On the lush, green farmland owned by farmer Young Ly in Prasat Bakorng district in Siem Reap province, bok choy and cauliflowers fill the land in abundance. Next to it is a hall covered by a net: a new “technical farmland” spanning 240 square meters that is home to a yield of yellow cauliflowers, one of the latest species of crops to be imported to Cambodia.
The hall, also known as a net house, is the new initiative of Agriculture Services Programme for Innovation, Resilience, and Extension (ASPIRE), a new government programme supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
ASPIRE was set up with the aim of reducing poverty and increasing the resilience of poor and vulnerable smallholder farmers in Cambodia.
“Our objective is to enhance the existing Cambodian model of agriculture services in order to demonstrate that, with some modification, it can still be effective in assisting a diversity of smallholder farmers to contribute to broad-based economic growth through profitable and resilient farm businesses,” Soun Seyla, ASPIRE’s advisor in Siem Reap province, told The Post.
Originally designed to run for 7 years, from 2015-2021, the programme has been extended to 2023 in light of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
ASPIRE set up shop in Siem Reap in 2019 and has been implemented in every province across the country since then, with the exception of Phnom Penh. It organises farmers according to business clusters that are as varied as growing vegetables and rice and raising livestock.
The programme has appointed a leader and deputy leader in each province to teach and advise farmers on growing and raising animals, as well as to establish links with local and regional markets.
Ly has been selected as one of the leaders, also known in the programme as lead farmers.
“To get to where I am as lead farmer, I was trained in all the strategies that ASPIRE has introduced. After my first harvest I could really see the difference these techniques have made [on my cultivation] and got better by learning from programme evaluations, eventually becoming qualified for the role of lead farmer.
“My role as lead farmer means that if there are any farmers nearby who have any questions or otherwise need some advice for their growing, I will be there to help them and share my experience,” Ly said.
The programme has taught farmers innovative techniques that save them time and resources, including planting their crops in the net house and protecting livestock from disease through vaccination. In addition to raising animals for subsistence, the program also encourages farmers to do so for export or sale, to improve their family’s livelihood.
ASPIRE deploys six core extension delivery instruments. They are to contract out, establish public-private partnerships, provide support to agriculture cooperatives or farmer organisations and offer a direct public extension service.
“There are no strings attached or any requirement for service users to give back to the programme. Since ASPIRE has mainly received funding from IFAD and the government, this will help cover everything from teaching new technical knowledge to farmers, to providing investment and connecting them to the market by encouraging them to grow multiple types of crops and teaching them about seasonal demand,” said Seyla.
Upon farmers’ completion of the programme, the investments – such as net houses, wells, solar panels, poultry layer cages, ploughing machines and plant seeds – will be given to the lead farmer to distribute according to each participating farmer’s individual needs.
“For instance, with the net house that we gave to Ly, he could grow yellow cauliflower there and it will be he who will be the one subsequently helping to expand the knowledge and promote the programmes to neighbouring farmers, thereby opening up the programme to more people who could benefit from it, as well as share their knowledge,” he said.
Ly says he is excited about what he sees as the many benefits of, in particular, the net house in growing varieties of crops in any season. “In the net house, we can grow everything regardless of the season, whereas if we grow certain plants outside during the wet season it gets damaged or rots easily.
“So I try to grow in the net house a variety of different plants. Previously I grew white cauliflower, potatoes, chilli, marrow, and now I grow bok choy,” he said.
The 32-year-old lead farmer says he notes vast differences between the ordinary white cauliflower he would grow in the past and the yellow one, which he uses technical growing methods to cultivate.
Notably, he says the yellow kind is far more convenient to plant. Despite the noticeable effects of climate change impacting other crops of his, for him the yellow cauliflower still produces great yields, saying that of the 100kg he plants, he can typically expect to harvest “around 90kg”.
In contrast, the white cauliflower yields can often be severely damaged by bad weather or pests and animals, resulting in yields as poor as 30kg. As an added benefit, yellow cauliflower can often fetch around 500-1000 riel more than the white one.
For Ly, harvesting takes around 55-60 days, or roughly two months. “I can gather up from a tonne and a half to two tonnes, both outside and inside the net house during the dry season. As for the wet season, where I can only grow in the net house, I can expect to get around 200-300kg of yields.”
Growing the yellow cauliflower does not present many challenges, Ly says, apart from the seed being slightly more expensive than that of the white, and it’s harder to find. During the dry season, the yellow variety attracts more insects, proving frustrating when the cauliflower is small. But he says keeping a close eye on them during that period means it will usually no longer be a problem when it grows in size.
“Previously, before joining ASPIRE, I grew plants only to meet the needs of my family, with no proper techniques. But after joining the programme, I’ve learned how to grow different plants, and now know when it’s best to harvest and use just the right amount of pesticide.
“I’m happy I can earn more and be able to share what I have learned with other farmers. Together, we can increase the yields and agricultural products of the country,” Ly says.
For more information on the programme, visit them on Twitter @ASPIRE.MAFF.