It is planting time for cassava in northwestern Cambodia, and farmers said this week that they have to make a tough decision: How much of their land should they plant?
Cassava prices have soared in Thailand, the principal market for the crops grown in the former Khmer Rouge strongholds of Cambodia’s northwest. So there is reason to believe that planting a full field of cassava would be the smartest move, farmers said. Adding to the attraction of a mono-crop, the prices of soybean and corn are stagnant or falling.
But farmers say that without contracts from buyers or food processing companies, and with little market information from Thailand, they do not know if the current trend in the price of cassava will hold, or if it might be reversed by harvest time toward the end of the year.
Farmers in the northeastern province of Ratanakkiri, where a dependence on fluctuating markets in neighboring Vietnam caused huge losses in coffee trading in recent years, said the dilemma exists there, too, in that farmers don’t know how much cashew to plant.
“To grow our crops we depend on the rains, to sell our produce we depend on the Thai market,” said 52-year-old Pov Sok, a farmer and mother of five in Pailin municipality’s Sala Krao district.
With rising cassava and corn prices—due, she believes, to rising demand for animal feed in Thailand—she has hedged her bets and planted her 20 hectares with one third cassava, one third soy and one third corn.
“Farmers never know beforehand what kind of crop will reach a good price,” she said.
Pailin farmer Heng Sopheap said that she is leaning toward planting more cassava on her 10 hectares. At the end of December, cassava earned her between $0.23 and $0.25 per kilogram, while corn slipped from $0.29 per kilogram to $0.17.
“The sale of our produce depends on the flexible Thai market,” she said.
Phy Poun, deputy governor of Battambang province’s Malai district, said farmers throughout the northwestern provinces are suffering from a drop in soybean prices this year, which he said are dependent on the Vietnamese market.
“Whenever Vietnam’s market demands it, the price increases,” he said, adding that prices are now half of what they were two years ago, down from $0.40 per kilogram to $0.20.
Thirty percent of northwestern farmers have switched to cassava, he said.
Heng Bunhor, director of Malai’s agriculture department, said he wants the central government to supply him with more market information for farmers, to help them make decisions about what to plant.
“Farmers change crops back and forth depending on last year’s prices,” he said, adding that because of losses and low capital, they are paying most of their earnings to microcredit institutions to which they owe money.
Un Buntha, deputy director of the domestic trade department at the Ministry of Commerce, said the ministry has not found a solution for farmers dependent on the variable Thai market.
He added that Thailand is buying more and more cassava as an additive for alternative fuels, which are now in demand due to high oil prices. “Thailand is promoting cassava growing to its farmers,” he said, adding that the price per ton in Thailand went up from $60 to $85 per ton last year.
Domestic food processing in Cambodia remains a long way off, he added. “We can’t have big scale trade in the crop business because we have no big plantations.”
In Ratanakkiri, provincial governor Muong Poy said that because of a global crash in coffee prices a few years ago, the plant is now hardly grown in his upland province.
“Not many people like to grow coffee now,” he said.
Ratanakkiri provincial cabinet chief Nab Bun Heng said local growers are contemplating switching to cassava this year, too, but are uncertain about the price.
“We are copying from farmers in Kompong Cham [province]…we hope cassava reaches a good price this year,” he said.
He added that the local price of cashew nuts has decreased from $800 per ton last year to $500 per ton this year, but farmers are not ready to cut down their trees, which take years to mature.
“I and all cashew farmers are concerned about the price of cashew and soybeans and we don’t understand why the prices are low,” he said.
“We don’t know how to get information about the possible prices for our products…for years we have sold our crops on the basis of luck.”