With borders sometimes closed to trade during the pandemic, Cambodia’s farmers have had to come up with new ways to get things done – including sometimes making changes to where they sell their crops and who they sell them to – but there have also been some changes to how they grow them as well.

In the past, farmers have mostly bought their fertiliser from merchants who imported it from neighbouring countries. During the Covid-19 pandemic, however, border crossings have been restricted which has posed production challenges for Cambodia’s farmers.

One commonly imported fertiliser has been coco-peat or coir, the natural fibres from the outside husk of coconuts. Early on, the pandemic limited the amount of this fertiliser available to Cambodia’s farmers.

Now, a Banteay Srei district farmer is working with an NGO to produce coir or coco-peat fertiliser for his own vegetable seedlings and to sell to other farmers at the nursery growing stage.

Khong Sophoan, project director of International Development Enterprises (iDE) says their main goal was to reduce reliance on imported products.

“When Thailand closed its border in March of last year, our farmers faced a shortage of many supplies, including coir.

“We thought that if the border continued to be closed we’d definitely need to find a new source for it in order to sow our melon seeds,” he says.

iDE Cambodia, founded in 2005 in Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey provinces, initially focused its agriculture programmes on the training of farmers in vegetable farming, pig husbandry and growing mulberry trees between 2005 and 2010.

They have also run development programmes in Cambodia and several other countries across the world in a number of areas outside of agriculture as well.

Today, in terms of agricultural programmes in Cambodia, iDE provides various kinds of technical training in vegetable farming in Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey provinces along with their new coco-peat initiative.

Long Kean, 46, is an innovative farmer and the only coco-peat producer at iDE in Preah Dak commune, the popular Khmer noodle destination in Siem Reap province.

Melon seedlings are grown in coco-peat soil at the nursery stage. Photo supplied

Kean was known to be a hard-working farmer, which is why iDE chose him as their first coco-peat producer and the organisation bought him the necessary machinery and taught him the recipe to make coconut husks into nutrient-rich nursery soil.

Kean tells The Post that “when we examined the product, we thought that we could probably have been producing it ourselves this whole time.

“iDE provided me with a crushing machine to mill coconut husks. We also added cow dung, termite mound soil, rice hulls and trichoderma, a type of fungus that helps protect plants from other fungi,” Kean says.

“First, I planted cucumbers. But when we produced coco-peat successfully I could then use it myself and sell it to nearby farmers. With fertiliser for sowing seedlings, I then started planting melons as well as cherry tomatoes and now carrots and yellow watermelons,” says Kean.

As the industry in Cambodia for producing coco-peat has just been established by iDE’s new programme, Kean is the only farmer so far to be trained in coco-peat production, which also requires a high-cost crushing machine.

Kean remains – for now – the only producer of it in Banteay Srei.

Banteay Srei district governor Khim Finan tells The Post that cost remains a barrier to entry into the industry for most farmers.

“Learning how to produce coir only takes about six months of training but there is only one family in Preah Dak making it because of the high cost to buy a machine for crushing the coconut husks. That’s why it is not widely practiced,” he says.

Farmers who sow their vegetable seeds directly into the soil can run into a variety of problems. They can be eaten by ants, spoiled by fungi or the soil might simply lack the nutrients necessary to get them to sprout and grow.

In order to get healthy seedlings, coco-peat is an important component that provides nutrition and protection to them.

“For melons and certain vegetables, we’ve always needed to buy coco-peat from other countries – particularly Thailand – in order to grow them.

“Normally, the neighbouring countries buy our coconut husks and rice hulls at a very cheap price from us and then sell us the final product – coco-peat – at a high price,” says Sophoan.

It is iDE who has been championing the idea of melons as a local Cambodian product, with support from New Zealand via the New Zealand Aid Programme, starting with Banteay Srei in 2007.

Melons being cultivated in Banteay Srei district. KHIM FINAN via Facebook

“Our organisation teaches farmers to plant melons and we also have a melon farmer’s association. We focus on higher price products such as cherry tomatoes and onions in Banteay Meanchey.

“And now we’re promoting these same ideas to Oddar Meanchey’s Anglong Veng, Trapaing Prasat and Samrong, and Siem Reap’s Chi Kraeng and Banteay Srei,” Sophoan says.

According to Kean, if he can source enough materials such as coconut husks, charcoal rice hulls and composted cow dung he can supply coco-peat not only in Banteay Srei and Chi Kraeng districts but to a larger portion of Banteay Meanchey province.

He says he could produce between 30 and 40 bags of coco-peat per day, with each bag weighing more than 10kg and priced at 10,000 riel ($2.50).

“We buy rice hulls and burn that into charcoal. We take compost cow dung and break that up. The coconut husks are peeled from coconut shells then crushed in the machine along with completely pulverised termite mound. Lastly, we mix it all together and leave it to cool before adding the trichoderma.

“I would be delighted if more of our farmers knew how to produce coco-peat themselves, but this job is a bit tiring and if you aren’t working hard you will fail at it,” Kean says.

Since there are so few domestic producers of coco-peat in Cambodia it would probably provide good income for the producers, but those who want to do so have to have the investment capital to buy a crushing machine which costs more than $2000, according to Sophoan.

“We haven’t expanded our programme to assist more farmers yet because we are still experimenting in order to select the best formula for coir as the standard one we teach to them,” Sophoan says.

“We have to try to reach a level of quality that can compete with the imported products but we also want to be able to create enough supply to meet Cambodia’s market demand – so we need to use ingredients in our formula that are commonly available, while achieving high quality results.

“Kean’s productivity is great, but if it’s just him then it’s only going to be available in his local area. To integrate this product into the national market, we have to have a trademark that assures high quality,” Sophoan says.

He says iDE wants to provide Kean floating capital for him to expand his business in order to secure a standard and consistent supply chain and create a trademark and packaging.

Sophoan says their current coco-peat formula works well with general vegetables but for melons – which have a big market and sell for higher prices – it does not provide enough fertiliser quite yet, so they will continue to experiment with their formula.

“We are going to promote coco-peat production to other farmers who are interested and introduce them to Kean’s methods, which will continue to evolve and they can also help us with that process. If they want to be part of the project, we can give them technical help to get them started,” he says.

To learn more about iDE’s work in Cambodia and across the globe you can visit their website at: https://www.ideglobal.org/country/cambodia