by Thu Huong Le
In Ha Noi this summer, watermelons are being stacked up by the sides of roads, getting sold for VND6,000-8,000 per kilo, which is lower than the price of a motorbike parking ticket.
The watermelons are transported to the city from growers in provinces such as Hai Duong, Hung Yen, Hoa Binh, and Thanh Hoa. That is, however, not the lowest price recorded.
Growers can only get between VND1,000-VND2,000 per kilo if they sell to traders in the field.
In the Mekong Delta this month, growers have had to sell watermelon to traders for VND2,000-4,000 per kilo, and output is estimated at 4 to 4,5 tonnes per hectare.
Amid all of this, a farmer in Hai Duong moans: "one kilo of watermelon can only buy a pack of toothpicks."
In essence, the entire sector has a reason to be miserable as the prices of many agriculture products have dropped, including rice, coffee, rubber, tea, cassava.
According to the latest statistics from the Agriculture Ministry's planning department, most of the main agriculture exports have seen a drop in both price and quantity from the start of June.
Coffee saw a reduction of 24.2 per cent in quantity and 22.4 per cent in price, with rice experienced declines of 7 per cent and 10 per cent respectively, it showed.
More specifically, earlier this month, the local price of robusta coffee sat at VND39, 800 a kilo in Dak Lak Province, the country's main coffee region. According to media reports, this is the lowest since February 1.
Rice is inevitably in the same boat. According to Viet Nam Food Association Chairman Truong Thanh Phong, the price of exported rice dropped on average by US$22.81 per tonne in the first five months of the year to its lowest price since 2008.
The association explained that it was due to supply exceeding demand and the exports were to reduce domestic stockpiles.
During his question-and-answer session at the National Assembly on June 13, Minister of Agriculture Cao Duc Phat admitted that he was "deeply concerned" at the situation as farmers were suffering from plugging prices during bumper crops.
The minister said that his ministry was doing all it could to come up with long-term solutions, such as focusing on growing products and raising livestock that have definite output markets or preventing traders and companies from imposing low prices on farmers.
These answers did not seem to satisfy many of the NA members or the public. NA Chairman Nguyen Sinh Hung said the agricultural sector was not doing enough to punish illegal agricultural traders, which hurt output markets and that supporting policies must direct the benefits to the farmers, so they did not have to wait for Government subsidies.
For a quarter of the century, agriculture has been praised as the backbone of the economy, lifting the nation out of poverty. Even in 2012 during difficult times, agriculture still recorded an increase in export volume.
As the government was rolling out methods to save the real estate market or other sectors, farmers have never felt more left behind, even though restructuring the agricultural sector with a focus on quality has always been on the agenda.
It's a never ending problem. Farmers invest on raising their livestock or crops but can't find output markets. According to experts, besides casava and sugarcane, which are backed up by big businesses, most agriculture products are consumed through small-scale channels, particularly traders, with little support from organisations who can help to maintain stable prices.
Prices are much higher when the products reach the consumers. The absence of efficient market regulations has also hurt both farmers and consumers.
And it's the same story every year, especially during and after harvest time. In a recent interview on national television, Minister of Science and Technology Nguyen Quan said the lack of preserving and processing technologies was also a major reason for prices dropping during bumper crops.
He said the Ministry was looking at implementing preservation technology in cooperation with Japanese partners, which could help with storage in the future, for example, Hai Duong watermelons for a number of years, not just several months.
Last week, a laboratory using the Cell Alive System method in preserving agriculture products developed by Japanese scientists was inaugurated in Ha Noi. This was a good sign for the sector but more long-term solutions and genuine commitments are needed in the near future.
We need to enable and motivate scientists to conduct research on seedlings that have high yields and turn out quality products, and also methods to preserve other agriculture commodities such as coffee and pepper. However quality must come first.
A genuine commitment is needed to regulate the coordination of the output market and balance out the benefits to traders and farmers. Competitiveness must be encouraged as well as assisting farmers to adopt more credible agriculture brands that can be recognised worldwide.
As part of the National Products Programme, Viet Nam has selected some, both in agriculture and industry for in-depth investment following a technology chain from the first to the final phase.
Rice, tra fish and mushrooms are all regarded as national products, which are expected to become Vietnamese-branded products. By 2015, research into these products is expected to be completed then a move to large-scale production after 2015-20.
Can farmers remain optimistic about the future? It remains to be seen, as they hope the minister can back his "deeply concerned" comment with actions. The actions must also be put into practice and felt by the market.
So the price of watermelon could just get sweeter. — VNS