pailin – Down a dusty road, past a washed-out bridge and then up a lush, green hillside, there is a farm that may provide a window to Cambodia’s agricultural future.
Though only tiny coffee shrub seedlings and saplings are pushing out of the dark soil, plantation owner Son Yin expects more plants to grow and produce money-making coffee beans.
“I think if we are successful,” he said, “it will be a Cambodian achievement in the international market.”
A plantation of “Pailin Coffee” here in the middle of this remote autonomous region is significant for two reasons. Pailin is struggling to develop other resources now that the precious stones that, according to legend could once be picked from the earth’s surface, are running out.
A successful coffee plantation would mean jobs and survival for a region full of ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers and their families, as well as other immigrants, said Son Yin, who plans to invest $300,000 in the plantation and is looking for backing in the US.
The plantation would also mean the expansion of agricultural products that could be exported by Cambodia, perhaps leading other farmers away from subsistence rice farming and toward more lucrative harvests.
“Coffee is good,” said Sok Siphana, secretary of state for the Ministry of Commerce. The price per ton of coffee could dwarf the price of rice many farmers currently produce, he said.
The value of one ton of rice right now is about $150.
“That’s nothing,” Sok Siphana said.
Cambodia’s ability to grow products other than rice has been severely hampered by its troubled past. Farming know-how in most of the nation’s countryside is limited to rice production.
But when it comes to development countrywide, it is easier to teach a farmer to grow another crop than to teach him a non-farming skill.
Son Yin said crops like coffee should be encouraged along with other products such as palm oil, castor seeds, spices, black pepper and pineapples.
“That’s where we should be focusing our resources,” he said.
Sok Siphana cautioned against developing agricultural products for export without first knowing who will buy the product.
“Find a market first,” he said.
That could be tricky.
Coffee, which originated in Africa, is now grown in all over the world. The shrubs require fertile soil and plenty of rain. Some varieties need a long dry season.
Cultivating it for the international market can be risky, since most producers have precise requirements.
The fruit must be harvested and the beans extracted. They must also be roasted correctly to bring out their natural aroma. Roasting too long will ruin that aroma, making the beans worthless on the international market.
“Agriculture is a very tricky business,” said Ted Ngoy, coordinator for the government-private sector working group on Agro-Industry and Food Processing. “But coffee is a good product to promote.”
Both Thailand and Vietnam grow coffee for the market. But Ngoy cautioned against developing any crop without full knowledge.
“We should not rush,” he said. “We must be careful to meet international standards.”
Son Yin was confident in his ability to grow marketable coffee. “I am optimistic that my plan will succeed,” he said, “because Pailin is one area where the French successfully planted coffee trees during the colonial period. So now I think the land is still fertile enough to plant coffee trees.”
Son Yin has observed and studied plantations in Vietnam, and has even tried growing coffee once in Cambodia. That crop, in Mondolkiri province, failed.
“But that land was not fertile like in Pailin,” he said.
Son Yin said around 6,000 hectares in the Pailin area are capable of growing coffee. Not all of that land is his, and he still lacks most of the funds he needs to make a plantation profitable.
He is seeking assistance from US investors, using his local knowledge and land ownership as a selling point. He also plans to unite farmers, ex-soldiers and gem miners to convince them to start growing coffee collectively.
“We want to have development in Cambodia. That’s why we plant the coffee tree. Because coffee has a good price on the international market,” he said. “We want to show that we have the ability to grow coffee trees in Cambodia.”
Vuthy Vet, the 27-year-old farmer who tends Son Yin’s new trees, doesn’t know much about markets, exports or agro-industry, but he likes these shrubs. He came to the plantation six months ago after a stint as a monk in Thailand, where he had fled to escape Cambodia. With peace and stability returning, he said he would rather be a farmer.
The other options—like sitting in a muddy creek, sifting for gems that might never come— don’t appeal to him.
“It’s not too hard to do this,” he said. “We just have to take care of weeds and water the plants.”