|New crop: Farmers gather lychees at Lao Cai International border pass for export to China. — VNA Photo Hong Hoa
by Nguyen My Ha
It is early summer and not yet the harvest season for apples in Europe, but the shelves of all supermarkets and even restaurants in Warsaw were stacked with the fruit.
"Where do they come from?" I asked our hosts when we met last month in the Polish capital.
Poland's Undersecretary of State Katarzyna Kacperczyk said, "We are very proud to announce that Poland is one of the world's top apple exporters."
Then she said, "We believe that we can maintain good quality with smaller farms."
Kacperczyk was speaking with a group of visiting Vietnamese reporters last month in her capacity as the official in charge of overseeing Poland's relationship with Viet Nam. She said she would like to present the success of small-and medium-sized farms and plantations in Poland. "Poland also exports processed meat and our agricultural exports are Poland's strengths," she added.
Poland's business credentials in several sectors are impressive. Since it joined the European Union in May 2004, the country's gross domestic product (GDP) has risen substantially.
"We are No 1 in central and eastern Europe in terms of business attractiveness and we are No 3 in creating jobs for foreign investors," said Anna Barbarzak, acting director of Economic Cooperation Department under Poland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
For me, one of the striking features of Poland's agricultural achievements under the market economy was that they were made possible by many small farms and agricultural plantations.
Poland exported four million tonnes of apples last year, and small co-operatives like Nasz Sad with an exporting capacity of 20,000 tonnes a year are small pieces in the puzzle that make up the bigger picture.
"Now we are the world's No 1 apple exporter over China," said Dariusz Szymanski, a farmer and sales manager for Nasz Sad, a co-operative of 31 independent farmers producing cherry, raspberry and apple plantations.
|Yes he can: A worker at the Bac Giang Foodstuff Export Joint Stock Company (BAVECO) runs a production line for canned lychees. — VNA Photo Pham Hau
The co-operative covers a flatland area of 360ha. The farmers harvest apples during September and October every year, but they export all year round.
"The apples harvested during summer are consumed in the local market," Szymanski said. "We need to make sure that the apples harvested later in October can last between one and two months during shipment to markets far away. We cannot ship if they don't last that long."
In the company's large computer-monitored storage room, where craters of apples are piled up to the ceiling, Szymanski explained each step that the fruit had to go through - cleaning, sorting and packing - before they could leave the farm in refrigerated trucks to neighbouring countries like Russia and the Baltic states, or as far as the Middle East, Mongolia and Kazakhstan in Asia.
In an interview last Sunday on the VTV1 Channel, Minister of Science and Technology Nguyen Quan answered questions emailed to the programme by viewers, many of them farmers.
He told more than 60 million Vietnamese farmers, who account for more than 65 per cent of the total population and more than half of the labour force, that "using science and technology in preserving and processing produce will be the savior of our agricultural sector."
His answer was broadcasted amid the height of the lychee harvest season in Luc Ngan District in Bac Giang Province, 90km north of Ha Noi.
In the hilly district, farmers, who count their plantations by the numbers of hills they plant the fruit trees on, have to hire labour to pick the fruit and take them to wholesale markets on motorised vehicles to sell to merchants, mostly Chinese, who then move on to transport the fruit to other destinations.
China has for long been a traditional consumer of lychee from Viet Nam.
More than 2,000 years ago, historical records show that Han Wu Di (156-87BC), one of China's most important Emperors who ruled the country for more than half a century, really loved the fruit. He ordered that the people of Jiaozhi (Giao Chi, in Vietnamese), or the northern part of Viet Nam today then under Chinese domination, send lychees as an annual tribute.
|Sorting process: Owner Szymanski of Nasz Sad shows the process of cleaning, polishing and assorting harvested apples in his co-operative. — VNS Photo My Ha
Later, under the Tang Dynasty, lychee was the favourite fruit of one of China's Four Ancient Beauties, Yang Gueifei, the consort of Emperor Xuanzong during his later years.
The Emperor was so fond of her that he ordered the fruit, which was grown in Jiaoshi, delivered by the imperial courier's fast horses, whose riders would work day and night shifts so that the fruit were still fresh when they reached their destination.
People of later generations have attributed part of the secret behind Lady Yang's beauty to her consumption of the precious lychee, which until the later part of the 20th century was a delicacy only the royals and privileged could enjoy.
In the 1990s, farmers from Hai Duong Province started to plant the lychee in the hilly region of Luc Ngan District. Now it's the largest lychee growing region in the country, covering 18,000ha.
"This year we expect to harvest 90,000 tonnes of the fruit," said Tran Van Minh, chairman of Luc Ngan District Farmers' Association, which has more than 30,000 members.
The time frame for harvesting lychee ranges between 30 to 60 days. They are either sold fresh to merchants who pack them in 20kg ice boxes that are placed in containers to be transported by road to wholesale markets in the south.
Another method of preserving that local farmers use is to dry the fruit. Family-owned furnaces can dry between 150-250kilos of fruit on a square metre for 70-90hours per session.
"This year, the production (of dry lychees) went down a little bit to between 15,000-20,000 tonnes," Minh said.
|Brief harvest: Lychee has to be picked during a window of less than two months. VNS Photo
A local State-owned factory that produces canned fruit for export to the western European market can only process 100 tonnes (of lychees per season) and is currently dwindling.
"Having a refrigerated warehouse for the lychee is not only my dream," Minh said. "It will be very helpful for our fellow farmers."
Exportation of lychees in Luc Ngan relies on merchants to transport south to larger wholesale fruit markets in the Mekong Delta and north to cross border to China.
The Minister of Science and Technology has said that there are small-scale post-harvest projects with preliminary technology to preserve fresh fruit for export. The second and third phases will transfer the complete technology package.
"I hope that in the coming years many Vietnamese businesses will invest in this technology to help our farmers," the Minister said.
"The good news is that Japan's ABI group has agreed that the Ministry of Science and Technology shall be the contact point for technology transfer, so if any of you would like to know more about this technology and the ongoing process, please contact our ministry," he added.
During the programme that is broadcast live on national television, a lychee farmer posed a tough question. "I sell lychee for only VND8,000 a kilo, but I've learned that just a few fruit can be sold in Japan for a few hundred thousand dong. Could you advise me on how to keep the lychee fresh from our farm to the market in Japan? Because we work hard for months but have to sell our fruit at dirt cheap prices."
Minister Quan answered: "I know that we are negotiating with our clients from Japan. To enter the Japanese market, our fruit has to meet its standards. At first we will have to revise our planting process to ensure that it meets VietGAP (Good Agricultural Practices for production of fresh fruit and vegetables in Viet Nam) standards set by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
"Later, the orchards will have to meet requirements of other markets that import our fruits.
"Next week, the first container of 10 tonnes of lychee from Luc Ngan will head to Japan for the first time. If the market reacts well, then next year, we will help our farmers sell their lychees in Japan."
If the preservation issue is resolved, this delicious fruit from Viet Nam, can travel far and wide, and delight people in distant countries, as well as the farmers who grow the fruit. — VNS