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Rice farmers head for pastures new

Update: September, 22/2013 - 17:34
Harvest time: A combine harvester cuts through a rice field in Hau Giang Province's Vi Thuy District.

Viet Nam is famous for being the land of rice. However, an increasing number of struggling farmers are going against the grain and selling their land to search for new and more profitable work. Nguyen Thanh Ha reports.

Le Van Phuoc, 53, plans to sell the land where his family has grown rice for generations because the grain is no longer profitable.

"When our children grew up, they rushed to the big city to work in industrial zones, where they earn double or triple what we make growing rice," says the farmer, who lives in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta province of Tien Giang's Tan Binh Commune in Cho Gao District. "Costs such as seedlings and fertiliser are much higher than in the past and rice prices often fluctuate."

Phuoc estimates that he can sell the 1,500 sq.m. plot of land for about VND600 million.

Dr Le Tien Banh, rector of the Mekong River Delta's Rice Institute, says young people were increasingly giving up farming to work in urban areas because agriculture was so unprofitable. But this mass migration leaves thousands of hectares of land fallow – posing a threat to national food security. Before 2011, this occurred in several northern provinces where industrial zones were located, such as Hai Duong, Hung Yen, Bac Ninh and Hai Phong. Now the trend has spread to central and southern provinces, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development's Department for Economic Co-operation.

Like other young farmers, Nguyen Thi Lai, 21, gave up farming in the southern province of Hau Giang to work at HCM City's Tan Tao Industrial Zone.

"My parents and three siblings and I worked very hard in our 3,000sq.m field but we still faced at least a month of hunger," she said.

When her brothers found work in the city two years ago, sending home VND2-2.5 million a month, everything changed. Her youngest sister got the chance to go to school; her parents plan to sell their land and move in with one of her brothers in HCM City.

"Despite working very hard, our farmers still live a life of poverty because the price of fruit is so unstable," said Vo Thanh Duoc, chairman of the southern province of Dong Thap's Tan Thuan Dong Village, where about 2,000 households still earn a living from growing fruit and other produce. "As a result, half of our labour force (most of them youngsters) gave up farming and rushed to work in surrounding provinces such as Binh Duong."

Hard at work:Farmers in Vi Thuy District tend their rice in the field.

Farmers in the Hong (Red) River Delta are in a similar situation. "Despite working very hard and achieving many bumper crops, we earn little profit - only VND200,000-300,000 per sao (360sq.m). When our harvest fails, we suffer losses," says Bui Thi Dung, a farmer in the northern province of Hai Duong's Tho Xuyen Commune.

While her family owns 10 sao (3,600sq.m) of rice field, they can only afford to farm six sao because the price of seedlings, fertiliser and insecticide is very high. Each sao yields 150-200kg of rice, which sell for about VND1.6 million. Dung's three children traded farming for jobs in construction and dealing scrap iron in Ha Noi, as have many of her neighbours - leaving the village with a population of "elderly and young children".

The problem is not just about rice. The real question is how the Government can ensure national food security during the industrialisation and modernisation process, particularly given the added challenge that Viet Nam is one of the five nations most affected by climate change, said Nguyen Dinh Bich, a rice expert.

Nguyen Do Anh Tuan, director of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development's Centre for Agriculture Policy Consultant, said potential solutions include making it easier for farmers to acquire land through credit policies and implementing technology to help farmers increase their rice productivity and deal with natural disaster and epidemics.

Seeds of change: Many farming households in Dong Thap and Ben Tre provinces have started farming bonsai plants instead of rice, as they can earn a much higher profit.

Ultimately, farmers should replace rice with higher-value crops such as maize, potatoes and vegetables, says Tuan. Livestock feed could also be a source of profit for struggling farmers: each year Viet Nam imports 1.5-1.6 million tonnes of maize, 2.4 tonnes of soybean oil, and 600,000 tonnes of soybeans to feed livestock.

"We spend millions of US dollars every year to import soybeans and maize for livestock, so why should we not grow these crops domestically?" he says.

Le Quoc Doanh, head of the Cultivation Department, says southern provinces have favourable conditions to grow maize and soybeans.

"If science and technology are applied well to growing these crops, Viet Nam will not have to import them anymore," Doanh says.

Nguyen Thi Nga, deputy director of the Thai Binh provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said the agriculture sector was currently "building a suitable model" in which farmers could use their rice land to breed livestock or grow other crops.

Growing cash crops can be significantly more profitable than rice. During this year's summer-autumn crop, Dong Thap Province harvested VND25.3 million/ha of sesame, and VND16.6 million/ha of soybeans, but only VND2.5 million of rice, says Mai Thanh Phung of the Centre for National Promotion of Agriculture.

And while rice farmers are leaving their fields, those growing coffee, rubber and pepper are still satisfied.

Rice farmers earn VND2-2.5 million/ha; a coffee farmer can earn VND100 million/ha, says former deputy prime minister Nguyen Cong Tan, who was first to suggest that Viet Nam should reduce its 2 million ha of rice land from the current 3.8 million ha. He argued that the rice price would then double, making farmers feel more secure.

Fruits of their labour: Like their counterparts in the Mekong Delta, some farmers in the northern province of Hung Yen are using their ineffective rice land to instead grow fruit trees, for which there is high demand.

Tan, who was in charge of the country's agriculture sector for years, helped turn the poor country into one of the world's top rice exporters, a status it has occupied for almost 25 years. His proposition shows that Viet Nam is serious about changing its agricultural structure.

"Our current agriculture policy needs to be amended," he says. "We should implement trial renewal policies for agriculture in a certain area, say a province or a region, for 10 years."

If Viet Nam implements a new land policy and applies modern science and technology, the country's agricultural revenue could reach $100 billion, says Tan.

"Rice farmers should be proud of producing this valuable crop and they should be able to become rich from farming," he says. — VNS

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