|Cash crop: Farmer Ha Cong Que and his wife in Phu Tho Province's Van Luong Commune harvest resin from son trees, which bring them a net profit of VND60-80 million a year. Many farmers in Phu Tho Province are earning high incomes thanks to the trees. — VNA/VNS Photo Tran Viet
by Dao An - Trung Hieu
Under the hot summer sun, a middle-aged man with a sharp knife in his right hand and a small plastic bucket in his left busily collects lacquer resin from a tree.
"My family has over 1,000 trees, of which more than a half can be exploited," he says cheerfully as he goes dutifully about his work.
For Ta Phuong Thanh, a resident of Phu Tho Province's Tam Nong District, resin has been an unlikely saviour. Previously a rice farmer struggling to support his family and send his children to school due to small crops, he took a risk and decided to collect resin instead.
He has been planting son (lacquer) trees (Toxicodendron succecdanea), which are a prime source for resin, ever since.
"With the current prices, we earn an average monthly income of nearly VND10 million (US$450) from the sale of resin from the trees. The forest is helping reduce poverty for many households in my neighbourhood," he says contentedly. "Now I can send my children to school and we never go hungry".
Lacquer resin trees now have an increasing economic value and have become the main source of income for thousands of farmer households in the district. The resin has been exported to many countries to be used in processed paint, creating an income of tens of billion of dong for the local people each year.
At present, more than 70 per cent of Tam Nong's resin is being exported to foreign countries, mainly China, Japan and some countries in Western Europe.
So why is the district's resin so popular?
The brand name "Tam Nong Lacquer Resin" has gradually formed a strong identity in the market, with painters and business people alike quick to praise it as the best available resin in Viet Nam thanks to its grip and durability.
As well as in paint, lacquer resin produced in the district can be used by enterprises to make handicrafts and souvenirs as an adhesive or varnishing agent.
In addition, the roots, leaves, bark and fruit of the lacquer tree are also widely used by Vietnamese doctors to treat anhydrous asthma, chronic hepatitis, stomach pain, injuries from falling, bone fractures, bleeding wounds and tuberculosis.
Thanks to its good quality, in recent years the consumption of the resin in the domestic market has been on the rise. Combined with demand from abroad, the industry has become a lucrative one and as a result, a large swathe of land has been made available to plant these trees.
Tam Nong is not the only locality where people can make good money from planting son trees.
Since local people began developing tree planting in 2011, Vo Mieu Commune in the nearby Thanh Son District has welcomed more than 500 households exploiting resin across a total area of nearly 70ha.
Pham Van Ly, deputy chief of the commune's People's Committee, said the tree is high in economic value; therefore people constantly want to expand planting areas.
"Some households have planted literally thousands of trees, and most of them can now be harvested," he says.
The trees have been also planted successfully in the mountainous areas of Tuyen Quang, Ha Giang, Nghe An and Thanh Hoa provinces.
Tam Nong District's 12 communes are now mostly covered in a son forest. The total area is larger than 520ha, of which 380ha can be harvested, creating an output of up to 140 tonnes a year. To expand the growing area, Tam Nong has specifically set aside fertile lands on hills and low mountains.
Resin prices in Tam Nong currently range from VND200,000-300,000 per kilogram, depending on the time of year. This is an increase of 20 per cent from 2012.
Once exploited by farmers, the resin is purchased immediately by traders. For households in the district, the situation could hardly be better.
In some of the agricultural communes, such as Tho Van, Di Nau and Quang Huc, in just a few years the area has been expanded to hundreds of hectares, attracting a large number of households. When they arrived, many families boldly planted thousands of trees and now are able to harvest hundreds of kilograms of resin each year.
Local authorities have supported the expansion, well aware that the trees are now the district's biggest money-grabber.
Ha Van Tan, the chairman of Tho Van Commune People's Committee, has publicly hailed them as "the trees of poverty reduction", which he says are allowing people to send their children into education, improve their homes and enjoy a better standard of life, a long way from the hand-to-mouth existences they used to lead.
"In the past, many families ignored whole hills of the trees and didn't consider harvesting resin because its price was low," Tan says. "Today though, there has been a surge in demand and farmers can now collect resin every day from these trees, retrieving as much as 2.2 kilograms per year from each one. The income from this is many times higher than rice cultivation."
Farmers, like Thanh have mostly focused on planting red lacquer trees, which supply higher quality and higher amounts of resin than other strains of lacquer trees.
Tan says the district chose to focus on red lacquer trees after scientific research, and is now specifically breeding them in nurseries, organizing training courses for farmers and supplying saplings, all as part of their goal to successfully build up the "Tam Nong Lacquer Resin" brand name.
Farmers are also being advised on how to label and market their products to increase sales.
"We have tightened management for tree growers to avoid trivialising product quality and negatively impacting our brand name," Tan declares.
The district's ambitious plans for the future don't end there. Also in the pipeline is a plan to establish professional offices to assess soil quality and find new ways of boosting tree productivity. It also wants to set up new craft villages and expand markets to facilitate the development of the product.
All this bodes well for Thanh and his fellow farmers, who by taking a leap of faith and planting lacquer resin trees have also planted the seeds for a brighter future. — VNS