A newly-planted section of bananas, papayas, and citrus on this organic
fruit farm near Siem Reap, Cambodia.
As I’ve wandered around southeast Asia for the last 10 months I’ve kept my eye out for interesting farming techniques among the locals, but have mostly been disappointed.
Whatever ancestral knowledge of organic, integrated agriculture that may have existed seems to have declined or been lost entirely among the general population of Indonesia, Thailand, and Laos in the last few decades as cheap chemical fertilizers and pesticides have become increasingly prevalent.
When I arrived in Cambodia, though, the story was different. The country is decades behind its neighbors in terms of development because of the famous purges of the Kymer Rouge and years of civil war.
The numerous rural markets in the country still get lots of their produce from
small farmers within a few miles of them.
Although they are fast being repaired and upgraded, the country currently lacks a reliable train network and deep-water cargo port that can take agricultural exports overseas. Beyond a few main roads, much of the country relies on rutted dirt paths that turn into mud pits when the rainy season arrives.
The locals would be all too happy to get chemicals to help them grow cash crops, they tell me, but a combination of poverty, lack of availability, and lack of access to markets has so far kept the majority of them from doing so.
Because of widespread poverty, when you wander around rural Cambodia (‘rural’ applying to just about every area of the country outside of the Capital, Phnom Phen, the tourist-oriented Siem Reap, and a few of the smaller provincial centers) you’ll see thousands of Cambodians engaged in self-sufficient organic agriculture.
One of numerous papaya plants nearly bowed over under
the weight of its fruit at the farm.
Families mostly get by as they have for thousands of years, with rice providing their main staple, supplemental fruit trees and vegetable gardens, and the occasional bit of meat.
Any rural market will be filled with organic fruits and vegetables produced within a few miles of it, with some additional chemical-laden produce imported from Vietnam and Thailand.
As a raw foodist who gets the majority of his calories from fruit, my primary interest lies in orchards and food forests.
The Cambodians simply don’t like fruit as much as the Thais and Malaysians, and grow and consume considerably less of it. Yet just about every bamboo hut in the countryside is surrounded by a stand of banana and papaya plants, with jackfruit, durian, mango, and dragon fruit also being fairly popular.
The majority of these plants tend to be barely managed, with, for instance, banana pseudo stems far too crowded together and lacking in organic inputs for maximum yield, leading to stunted bunches. But, a few days ago a friend of mine took me to a place where things are done differently.
About 15 kilometers east of Siem Reap in a small village near the Bakong temple, there exists a 3-hectare family plot overflowing with multiple types of fruit.
These Dragon Fruits are propped up using poles and old bicycle tires.
The plot has been in the family for about 30 years, explained Leap Veung, a member of the family, through a translator. The techniques used don’t belong to any particular ideology, but are simply what the family has traditionally done.
All the food is sold to locals who come to the farm, Veung said, or is given away to the monks at nearby temples, who are particularly fond of ripe papaya.
In all my travels, I’ve rarely seen fruit trees overflowing with so much abundance. Many of the papaya and banana plants appeared just about ready to fall over under their heavy loads.
Individual trees are not combined in the sense of a food forest, and only some are interplanted, yet the overall site produces all the mulches and other organic inputs needed to fuel the trees. Chickens and ducks range through the site, eating pests and fertilizing.
These banana plants are grown in shallow recesses to collect water and are
mulched heavily. They produce much larger banana bunches than the
unmanaged plants most of the rural Cambodians grow.
The banana corms are planted in recessed holes to allow for water collection. The dragon-fruit-bearing pitaya cacti are propped up on wooden poles capped off with a bicycle tire. Every productive tree is extremely well mulched.
There are a number of citrus fruits on site, many of them grafted onto hardy rootstocks. As I’ve seen done throughout much of Asia, a compress of soil is used to keep the grafting wound from being attacked by insects.
Celery isn’t the easiest thing to grow in the tropics, but this farm produces
lots of it using shades and raised beds.
The site also produces organic celery and other western leafy green vegetables, which are notoriously hard to grow during the warm season in tropical climates. The family uses a combination of overhead shades and raised beds to do this.
They also appear interested in trying new crops. They’ve recently planted two date palms, for instance, one of which is already bearing fruit.
Irrigation is provided by rain and supplemented by watering.
Leap Veung shows off a two-year-old date palm on her farm.
While some may quibble that this doesn’t qualify as a permaculture farm, it is nonetheless an interesting example of an outside-input-free, extremely productive organic system organized through tradition and local ingenuity on a small plot of land.
Although there was a large language barrier between my host and I, and I wasn’t able to ask as many questions as I would have liked, the family has one of the nicer houses in the village, and given the amount of food being produced and the number of marketers stopping by to pick things up, their farming practices may well have been contributing to their prosperity.