. [My family] were doing so well that we could even afford to hire Chinese workers for their expertise,” Pok Pong said.
It all changed during the years of war and bloodshed that descended on Cambodia from the 1970s on, with pepper cultivation being just one of many industries and skills nearly wiped out.
Pok Pong’s face darkens when he recalls the Khmer Rouge period. His wealth made him a marked man, and only the fact his son was known as a soldier kept him alive, he said.
“They told me to keep growing pepper, and they would take my crop and trade it,” he said. “I dared not complain to them that I could not keep it going, as what I needed was not available.”
At his one-hectare pepper farm in the shadow of Phnom Voar mountain, Nguon Lay recalled how he decided to return to growing pepper after his years as a soldier.
While in a refugee camp on the Thai border in the early 1990s, Nguon Lay saw some pepper growers at work there.
“I could see how they were doing it wrong, and it was then I thought I must return to the land,” he said. “I was so happy to come back and finally do what I am good at doing.”
Nguon Lay explained how tricky a pepper crop is to get right. It’s an expensive initial investment and needs to be carefully tended, he said.
Pests can be gotten rid of naturally using water mixed with tobacco leaf, he said, adding, “The natural way is the most effective.”
“Pepper is good for you in many ways. For people with [flatulence] it makes the wind inside them a lot better.” Mothers who have just given birth also use it in order to regain their strength, Nguon Lay added.
“The pepper industry has potential but there are only a few small areas that are really suitable for the crop,” said Nget Sophal, director of the Kompong Trach department of agriculture.
About 15 hectares are being farmed now but there is potential for at least 100 hectares, he said, adding: “The price is going up and more and more families are turning to it.”
A number of other farmers are following the example of Nguon Lay’s family. Orn Ron, 49, has 150 vines.
“It is expensive to grow but can be profitable if the price keeps going up,” he said. “Compared to rice, though, I can make a lot more money in a much smaller area.”
Pok Pong feels vindicated at the reemergence of pepper growing in Kampot.
“We are one of the only families who stayed committed to the crop, even through the bad times,” Pok Pong said.
“We were convinced that the crop had a good future.”