Farmers shift to more resilient crops in the Delta

November 05, 2017 - 09:00

Beset by climate change impacts, Mekong Delta farmers give up on rice, but the real answer lies in organic farming, experts aver.

Wrapped fruit: Bùi Văn Buôn checks on the tứ quý mangoes in his garden in Bến Tre Province. — VNS Photo Hoàng Nguyên
Viet Nam News

Beset by climate change impacts, Mekong Delta farmers give up on rice, but the real answer lies in organic farming, experts aver.

By Hoàng Nguyên

MEKONG DELTA – When Bùi Văn Muôn decided to grow tứ quý mango trees 16 years ago, he did not expect the fruit would become a key agricultural crop cultivated to adapt to climate change.

“Back then, when I asked neighbours to buy and plant tứ quý mango trees here, they showed little interest as the fruit tasted a bit sour and they thought it might not fetch good prices in the market,” the 50-year-old farmer in Bến Tre Province recalled.

Farmers in the area had never considered growing other crops than watermelons and jicamas, as most of the farmland in the coastal communes of Thạnh Phong (Muôn’s hometown) and in Thạnh Hải in Thạnh Phú District is composed of sandy soil.

But times have changed.

With climate change, the area has seen more frequent rains, saline intrusion, flooding and drought, leading to lower yields and losses for jicama growers.

Fluctuating prices have also taken a toll on watermelon farmers. When yields are good, prices fall.

Meanwhile, Muôn’s bet on mangoes is paying off.

“You can always make a profit from growing mangoes. Sometimes it’s high and sometimes it’s low, but it’s never a loss,” he said.

A kilo of tứ quý mangoes can be sold for VNĐ12,000 (50 US cents) and sometimes up to VNĐ20,000, compared to jicamas that sell for VNĐ2,000-3,000, while the price of watermelon fluctuates, depending on the harvest season and market demand.

Starting with 5,000sq.m of land for his tứ quý mangos, Muôn has now expanded the area to two hectares. One hectare of mango trees aged 9-10 years yields a profit of about VNĐ250 million per year.

Tứ quý (meaning four seasons as it bears fruit year-round) mango trees now trail only rice and coconut as a key agricultural product in the province.

The mango plant is resilient to saline intrusion and drought that pose a challenge to agricultural production in the Mekong Delta, especially in coastal areas. And the sandy soil is also a perfect fit for the fruit.

For the past three years, many farmers in Thạnh Phong and Thạnh Hải communes have been growing tứ quý mangoes, as they are easy to take care of and yield higher incomes than other crops, according to Trương Thanh Hải, head of Thạnh Phú District’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Last year, the department set up a mango co-operative of 100 tứ quý mango household growers to connect them with companies that can get export contracts.

New crops

The Mekong Delta last year was hit by the worst drought in the last nine decades, along with saltwater intrusion on a massive scale.

The country’s biggest rice basket suffered losses of more than VNĐ4.7 trillion ($207 million) due to natural disasters, with some 225,000 households lacking fresh water for daily use and irrigation.

Thạnh Phú District alone lost 7,700ha of rice and 1,500ha of blue-clawed prawns which had been bred in paddy fields. Coconut yield fell by 50 per cent. The district’s loss was estimated at around VNĐ180 billion.

Following the drought, many farmers in the district began to grow coconut and grass for cows on around 330ha, replacing ineffective paddy fields.

Farmers also started looking for new types of crops more resilient to the impact of climate change. They called this process “going upland”, meaning turning part or all of their rice paddies into gardens.

Bến Tre Province has shifted more than 7,500ha of rice paddies to orchards or aquaculture farms, and neighbouring Tiền Giang Province has also followed a similar trend.

Since the beginning of the year, around 2,300ha of rice fields in Tiền Giang have been switched to fruits and vegetables that bring higher yields and more economic value.

Trần Thị Hồng Châu, 63, of Song Bình Commune in Tiền Giang’s Chợ Gạo District, has given up on rice and grows green-skinned pomelos now.

She owns 4,500sq.m of pomelos and makes an annual income of VNĐ200 million, which has helped put her four kids through college.

“This area is not good for growing rice as it is usually flooded because of the river nearby,” Châu said.

The new farming trend in the region appears to be supported by data released at an international conference held in Cần Thơ last September on resilience and sustainable development in the Mekong Delta.

This is better: Trần Thị Hồng Châu in Tiền Giang Province has switched from rice to pomeloes. — VNS Photo Hoàng Nguyên

Results from the Việt Nam Household Living Standards Survey showed that per capita rice consumption in the Mekong Delta fell from 10.89 kilos per month in 2008 to 9.38 kilos per month in 2014.

The World Bank predicts that Việt Nam’s rice consumption will fall by about 10 per cent by 2030, while that of meat, milk, seafood, vegetables and fruits will double compared to 2009 figures.

It also forecasts that Việt Nam’s fruit demand will increase to seven million tonnes annually by 2030 from five million tonnes in 2009.

“In the past 25 years or so, in the name of food security, Việt Nam has pursued an unwritten rice first policy which focuses on maximising rice production,” said Nguyễn Hữu Thiện, an independent researcher who has worked for decades on natural resource management, biodiversity, sustainable livelihoods, and climate change in the Mekong Basin countries.

“However, after all this time, intensive rice cultivation has not helped farmers thrive, while depleting the soil of nutrients and polluting the environment with excessive amounts of fertilizers and agro-chemicals.

“In the context of climate change, farmers have to deal with many uncertainties. No scientist or computer model will be able to provide exact predictions. It is understandable and in fact advisable that farmers seek to diversify their crops and livelihoods.”

At a September conference on sustainable development in the Mekong Delta in the context of climate change, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc reiterated that the region would take an adaptive approach, respecting the rules of nature instead of fighting them with a “fortress defence approach”.

“This means that livelihoods and farming systems will be flexible and take advantage of changes in the environment (soil, weather, etc.),” the researcher said.

“For example, instead of trying to build mega-structures to maintain rice and freshwater farming systems near the coast, farmers can switch to saline or brackish farming systems permanently or seasonally.

"Agriculture will be redirected away from intensive farming toward a more sustainable agriculture producing quality products while conserving land and protecting the environment, especially water resources.

“Of course, any transformation and especially any changes in the way of thinking and working is a long and challenging process. Persistence is required.”

Clean agriculture

Kỷ Quang Vinh, former chief of the Cần Thơ Climate Change Coordination Office, warned that switching from rice to new crops or aquaculture might not always be a good idea.

“Agricultural production and farmers’ incomes will be unstable regardless of what kind of crops they grow if they do it the wrong way,” he said.

The delta is coping with problems caused by both natural and human factors, and this needs to be recognised and addressed, according to Vinh.

“Floods and drought are occurring more frequently due to climate change, but that’s just one factor; human activities are another,” Vinh said.

Việt Nam is located in the lower Mekong River basin and nearly 100 per cent of the water flow to the delta comes from outside the country.

Vinh is worried that the building of hydropower dams, deforestation and urbanisation on upstream sections of the river also affects the water level, this makes it difficult to ensure water for agricultural production.

Worsening water pollution is another problem created by household activities and agricultural and industrial production.

The shortage of fresh water has led to overexploitation of groundwater, and the delta has been sinking at a faster rate.

There are places that are sinking by up to four centimetres each year.

To ensure that farmers can make a living on their land, the Government and authorities should ensure sufficient water for irrigation and domestic use, and also take measures to prevent land subsidence, Vinh said.

Instead of asking farmers to change crops, authorities should inform farmers about products that are selling well and then let them decide what to grow, he said.

Co-operatives or farmer associations could also help farmers produce higher-quality products that could be sold at good prices.

"But farmers still need guidance as they may create unfair competition by selling products at lower prices or overusing pesticides to maximise productivity," Vinh said.

"The road to sustainable agriculture is clean or organic production," he stressed.

“For some time, our agricultural production has been following the path of increasing quantity, rather than quality. This is not OK.”  — VNS