Friday, December 3, 2010

An Agricultural Outing to Prey Veng

In late October I traveled to Cambodia with Stan Doerr, President/CEO of ECHO. Much of our time was spent connecting with partners in Phnom Penh. However, I had one full day to visit the project area of Beth (Stitch) Steinbrenner, a former ECHO intern, who works with the Parse Project of International Cooperation Cambodia in Prey Veng Province, not far from the Vietnam border. We were accompanied by Ryan and Daphne Fowler who work with the Mennonite Central Committee in the same province. Daphne had also been an ECHO intern.

The trip to the ICC project area required a ferry ride across the Mekong with National Highway 1 offering a great ride almost the entire way. However, as ICC's work is a bit off the beaten path, ultimately our visit with partnering communities and farmers required "moto" transport. Wisely, I was designated as a moto passenger rather than driver. Click here to see portions of the trip.

Among 16 communities in the Parse area, ICC is engaged in work related to agriculture, health and community development (e.g., water and sanitation) activities. Concerning agriculture, we saw rice production everywhere; most of the crop established by hand broadcasting. But ICC is helping to further diversify farm incomes by promoting improved small-scale catfish farming and home gardening, including the production natural fertilizer such as compost (made from cow manure). Vermiculture (earthworm production) is another initiative.

With a high water table, small catfish ponds can be dug without too much trouble. Most of these ponds are approximately 1.5 m deep. Farmers stock catfish fingerlings (brought over from Vietnam) at a rate of 30-40 fingerlings per square meter. The catfish are raised at least 3-4 months before being sold between $2.00 to $3.00 per kg (depending on the season). Farmers generally feed the catfish with locally abundant termite larva as well as cooked snails mixed with a little rice bran. Click on this link to see one of the local farmers feeding his fish by hand.

I noticed a good bit of duckweed in these ponds and wondered if it was used as a feed resource. The aquatic plant is widely harvested in Asia as a source of feed for fish, livestock and poultry, offering supplemental protein, phosphorus and other major minerals and trace minerals, not to mention vitamin A and the B group as well as fiber (for more information about duckweed, check out the FAO publication Duckweed: a tiny aquatic plant with enormous potential for agriculture and environment, The ICC partners confirmed that certain types of fish would graze duckweed. It is also consumed by ducks as well as harvested to be mixed with rice bran and cooked rice and fed as a nutritious porridge for pigs. "Duckweed keeps pigs healthy," reported one farmer.

The number of farmers who have begun producing compost from cow manure appears considerable. I was also impressed by local vermiculture efforts, especially that of Mr. You Wa in Prey Rey Toap. ICC helped him obtain 2 kg of earthworms in January 2010 following his participation in a vermiculture workshop the previous October. Mr. You Wa's small, thatch-covered earthworm enclosure is comprised of a shallow pit (only 2 cm deep) lined with perforated plastic sheets on which 10 cm of soil and another 20 cm of manure was layered. His earthworm bed, approximately 1 m wide and 3 m long, is now covered with loose, brown vermicompost that teems with red wrigglers.

Mr. You Wa says that the main function of the earthworm project is to produce supplemental protein (fed along with rice) for a handful of chickens. He reportedly harvests approximately 1 kg of worms every few days (this is probably just an estimate; the weight might also include some vermicompost).

Regarding the supplemental earthworm diet, Mr. You Wa says his chickens grow faster and recover from illness much faster than before. Now, many neighbors come to request worms, which sell for $1.25 per kg. So far he's helped four or five neighbors get started with their own earthworm projects. And ICC has also bought earthworms from Mr. You Wa and two other local producers, enabling at least 20 new farmers to get started with earthworm production.

Our Prey Veng outing was ending quickly. But before heading back to the city we encountered another community that, with ICC assistance, had just manually bored a 16 m deep tube well and installed a hand pump; all taking place within six hours. We arrived just in time to see the first bath provided by the well.

After having one last hurried look at a wonderfully diversified small family farm, we returned to the ICC office, making use of a new road being constructed by the Vietnamese. By sundown we were back in bustling Phnom Penh. Quite a contrast to the ICC Parse Project.

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