Ba Phnom district, Prey Veng province – Amid hectares of dry, dusty fields left barren after the rice harvest, a small patch of farmland flourishes with lush, green fruit trees, flowering shrubs and rows of robust vegetables.
Swollen papaya, limes, jack fruit and pomegranates hang from leafy branches.
Pineapples sprout from the garden floor, and banana bunches show signs of ripening under the shade of the foliage.
Between banks of chili bushes, cabbage and basil, tiny tadpoles swim in shallow irrigation channels among taro roots and watergrass.
When farmer In Meng abandoned rice farming four years ago to develop this so-called multipurpose organic farm, her neighbors thought she was crazy.
“The first year, people laughed at me for giving up the rice fields,” In Meng said.
“Now, they’ve stopped laughing and are praising my efforts,” she said, glancing across her wooden fence at the parched rice fields beyond.
With produce to sell at the market year-round, In Meng, 58, and her husband, Ath Uk, 63, said they have never had such profits.
Helped by Centre d’Etude et de Developpement Agricole Cambodgien, a local agricultural development NGO, the farmers have learned how to irrigate their soil, use compost as fertilizer and brew their own organic pesticides, casting away harmful chemicals.
“Since we implemented this [new method of farming], my livelihood has improved a lot,” In Meng said.
After four years of growing a variety of organic produce, the farmers have now boosted their annual income to around $375, compared to year after year of expanding debt under the burden of their money-draining rice fields.
Farming in Cambodia is largely for subsistence only, said Vora Huy Kanthuol, secretary of state for the Ministry of Rural Development. And most farmers in the country grow only rice, yielding a single rice harvest a year, he said.
Rice occupies 90 percent of total cultivated land in Cambodia, yet it accounts for only 9 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to a report released this year by the Economic Institute of Cambodia.
Compared to the agriculture industries of Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia lags far behind, due in part to a lack of equipment, training and irrigation development and an underdeveloped market, which has been hampered by a society emerging from decades of war, Vora Huy Kanthuol said.
“The main problem is, we just came out of war,” he said. “It’s not that easy to do the kind of agriculture our neighbors are doing. It needs a lot of expertise.”
Adding to the ills of the local industry, he said, the introduction of pesticides and chemical fertilizers—most of which, agriculture and development workers say, are imported from Vietnam—deplete soil nutrients, contaminate the water and make people sick.
In Prey Veng, one of the common pesticides is methyl parathion, known by its trade name Folidol. The pesticide is usually imported from Vietnam, despite a December 2003 ban on it and more than 100 other trade name pesticides by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Methyl parathion is classified by the World Health Organization as “extremely dangerous” to human health, said Carl Middleton, an environmental scientist with CEDAC.
If inhaled, methyl parathion can cause nose bleeds, coughing and difficulty breathing, Middleton said in a report this month. Other effects from exposure to the chemical may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, dizziness and blurred vision, while severe poisoning can result in slurred speech and muscle paralysis, he said.
The dangers are exacerbated by a lack of instruction and education for local farmers on how to properly use the chemical, he said.
Still, Middleton wrote, a “common perception among farmers is that pesticides are an effective ‘modern’ or even ‘fashionable’ technology for pest control.”
And chemical fertilizers and pesticides make fruits and vegetables bigger, free of insect bites and generally more appealing—at least on the surface—to customers at local markets, CEDAC workers said.
Encouraged by agricultural development NGOs, however, a growing number of subsistence farmers are abandoning chemical pesticides—and their rice fields—in favor of organic produce.
In Meng’s husband, Ath Uk, said that since he began organic farming and stopped using illegal pesticides, his health, and his finances have improved. He no longer suffers from piercing headaches and nausea, whereas four years ago, his health had deteriorated so badly that he could barely walk.
Maintaining the family’s multi-purpose farm, however, has meant putting in more elbow grease.
The farmers concoct their own insecticide by stewing lemon grass, tobacco and bark from the bitter sdao plant for days in water, which they then spray over their crops. They also construct irrigation channels, transplant seedlings and water their land regularly.
“Yes, it is hard and we spend more energy, but, most importantly, we have food to eat and money for our children,” In Meng said.
The financial gains are a huge incentive, she said.
After the first year of developing her multipurpose farm, In Meng said her family generated about $147 from selling their fruits and vegetables at the local market.
The following year, the family’s income nearly doubled, jumping to more than $260. Meanwhile, the amount of money they needed to invest in the farm fell to about $25 from about $52 the year before. And, she said, the family’s profits continue to rise.
“Before I had tears,” she said, “but now, no more.”
Though organic farming is not yet practiced on a large scale in Cambodia, some Phnom Penh hoteliers suggest there may be a demand for homegrown organic produce here.
Robert Maurer-Loeffler, executive assistant manager of the luxury Hotel Cambodiana, said his hotel would almost certainly support locally grown organic produce if it were readily available.
The hotel already tries to buy fruits and vegetables that are available locally, he said, but much of the produce that it uses is imported, some from as far away as Europe and Australia.
“I don’t think there is a lot of mass farmed produce here,” Maurer-Loeffler said. But, he said, “we’d like to support the local industry and local farmers.
Whatever’s out there, we try to go for local products.”
At Veggie’s, an organic produce supplier for many of Phnom Penh’s most popular hotels and restaurants, the stock of leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions is transported by plane from Vietnam, the store’s manager said.
The cost of Veggie’s produce is more expensive than at local markets because it is flown in from Vietnam twice a week, manager Rath Pherom said. A 5 kg bag of lettuce, for instance, costs $15 at his store, compared to about $3 at Psar Thmei.
Due to the higher costs from transport, Rath Pherom said Veggie’s aims to start up organic farms here in the future.
But so far, he said, most of his customers are willing to pay more for what they believe is a safer product.
“My customers never have a problem [with] diarrhea, [or] vomiting,” he said.
In rural markets, too, villagers appear willing to pay an extra 100 riel for a bunch of locally grown organic cabbage, which sells for about 400 riel. At Prey Veng’s Chhor Kach market in Ba Phnom district, local organic farmers sold out all their produce before noon, leaving stalls of mostly imported fruits and vegetables on display.
Ministry of Environment officials also expressed support for a local organic farming industry.
Noeu Bonher, deputy director of the ministry’s Natural Conservation Department, said organic farming may be the key to building consumer confidence in locally grown fruits and vegetables.
“We are losing trust in the local products because most products are grown in poor environments, and the farmers still use chemicals,” he said.
Most fruits and vegetables may look good, “but people don’t trust them because farmers use chemicals to make them look more inviting,” he said.
Back in Prey Veng province, CEDAC-promoted organic farming methods are starting to catch on.
The NGO says some 2,000 families like In Meng’s are beneficiaries of its program aimed at improving the livelihood of small farmers.
Phim Aun, 48, is one of them. Started two years ago, her farm grows neat rows of chilies, cabbages and tomatoes. She also grows bananas, papayas and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Her farm is not yet considered fully organic.
“Some years we get outbreaks [of insects], and then we use chemical insecticide,” she said, though for the most part, she tries to use only her natural, home-brewed pest repellent.
Making the switch from subsistence rice farming to multipurpose farming has not been easy, Phim Aun said.
“From the beginning, I was suspicious of implementing this kind of project. It took us too much effort to start, but after we started…we made good money,” she said. “Since then, we find this very helpful to our family.”