|Country living: Farmers grow onions at a farm in Tra Que Village, which hosts farming and rural lifestyle tours for visitors. — VNS Photos Cong Thanh
Tra Que Village in Hoi An City is becoming a destination for its farm tours through vegetable gardens. The village is now known as a producer of essential natural oils derived from herbs for the cosmetic industry. Hoai Nam reports
Nguyen Kim Bay, 48, a farmer in Tra Que Village, located 2km from Hoi An Town, could earn only a little money from his four-member family's 400sq.m vegetable garden.
He earned about VND4 million (US$190) per month from the sale of vegetables at local markets, while other odd jobs brought some more income for his family's daily expenditure.
The villagers then started earning more by organising farm tours for visitors or by supplying clean and safe organic vegetables (grown without the use of chemical fertilisers or growth additives) to supermarkets in the acient town and the neighbouring Da Nang City.
Such vegetable gardens have helped to develop the village's brand and farm tours are helping to supplement the income of the local people.
|Versatile: Red Sycamore seeds can be used in snacks and cookies, and the tree's bark is used in handbags.
Now, gardening, seen a major source of income for the nearly 3,000-strong population in the village over the past four centuries, could well turn out to be a successful business, as some oils and other products can be extracted from vegetables for the cosmetic industry.
Brand new industry
An area of 18ha, allocated for organic vegetable farming under a brand name recognised by the Intellectual Property Rights Office of Viet Nam in 2009, will be used to make essential oils only.
"It's a very new industry in suburban Hoi An City. The villagers will earn more with vegetable farms becoming essential oil suppliers along with tourist services," Le Thuy Hien, director of Viet Nam Natural Cosmetics Company, said.
"We want to develop Tra Que Village as a new brand in a sustainable way to ensure villagers' incomes and to develop a value chain for the industry, along with tourist services," Hien said.
She said her company, which has experience in producing essential oils for cosmetics in Viet Nam since 2007, was constructing the largest plant for production of essential oils in Quang Nam Province.
Hien said various herbs such as basil, mint, coriander (coriandrum sativum) or Chinese parsley, besides citronella and other cosmetic herbs from the village garden were rich in oil, comprising 15 to 20 per cent in composition.
|From nature: Herbs and Red Sycamore seeds from the Cham Islands off the coast of Hoi An can be used for natural essential oil production and cosmetics.
She said products such as shampoo, shower cream, skin cream and soap, besides perfumes with natural aroma could be made with the products of vegetable farms in Tra Que Village.
Hien said a plant to manufacture vegetable oil would be built at Hoi An's Thanh Ha Industrial Park over 2,500sq.m, with a total investment of VND60 billion (US$2.7 million).
It would be the company's largest plant in Viet Nam, after the ones built in Ha Giang, Vinh Phuc and Yen Bai in the North.
Nguyen Van Nghi, an expert in essential oil research, said Tra Que and the suburbs along the rivers of Thu Bon and Ba in Quang Nam Province had natural potential for essential oil production from vegetables and herbs.
"Alluvium on the river banks of the villages in Dien Ban and Dai Loc districts and Tra Que provide vast areas for aromatic herbs farms, ensuring profitable agriculture and sustainable development for the local people," Nghi said.
"Natural oil cosmetics, functional food, massage oils and healthcare products from Viet Nam are popular in Europe, while there is a lot of potential to develop essential oil plants in the country," he said.
Nghi said local farmers had to be trained in various techniques and a strict farming process should be established to develop oil extraction plants.
He said local people in places such as Hung Yen, Ha Nam, Quang Nam and Ha Giang, besides Yen Bai and Dien Bien could be encouraged to grow materials for the natural essential oil industry.
Hoang Dong, chief executive officer of the Viet Nam Natural Cosmetics Company, said Tra Que Village could produce 18 tonnes of vegetables for producing oil used in cosmetics, which were superior in quality compared with the vegetables sold in the super market.
"Farmers could earn only a few thousand dong from selling vegetables in the market, but they can make profits ranging from VND500,000 ($23) to VND1.5 million ($67) from hi-tech oil production in their gardens," Dong said, adding that the perfume produced from basil oil was popular in Europe.
"They (vegetable growers) can join a value chain of natural essential oil production with higher productivity and incomes. About 1.5 tonne of cosmetics and essential oils can be made from one tonne of basil at Tra Que garden."
|Beauty product: Bottles of essential oil extracted from herbs and Red Sycamore seeds are displayed at a shop in Hoi An.
Dong said Tra Que was fully qualified to develop as a producer of natural oils in the long term, with its 500-year tradition of farming and application of organic processes over the past years.
He said local farmers used manure made of sea weeds and fresh water only in their gardens.
He said farmers involved in traditional farming and oil production had made changes in their way of life and gardening practices.
"They will join a value chain, a very new concept in industry, allowing economic integration of Vietnamese farmers with the world. It means that vegetable growers will participate in all the process of oil production from sowing of seeds to preparing of marketable products," Dong said.
He said farmers needed more education to improve their awareness about the strict regulations that govern cultivation of herbs to reach international standards. These regulations cover everything, extending from raw materials to final packaging of oil or cosmetic products for export.
Pham Meo, a farmer in Tra Que, said he was very surprised with the impact of essential oil production.
"It's a huge change. Earlier, we earned only from working hard in the garden, along with tourist services that started booming a few years ago. However, we are very positive about the new industry that uses our vegetable farms as we can increase our incomes," Meo said.
"We provide vegetables to most restaurants and supermarkets in Hoi An, and offer farm tours to tourists, along with gardening experience," he said, adding that the village was safe for tourists and gastronomes.
"Villagers use a mixture of ginger, chilli, garlic and alcohol to drive away insects and worms from the garden. That's the way we have developed our safe and good-quality brand of vegetables made in Tra Que," the 75-year-old said, adding that villagers always committed to provide the best natural products.
Chairman of Hoi An City People's Committee Nguyen Van Dung said natural essential oil production would develop the Tra Que brand, making it a favourite destination for safe farm products.
"There is good co-operation between farmers and businesses. We'll give all support to improve the value of the village's products, besides tourism and agriculture," Dung said.
"Tra Que will be known as a peaceful village that produces essential oils with its herbs and has friendly people in the tourist Hoi An hub. We do hope that the villagers can be part of a value chain that extends from farming to oil production."
Red sycamore tapped
Besides Tra Que farms, Cham Island, located 20km off Hoi An, which was recognised as a world biosphere reserve by the UNESCO in 2009, also has the potential to make essential oils from the seeds of the large red sycamore tree (firmiana colorata), commonly known as Chinese parasol tree.
The Hoi An City's economic office has introduced new craft products that the islanders produce from the tree's bark and seeds such as bags, hammocks and cookies.
|Homegrown treat: Red Sycamore seeds (firmiana colorata), commonly known as the Chinese parasol tree in the Cham Islands, can be used in painting or tea making.
Dong said an initial survey showed that the red sycamore forest on the island produced 300kg of seeds, which yielded 40 litres of essential oils per harvest for the manufacture of skin creams and lipsticks.
Tran Quy Tay, from Cham Island's people's committee, said the people had been making hammocks from the tree's bark for the past 70 years.
"The islanders have been making gifts derived from natural products for years. String from the tree bark can be used for packaging of bird nests or crabs in recognition of the made-in-Cham Island products for several decades, while the seeds are cooked and eaten as a snack," Tay said.
"Handmade hammocks made from the tree bark are special gifts for tourists, as the islanders take at least one month to make them," he said.
Tay said a long-term plan was needed for proper use of the tree's seeds and bark.
"Over-exploitation of the seeds would destroy the island ecology that we have conserved for years. The red sycamore tree, which grows wild on mountains, often gives the island a red-yellow hue every September," Tay said.
He said three firmiana colorata trees, which started growing on the island 200 years ago, were recognised as heritage trees by the Viet Nam Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment.
He said the red sycamore forest was a treasure of the pristine island, and needed tender handling to balance industrial production for profit and conservation of nature.
Tay said Cham Islands, with a population of 2,400, was home to 1,500ha of tropical forests, hosting a diverse marine fauna and flora, including many endangered species.
Most of the islanders have switched their occupations from fishing to eco-tourism that provides double the income, ever since the island was recognised as a world biosphere reserve in 2009.
Hien, director of the Viet Nam Natural Cosmetics Company, said natural essential oil production must ensure sustainable development and conservation of nature.
"We focus on herbs in Tra Que as a major producer of oil for cosmetics production, while the essential oil extracted from the red sycamore trees in the Cham Islands can be reserved for limited cosmetics products," she said.
"We have to balance profit and nature conservation with strict rules and by maintaining international standards. We want to create made-in-Hoi An products that connect with tourism and culture," she said. — VNS