On Israeli Farms, Cambodians Study and Sweat

For the past 11 months, Seng Nhel lived on a kibbutz in Israel, studying horticulture and working 45 hours a week on a farm growing fruits and vegetables for agro-industry giant Mehadrin.

The 23-year-old was among 59 students from the Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) who took part this past year in the Agrostudies Internship Program, which recruits hundreds of university students from countries in Africa, Asia and South America to study horticulture or livestock rearing in Israel.

A plot of mustard greens at the Royal University of Agriculture in Phnom Penh is used to demonstrate techniques learned by students while in Israel. (Peter Ford/Cambodia Daily)
A plot of mustard greens at the Royal University of Agriculture in Phnom Penh is used to demonstrate techniques learned by students while in Israel. (Peter Ford/Cambodia Daily)

“Our program involves learning by doing, acquiring practical hands-on experience alongside theoretical studies,” Agrostudies states on its website.

The program is mutually beneficial.

Working for some of the world’s largest agriculture companies, the students are paid $6 an hour, Israel’s minimum wage. Granot Central Cooperative Union, which arranges the program along with Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, reports $900 million in annual revenue.

The students work on farms for five days a week and spend a sixth day studying at one of three campuses around the country. Even after paying for their own airfare, accommodation and $250 a month for their studies, there was plenty of money left, according to Mr. Nhel, who said students saved between $5,000 and $10,000 each.

“One hour [of pay] there compares to one day here. It is really big,” he said.

The Cambodian students lived together upon arriving in Israel, but soon split into smaller groups spread around the country, living on farms along with students from countries including the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam, Kenya, Uganda and Peru.

“Living together was a little difficult, as sometimes we didn’t understand each other, but we were able to learn about the other countries and cultures,” Mr. Nhel said.

Agrostudies provides each student with his or her own laptop and ensures Internet access in their rooms, giving them access to online journals and course materials as well as a way to connect with family and friends back home.

Mr. Nhel said the English level of students from the Philippines gave them an advantage in the all-English teaching environment, but that the Cambodians held their own.

“We weren’t always the best in class, but we always got high scores,” he said.

As for work on the farm, it came fairly easily for those such as Mr. Nhel, who hail from a farming background.

“After a month, we were all familiar with the work,” he said.

While the program required large amounts of labor, it also allowed the students to learn how to use farming technology that has yet to reach most of Cambodia, such as drip irrigation and modern greenhouses.

“Here, we just get experiences from farmers. But in Israel it was very complicated; we needed to know about plants and weather and soil. In Cambodia we don’t have laboratories for these things,” Mr. Nhel said.

Sous Nimol, 24, an agronomy development student at RUA, was employed for the past year on a vegetable farm operated by Hazera Seeds, a multibillion-dollar company. Work began at 6 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m. with an hourlong break in between.

“It was really hot working in the greenhouse, but my family are farmers, so it is OK. We were given plenty of water,” he said. “Every day we ate chicken, chicken, chicken. It was not possible to buy pork, and I missed it a lot.”

But the hardest part was the weather, he said. “In summer it was too hot, and winter it was very cold, maybe zero degrees.”

As part of the program, students were also taken to visit cultural and historic sites around Israel. For Mr. Nimol, swimming in the Dead Sea was the highlight.

“Floating on the water was crazy,” he said.

Students from RUA have been participating in the Agrostudies Internship Program since 2008, according to university vice rector Seng Mom, who said the latest group—comprised of 102 students —headed off to Israel on Monday.

Applicants for the program have to go through interviews with the university and a representative from Agrostudies, she said.

“It is hard for us to drop so many good applicants,” she said. “They need to be physically strong, in good health, and their [English] language ability good enough to easily communicate.”

Ms. Mom said returning students had a range of career options.

“When they graduate they will go to work in the government, in the private sector related to agriculture or they can create their own farms,” she said, adding that she hoped more students would take part in the program in years to come.

Yang Saing Koma, director of agricultural NGO Cedac, said Agrostudies offered the type of education that universities in Cambodia often failed to deliver.

“Students spend too much time in the classroom,” he said. “They lack practical skills. They have to learn to work hard in the field.”

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