The name Kdol Daun Teav in Battambang’s Ek Phnom district evokes memories of a once-thriving jute rice sack factory, a fixture in the Prek Norint commune for generations. The factory was shuttered in the 1970s, causing a local decline in jute cultivation. Nevertheless, some area residents persist in cultivating this versatile, fibrous plant.

Jute, or “krachao” in Khmer, serves as both an agro-industrial and traditional crop within this district. Two communes in the district tend to around 6ha of jute, capable of yielding coarse, robust threads. Currently, nearly 20 families prioritise jute cultivation as a supplementary crop.

Next to Yeam Muong, a 56-year-old resident of Prek Trop village in Ek Phnom district, there lies a pile of light green stalks, each about the size of a finger and stretching over two meters long from which he peels jute fibre.

Muong shares a profound connection to jute farming, deeply rooted in family history. From childhood, he witnessed family members engaged in jute farming. Currently, he tends to a 4,800sqm plot of land dedicated to jute cultivation. Alongside growing jute, he harvests and sells jute seeds to fellow farmers, retailing them at 20,000 riel ($5) per kg.

He adds that the first stage of the plant’s cultivation involves ploughing the soil and verifying its quality. Once the soil preparation is complete, water is pumped into the field, and the seeds are sown. Notably, jute is recognised for its relatively easy cultivation, demanding less intensive care compared to crops requiring the use of fertilisers and pesticides.

His primary focus centres on monitoring the water levels in the field throughout the entire growth period. The process, from sowing to harvesting, typically has a duration of three to three and a half months.

Muong says it is important to note that in the presence of sticky soil, plant growth may be adversely affected. A robust jute plant should reach heights of 2.5 to well over 3m. Cultivation occurs in three cycles per year, with each planting phase spanning 90 days.

Legacy jute cultivation

He says that there are two jute varieties: bork jute and kot jute. Notably, the jute cultivated in his village is of the kot variety, primarily valued for its flexible fibre. The fibre extraction process involves using two stalks cut into thin strips to obtain the fibrous material from which thread and string can be spun.

“While sitting and peeling jute can be demanding, it functions as a source of income during this season when alternatives such as fishing or construction are less lucrative,” he says.

“With the rice harvest still pending, involvement in jute work offers a temporary means to sustain our livelihoods,” he adds.

Muong says that his average daily jute peeling output reaches about 10kg, which he subsequently sun-dries before the fibres are ready for sale. Typically, dried jute fibre fetches prices ranging from 800 to 1,100 riel ($0.20 to $0.28) per kg. This year, with higher prices and more traders purchasing directly at his home, concerns regarding the market demand for jute fibre no longer trouble him.

He notes that while the specific use of the purchased fibre remains unknown to him, he is aware of its versatility and strength, making it suitable for crafting strings, hammocks and mats. In his village, approximately 60 families still partake in the plant’s cultivation, a legacy passed down through generations. Historically, villagers cultivated hundreds of hectares of jute, thanks to the presence of a rice sack factory in nearby Prek Trop village.

York Korn , Prek Trop village chief, says that many farmers in his village continue jute cultivation as a supplementary crop alongside their primary farming activities. Currently, some families tend to 1,600 square metres of jute land, while others manage upwards of 3,200 square metres. However, this is now secondary to their agricultural pursuits compared to the past.

Chhim Vachira, director of the Battambang provincial Department of Agriculture, could not be reached for comment on the plant’s cultivation.

However, Chap Sothea, the director of the Bureau of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environment in Ek Phnom district, notes that in the past, three communes - Prek Khpoap, Prek Luong and Prek Narint - were dedicated solely to the cultivation of jute for sack production. These communes collectively managed an approximate planting area of 2,000ha, driven by the presence of a nearby rice sack factory during that time.

He adds that presently, a small number of farmers in Prek Narint and Prek Luong communes engage in jute farming on approximately 6ha of land. This comparatively low number is attributed to the absence of a jute processing facility and diminished demand. Local jute primarily serves in the creation of strings for tying various items, as well as the crafting of hammocks and woven mats as seen elsewhere.

Traditional crop

“In Ek Phnom district, we function solely as jute producers, with the majority of traders hailing from Kampong Chhnang coming to procure our yield. Yet, the precise purpose for which they acquire the jute remains a mystery to us. In reality, only a small number of people within Battambang itself makes use of jute,” he observes.

He says that within the province, there exists only one district dedicated to cultivating these plants, revered as a traditional crop steeped in the region’s ancestral heritage. The people of Ek Phnom district persist in jute farming, despite the market not quite flourishing as it once did.

He adds that the district’s agricultural land proves suitable for growing various types of rice, including early, medium and late maturing varieties. For the deep paddy fields, farmers cultivate flood-tolerant rice varieties. Following the vegetable harvest, the land transitions to jute cultivation, noteworthy for its lack of adverse soil impact.

Sothea states that the provincial agriculture department has established four committees to aid farmers in crop cultivation and sales facilitation. These committees include two dedicated to overseeing rice and vegetable cultivation, with the other two focusing on supporting fisheries activities.

Concerning the jute crop, Sothea says his intention is to integrate it into the agricultural group in the future. Currently, the jute crop retains a favourable market price, with numerous local families engaged in growing and preserving this historical crop.