Agricultural Innovations Help Cambodian Farmers Thrive

Cheang Sophat collects bundles of fresh water spinach from his fields to deliver to the Tasey Samaki Agricultural Cooperative’s packinghouse, to fulfill a customer’s order.
Cheang Sophat collects bundles of fresh water spinach from his fields to deliver to the Tasey Samaki Agricultural Cooperative’s packinghouse, to fulfill a customer’s order. (Max Fannin for UC Davis)

With Help From American Researchers, They’re Growing Nutritious Crops That Boost Their Income

By Brenda Dawson, UC Davis News

"They say a farmer's work starts before dawn, but in Cambodia’s Battambang province farmers work together late into the night to prepare their vegetable harvest for the overnight bus ride to the capital city’s markets.

A metal barn that was empty hours ago is now filled with colorful crates, buckets and bags of fresh produce — leafy greens, nubby roots and heads of cabbage — and neighbors bustling to fill boxes. This is a vegetable packinghouse, where members of the Tasey Samaki Agricultural Cooperative collectively market their horticultural crops to wholesale distributors and specialty retail stores.

These small-scale farmers have been working with researchers from the University of California, Davis, and Cambodia’s Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) to test new methods, like the packinghouse, for growing and selling produce locally. Their work is part of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture, a global network focused on fruit and vegetable research that is led by UC Davis and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“The impact of these innovations in Cambodia has been huge.” —Karen LeGrand

“The impact of these innovations in Cambodia has been huge,” said Karen LeGrand, a UC Davis researcher whose work focuses on food safety and security. “Since we started working here 10 years ago, we’ve seen such a change in the food system.”

These innovations are helping farmers benefit from growing and selling horticultural crops, amid rising recognition that fruits and vegetables are not only critical to meet human nutrition needs, but can help farmers in developing countries lift themselves out of poverty.

Many Cambodian farmers have started to grow their vegetables inside nethouses where the plants can be physically protected from pests and damaging torrential rain. Horticulture Innovation Lab researchers first proposed nets for pest management in Cambodia based on experience in Kenya where the nets were low to the ground, but farmers here wanted to be able to work inside.
Many Cambodian farmers have started to grow their vegetables inside nethouses where the plants can be physically protected from pests and damaging torrential rain. Horticulture Innovation Lab researchers first proposed nets for pest management in Cambodia based on experience in Kenya where the nets were low to the ground, but farmers here wanted to be able to work inside. (Max Fannin for UC Davis)

A creative solution for growing high-quality vegetables

More than 75 percent of Cambodians live in rural areas, and agriculture accounts for about a quarter of gross domestic product. Even so, the country currently imports more vegetables than it harvests.

“After the Khmer Rouge, the main farming focused only on rice,” said Borarin Buntong, director of RUA’s Division of Research and Extension. “But now people are not just thinking about rice anymore. They're thinking about vegetables, they're thinking about fruit. Many families now can have this kind of produce in their daily life. This is a big change for Cambodia.”

Converting rice fields into vegetable fields has allowed farmers to diversify their operations with high-value crops. Studies have shown that profits from vegetables can be 3-14 times higher per hectare than from growing rice.

UC Davis researcher Karen LeGrand, center, discusses new features of a nethouse on a farm near Battambang with graduate students from Cambodia’s Royal University of Agriculture.
UC Davis researcher Karen LeGrand, center, discusses new features of a nethouse on a farm near Battambang with graduate students from Cambodia’s Royal University of Agriculture. (Max Fannin for UC Davis)

To strengthen vegetable supply chains, the international researchers introduced farmers to using nets to protect their crops from pests. The idea came from Horticulture Innovation Lab researchers and French CIRAD scientists working in Kenya, where farmers use mosquito nets to cover vegetable plants. In Cambodia, the concept transformed into “nethouses” so farmers could walk inside to care for their crops. The nethouses reduce the need for costly pesticides and protect crops from torrential rain, allowing farmers to grow vegetables year-round, even in the rainy season.

One local family who has benefited from using a nethouse is Cheang Sophat and wife Hem Champa. The added profits made it possible to send their second child, a daughter, to college, and they are confident they can provide this opportunity for their 14-year-old as well."

Read the full story at UC Davis News. 

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