Article in the Phnom Penh Post
-- Issue 13/27 -- December 31, 2004 - January 13, 2005

Imported growing methods sprout local farmer's collective

By Vong Sokheng

If there's one thing that will unite Cambodian farmers, it's the prospect of growing more rice for less money.

That's the fundamental goal of the Cambodian Farmer Assembly, described by members as a kind of "National Assembly for Farmers," which officially formed on December 12 in Kampong Cham.

The CFA is born out of a network of farmers' associations from across the country that for the last seven years has promoted a concept known as System of Rice Intensification (SRI).

After a slow start in the early years, membership has grown quickly in the past few years to around 2,000 farmers in ten provinces, enough to warrant the election of their first president, 64-year-old Takeo resident Prak Chres.

"I am happy that all of our farmer networks believe in me and allow me to have an opportunity to work for them, and I will try my best to share all experiences of the new farming method to others," Chres said.

This new method Chres refers to is "Single-Seedling Planting" and it is designed to increase yield by improving seed management, methods of uprooting and transplanting seedlings, water control, weeding and soil fertility.

One of the key factors is spacing single, healthy seedlings farther apart than usual, allowing them to grow higher and develop more rice grains on each plant.

Cambodian rice paddies traditionally yield between 1.65 and 1.8 tons per hectare using traditional practices, according to a January 2004 report on SRI by the Centre d'Etude et de Développement Agricole Cambodgien (CEDAC).

While productivity is still relatively low compared to the growing demand for rice, farmers' costs for production are increasing, mainly due to the expense of fertilizers and fuel for irrigation pumps, said the CEDAC report.

Using the techniques promoted by the CFA, farmers were able to harvest around 3.5 tons per hectare, said the report, with ten percent able to produce more than five tons per hectare.

"If compared to traditional practice, my yield increased, and my expenditure on fertilizer was lower, and [I] used less seed after I applied SRI," said Kouch Samon, a participant from Takeo province.

Samon expected that within the near future the majority of rice farmers in Cambodia would participate in the SRI movement.

New CFA President Prak Chres is also confident the organization will flourish and hopes to establish 5,000 associations, each with 15-40 members, by 2010.

As well as teaching SRI and other organic farming practices, the CFA runs a saving and credit cooperative that allows the distribution of emergency funds among their members.

Farmers contribute monthly according to their means, and the money is held by the local CFA president. In times of difficulty, farmers can apply for a loan that will be agreed upon by a meeting of association members.

CEDAC estimates that at any given time a pool of around $2,000 is available to members.

Yang Saing Koma, executive director of CEDAC, said the structure of the CFA has the potential to cut across political party lines and unite farmers on practical issues.

CFA is a new phenomenon in Cambodia, said Koma, and would be dealing with all the issues related to rural self-development at the grassroots level.

Koma was once himself a poor farmer but managed to gain his doctorate in tropical agriculture development from the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1995.

He says his heart is still with the land and those who work it, and he wants to see a change in ideas that will boost livelihoods.

"I think that in the future, the CFA will become a strong voice of the farmer for participation with the government in discussions at the national level about agriculture development," Koma said.

He said CEDAC has been working with farmers and other organizations in Cambodia to develop and disseminate innovations in ecological agriculture since 1997.

CEDAC is supported by Oxfam GB, Oxfam America, JICA, and other German and French institutions, with an annual budget of about $50,000.

"I think that in all the discussions of strategy for reduction of the poverty [there] is still a big gap between local farmers and policy makers which is only at the national level, so there is no effect on the farmer," said Koma.

A call to the relevant ministry gives little confidence in top officials helping poor rural communities.

Chan Tong Iv, secretary of state for the Ministry of Agriculture, said he has not heard about the recent formation of the Cambodian Farmer Assembly. "I do not know and I do not understand about their target," said Tong Iv.