phnom village, Ratanakkiri – The land he tills may have been in his family for generations, but Teu Mel is breaking new ground. The 50-year-old farmer is now cultivating a crop that, until recently, few in this Tompoun hill-tribe village knew anything about.
“My ancestors never grew coffee beans,” Teu Mel said, looking at his new rows of growing coffee plants that are due to yield their first harvest next year. “I had only heard its name, but I had never seen or drunk it.”
Teu Mel now tends some 700 coffee seedlings on his farm that he hopes will yield beans, and cash, when they are harvested next year. “If the yield is good, it can make much for my family,” he said recently while walking through rows of growing plants.
The effort is hoped to introduce a new crop for some of Cambodia’s hill-tribe families, one that is hoped to bear fruit next year.
Teu Mel and more than 750 other farmers said they learned how to take care of and how to grow coffee plants after studying with the UN Development Program’s Carere office.
Grass must be cleared away from the plants and in the summer, hay must be put around the seedlings’ trunks to protect them from heat, Teu Mel explained, sharing his new knowledge.
Learning new techniques is a first step for the new crop. Agriculture Minister Chhea Song said recently that Cambodians spend too much time growing only rice and ignoring other possible cash crops such as coffee. He said the red soil in Ratanakkiri and in the Municipality of Pailin near the Thai border would be prime locations for coffee cultivation.
Many farmers in this small village on a hilly road 6 km west of the provincial capital, Banlung, said they have high hopes of making big cash from the coffee crops. Coffee from Laos and Vietnam sells in Phnom Penh’s markets for about $1 per kilogram.
But money wasn’t the only motive for the Ratanakkiri program, provincial officials said. Another hope was to help curtail slash-and-burn, or “swidden,” farming techniques common to the province’s estimated 55,000 hilltribe people, officials said.
Phnom village is no exception. It looks much like other Tompoun villages. The houses are built in a circular fashion. Some villagers work in the forest or on their farms while their children play in the compound or feed their pigs. Even if this village is not very far from the provincial town, its culture and the tradition of clearing and burning forest to make new farms persists.
Swidden techniques involve cutting and cultivating an area in a cyclical fashion. Crops are rotated between cultivated areas and land left fallow for a few years to regenerate. The method has worked well for the hill tribes and its low population density for generations, environmentalists say.
But provincial officials said they want to introduce and promote new crops. Now, 767 tribal families are growing coffee on 123 hectares of land in this northeastern province, said the province’s agronomy officer Mao Sarin.
Not all the Tompoun hill-tribe families in Teu Mel’s village had success with coffee. Phyang Nhel tried to transplant more than 30 coffee seedlings onto his farm in July. Three months later, his plants died because of drought and lack of care. The 36-year-old farmer acknowledged his knowledge of coffee plants was limited, but planned to try again in the future.
“I wanted to grow this new kind of crop to support my family, but it completely died,” Phyang Nhel said, looking over Teu Mel’s sprouting plants.
The province-wide coffee experiment will be reduced to only four districts next year, limiting it to soil best-suited for the crop.
And provincial officials themselves are catching the coffee wave with small plantations of their own. Ratanakkiri’s Third Deputy Governor Sar Phim harvested more than 2 tons of coffee beans from his 5-hectare farm. The official is growing plants he got from Vietnam that, he said, grow taller but require more water than those from Laos.
Sar Phim expressed optimism for next year when Ratanakkiri is expected to produce its first substantial coffee crop. “Next year, it will have a very good yield,” he said, pointing to the blossoming coffee plants on his farm.
As for Teu Mel, he said he wants to be a role model for his village’s next generation. He said he plans to ask his three children to cultivate coffee when they’re older.