Falling Vegetable Prices Leave Cambodian Farmers in a Bind

Many say they cannot generate enough money from sales of their products to finance their operations or pay bank loans.

Pumpkins for sale sit along a roadside in Thala Borivath district of northeastern Cambodia's Stung Treng province, August 2016.

Plunging pumpkin and corn prices in Cambodia are driving farmers in two provinces to destroy their crops and block roads in protest in an effort to convince the government to help develop the agricultural market, growers in the two areas said on Thursday.

Farmers in Sam Ang commune, Thala Borivath district, in northeastern Cambodia’s Stung Treng province said they have destroyed several tons of pumpkins because plunging prices have left them unable to offset their labor costs.

They have now called on government to help develop the market for their vegetables, they said.

As a result of falling prices, most of them are now heavily indebted, and their lands are subject to confiscation by banks from which they have taken out loans, they said.

Phann Narith, a farmer in Sam Ang commune, said on Thursday that farmers have been concerned for years about falling prices for their produce and a lack of markets where they can sell them, though government institutions have said they would resolve the issue.

Some farmers who grow pumpkins on small plots of land ranging from one to five hectares per household have decided to destroy several tons of the vegetable because of falling prices, he said.

The price of pumpkins has hit its lowest point ever at between 150-180 riels (U.S. $0.036-0.044) per kilogram comparing to an average price of 1,000 riels (U.S. $0.24) per kilo two years ago, he said.

“Other farmers, including me, have borrowed money [from banks] to [grow pumpkins], and we depend on being able to sell them to repay the loans,” he said. “I requested that the government help find [new] agricultural markets for pumpkin farmers because we are heavily indebted,” he said.

Another farmer, Chhoeun Chhay, said he has little hope that area growers will be able to settle their debts without intervention from the government and nongovernmental organizations.

Some farmers have been forced to look for work outside Cambodia to earn enough money to pay off their loans because they have had to borrow millions of riels from banks or microfinance institutions to get capital for their farming operations, he said.

“Around 30-40 percent of them have chosen to migrate to Thailand and China so that they can earn money [to survive],” he said.

With prices of pumpkins and other produce such as potatoes continuing to fall, farmers now do not have enough money to buy fuel for their tricycle tractors, he said.

A sensitive issue

Un Sokha, acting head of the Stung Treng Provincial Department of Commerce, could not be reached for comment on the issue.

Stung Treng province spokesman Men Kong said provincial authorities do not have grounds for controlling the fluctuating prices of agricultural products, but instead have encouraged relevant institutions to study the issue and determine the causes of drastic price drops.

Authorities always encourage farmers to familiarize themselves with fruit and vegetable prices in other regions before deciding to sell their produce, he said.

“Middlemen or traders purchase agricultural products at lower prices so that farmers must study prices [in other regions] before they decide sell their produce through middlemen or traders,” Men Kong said.

“Our working group always disseminated this information to farmers when visiting them at their localities,” he said.

Ngeth Chou, an economy and finance expert, considers the falling prices a sensitive issue to which the government must pay attention and not leave farmers in the lurch by having to sell their agricultural products according to their own luck.

He suggests that the government help farmers market their agricultural products as a measure to improve the national economy and reduce the occurrence of various social crises such as migration.

“Such market connections can’t happen just by thinking about them. Farmers today say they don’t have an adequate market for their agricultural products,” he said, adding that there should be a liaison to which farmers can turn to help them sell their fruits and vegetables.

Farmers now appear to be losing faith that the government will resolve the pricing issues for them.

Protest over corn prices

Hundreds of farmers in the Kamrieng district of northwestern Cambodia’s Battambang province staged a daylong protest on Thursday, blocking roads in downtown Takry commune, to show their displeasure with the rapidly dropping price of corn.

Farmers used more than 100 trucks to block crossroad number 30 in the commune’s heavily trafficked downtown area.

Nak Vanny, a farmer who participated in the protest, told RFA that he has lost at least U.S. $20,000 annually for the last two consecutive years because of falling corn prices.

Farmers have asked authorities to intervene to ensure that their corn can be sold at a price of at least 400-600 riels per kilogram so they can offset their production costs, he said.

Growers in Kamrieng district decided to stage the protest to put pressure on authorities to help them, he said.

In the past, traders from neighboring Thailand bought dried corn from the farmers at an average price of five baht, or 600 riels, per kilo, Nak Vanny said. But now the traders will purchase them for only 3 baht, or 400 riels, per kilo or less.

The protest ended after Battambang provincial authorities promised to address the issue within three days.

Yang Saing Komar, former director of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), said the root causes of the plunging pumpkin and corn prices might stem from the fact that agricultural products such as rice, corns, beans, and sesame are all low quality and fail to meet market demand, or that farmers have failed to form communities or groups to facilitate produce sales.

He also noted that the government and relevant ministries are providing less support to farmers than they have done in the past.

The government is fully capable of stopping prices from falling by encouraging companies or firms to process agricultural products domestically rather than exporting them, or by directly contacting overseas markets, Yang Saing Komar said.

In addition, government officials could teach farmers better production techniques or let them create a group or community to sell their output, he said.

At the same time, the state should provide additional loans to companies to purchase agricultural products from farmers, he said.

Reported by Chanthy Men and Sonorng Khe for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.