Rice Farmers Turn to New Jobs Amid Tumbling Prices

Some Battambang farmers are being forced to find new jobs as rice prices fall, while others are forced to continue rice farming despite the struggle
Chham Chhop drying up his rice in Thmor Kol district, Battambang province. Kiripost via Meas Da
Chham Chhop drying up his rice in Thmor Kol district, Battambang province. Kiripost via Meas Da

By Meas Da and Mao Sineat

BATTAMBANG - Roeun Sineth, a 30-year-old farmer, sits under a red-rusted galvanized iron roof in Ang village, Tapoung commune, Thmor Kol district, Battambang province. She had five hectares of land for farming, but could only farm during the rainy season. This year, she said her paddies have been hit by rain floods, devastating her crops.

"In general, it flooded three times. In terms of the paddies that were flooded, there were only a few plants left," she said. “In previous years, they’ve also flooded like this, for two to three years, but we still got some rice, about 27 sacks. This year, we have not harvested 10 sacks yet because ripe rice plants are falling into the water again, and the water has not receded."

She said that she fell into debt buying fertilizers and medicines.

Herding and raising cows for other farmers

“The big problem is that we do not have rice to eat. When we do not have rice to eat, we have to go and buy rice at the market. There are no more rice varieties to continue farming, so we have to pay more to buy them to grow,” she said.

Sineth added that she tried dry season farming but to no avail due to lack of water. She said that because the land cannot grow anything other than rice, she has been forced to find work elsewhere, herding and raising cows for other farmers.

"This year, not even straw is left for the cows to eat, and we have to ask for straw in the fields of other people," she said with a laugh.

Roeun Sineth
Roeun Sineth

It is not just Sineth who is struggling to make ends meet and having to find another profession. Some other farmers in Battambang province's Thmor Kol district have also turned to different jobs, while others continue to farm despite facing market problems and low yields due to a lack of resources and their land not being suitable to grow other crops.

Yean Yim, 41, lives in Samrong village, Ta Men commune, Thmor Kol district, Battambang province. The former rice farmer said that it is tough to find a market for rice, it costs a lot of money to farm and is then sold cheap, so she and her family decided to grow sawtooth coriander leaves.

"Planting sawtooth coriander leaves, if planted, is more productive than farming and it is easier than farming," she said, adding the price is 5,000 riel and some traders come to buy it from her home, with a 10kg bag costing 20,000 riel.

The price of the most expensive sawtooth coriander leaves sold was 35,000 to 40,000 riel per bag, and the cheapest was 10,000 riel, she said.

"I only planted rice once, it was not sold as much as sawtooth coriander leaves, and the rice was too cheap. I started planting these sawtooth coriander leaves three or four years ago," she said. “The authorities came to train and guide and the villagers planted it together.”

Yean Yim
Yean Yim

Crabs had also eaten rice plants

Chhem Sambath, 60, is a widow living in Krasaing village, Ta Men commune, Thmor Kol district, Battambang province. "I used to have land for farming, but it was sold because it didn’t produce much yields and because of the flooding every year, I could not do it.

“Sometimes my husband and children were sick and we had no money, so I decided to sell that farmland and grow sawtooth coriander leaves up until today.”

Chham Chhop, a 72-year-old resident of Ang village, Ta Men commune, Thmor Kol district, Battambang province, said he uses three hectares of land every year to grow Vietnam long grain white rice 5451 or fragrant rice.

Standing in the sun to dry rice in front of his house, the fair-skinned man said that he doesn’t have the energy to do the work so he has to spend a lot of money to pay for plowing. He said the yields and the costs of farming have not balanced well.

He added that last year, one hectare of paddy had yielded more than four tonnes of rice and on a better year, it yielded more than 5 tonnes.

One hectare of paddy requires a few sacks of fertilizers and a lot more work spaying against worms, he said, adding that crabs had also eaten rice plants.

“If we don't do farming, we don't have anything else to do,” Chhop said.

He added that in the past, village chiefs and commune chiefs had selected rice varieties for people to plant but they still face the same problems.

"I would like to see more markets for rice so that it is easy to sell after harvest. We already have rice but it is difficult to find markets to sell,” Chhop said.

Rice prices are low

Houy Kimhong, 44, lives in Kien Kes 2 village, Kork Khmum commune, Thmor Kol district, Battambang province. She has five hectares of farmland that she has been cultivating rainy season rice on since June. In December, at the time of harvest, she got 50 bags of rice from a 2-hectare paddy due to floods, including flood overflow from neighboring Thailand. On a better year, she harvested 40 bags from one hectare of paddy.

As she dried flooded rice near her house, she said, "My field cannot grow anything else besides rice. When we are flooded like that, [officials] also come down to donate some money and provide rice seeds," she said.

She said that rice prices are low, selling between 700 to 800 riels per kilogram.

Innovative ideas

Im Rachana, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said that it is good for farmers to start growing more vegetables and come up with more innovative ideas besides growing rice to increase their income.

"For vegetable cultivation in the past, the General Department of Agriculture, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, in cooperation with other projects, has tried to organize as a group or farming community to concentrate vegetable production to increase the power to negotiate prices and facilitate the provision of agricultural extension services and provide credit for business expansion,” she said.

She added that to support the development of vegetable crops to grow, and support vegetable farmers to achieve results, the Ministry has been strengthening the capacity of farmers to equip them with skills to produce vegetables.

It has also been working to get farmers to connect to the market through agricultural contract mechanisms and continues to promote produce vegetables according to safety standards, such as CAM-GAP and CAM-ORG.

She added, "If the farmer gives up the business of growing rice completely, it is not good because at least rice can supply household food, and the price of rice fluctuates due to market demand by variety over time harvest and quality of rice.”

As for further measures, she said that the General Department of Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries will further promote rice production of good quality in line with market demand.

Change their occupation

Theng Savoeun, president of the Cambodian Agricultural Association, said that farmers should change their occupation to grow vegetables to increase revenue and occupation in agriculture.

“As for the solution that the state offers in the rice sector, it does not make them improve their lives. On the contrary, it is making it difficult for them to find markets for rice sales. But if they grow vegetables or do other work, this is an opportunity for them to make a profit and better life, increase their income and the rate of loss or risk due to market problems is also reduced.”

He added, "I continue to encourage the relevant institutions, as well as local authorities, to do their best. Education, as well as instructing people on how to grow and use these agricultural products."

[The reporters for this story are trainees at Newsroom Cambodia, a hands-on training program to learn and practice journalism]