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As fertiliser prices soar, farmers seek organic solutions

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A man stacks bags of fertiliser in a warehouse last year. PHOTO SUPPLIED

As fertiliser prices soar, farmers seek organic solutions

As world fertiliser prices have steadily risen in recent years, many farmers have reduced their use. As a result, agricultural products have declined in quantity and quality, causing a global food crisis.

In this context, agricultural experts in Cambodia have advised farmers to produce their own organic fertilisers, such as composted rice husk charcoal, to help improve soil quality and crop growth as well as obtain higher yields.

Soy Bona, a professor of organic farming at the Sun Business Network’s centre for natural agriculture, told The Post that the cultivation of all crops depends on the maintenance of sufficient water and fertiliser.

“Soil which lacks fertiliser cannot produce high yields of agricultural products. Unfortunately, fertiliser prices are very high and it has become a global food crisis,” he said.

Rising prices have been attributed to the crises of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, which have hampered production and supply chains. Russia and Ukraine are two of the world’s largest producers of fertilisers and agricultural products.

According to the Ministry of Economy and Finance, in the second quarter of 2022, the prices of consumer goods in international markets for non-energy goods (metals, agriculture and chemical fertilisers) increased by 18.7 per cent.

Cambodia spent about $88.18 million on imports of fertilisers and pesticides during that period, down 4.9 per cent from the previous year, it said.

Traders in the sector said demand is currently declining as farmers reduce their use of expensive imported fertilisers and produce their own compost and organic fertiliser from kitchen waste and manure.

Un Sela, chief operating officer of Maly San Group, one of the Kingdom’s leading importers and suppliers of agricultural products, said that since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine in February, sales have declined markedly compared to previous years.

“Due to rising prices, many farmers have switched to compost and organic fertilisers, slowing down the growth of our sales,” he added.

Similarly, Ung Vattanak, CEO of Japanese Organic Fertiliser Granular, told The Post that in order to support farmers, his company has not raised prices, but is selling it at the same price as last year. He said his company’s products are over $300 per tonne, as they contain a variety of nutrients that help crops grow well and provide high yields.

“Even though the cost of the products and shipping from Japan has increased, we have retained last year’s pricing. Orders from farmers are declining, and our sales are slightly lower than in previous years,” he said.

Kong Mao, production manager of Husk Ventures (Cambodia), an organic fertiliser company, told The Post that the company’s sales had increased due to their prices being lower than those of imported fertilisers.

“Some foreign companies are complaining about declines in sales, but the organic products that our company produces in Kampong Thom are selling very well. We are producing more than 100 tonnes a month but cannot keep up with demand,” he said.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A flooded area of farmland in Banteay Meanchey province in September. Police

His company’s products are gaining popularity in local and regional markets due to their low prices and good quality. Recently, many domestic customers had been ordering up to 20 tonnes at a time and reselling it to Thai farmers, he added.

In the business world, it is often not best practice to disclose the exact nature of a product. Nonetheless, Mao shared some simple raw materials – that farmers could find in their communities – which could serve as organic fertiliser. He suggested that rice husk charcoal, rice bran and animal bones could do an excellent job.

Some farmers did not employ rice husk charcoal to improve soil quality, help crops grow well and increase yields. Instead, they grow mixed crops [cover crops] at the same time, and use manure.

Khy Thol, from Serei Meanchey commune chief, Sampov Loun district, Battambang province, told The Post that since the price of fertiliser went up, he had reduced their use by about half on his three hectare farm. He grows beans and red corn at the same time, using manure from the cows and chickens that he raises to fertilise the soil and provide nutrients.

“It’s a way of configuring dense greenery and allowing one plant to provide nutrients that benefit another plant – and I believe in that,” he said.

His efforts have helped the 58-year-old increase the amount of crops he produces. This increase, combined with the savings he makes by buying less fertiliser, means he now earns more than he previously could.

“Unlike before, I can now afford to send my children to college,” he said.

Not all farmers have been able to find ways to diversify their crops in this way, sometimes due to a lack of knowledge and sometimes due to a lack of access to training with agricultural officials.

In Koun Phnom village, O’Tavao commune, Pailin province, But Srey Oun, 52, told The Post that because she had reduced her use of fertilisers and pesticides by about a quarter, her corn crop this year had provided a yield of ten per cent less than last year.

“This year, my corn yield was only 3.8 tonnes per hectare – last year that figure was 4.2. Fortunately, market prices are slightly higher. Corn is worth 150 riel per kilo more,” she said.

She admitted that she did not know enough about growing cover crops or producing compost. In the past, she had always bought imported chemical fertilisers.

Regarding the difficulties in producing organic alternatives, professor Bona said that it is generally a simple process, although the kind of raw materials that are available differs from district to district.

“Kitchen waste, including ash from the stove, vegetable debris, leftover rice and soup can be mixed with leaves and rice straw, along with the manure of cattle, chickens and ducks to produce soil compost. Rice husk charcoal is made by burning rice husks into charcoal and then mixing it with clay, animal bones and bran,” he added.

According to Bona, rice husk charcoal is especially beneficial as it contains many nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, carbon and many other microorganisms that can withstand climate change, insects and other infectious diseases.

“In fact, the increase in the price of chemical fertilisers is the perfect opportunity for farmers to produce their own organic fertilisers. Farmers could also be more judicial with the amount they use – they should be testing about the soil more often to determine what nutrients the crop needs,” he said.

“Growing mixed crops and rotating crops seasonally are also excellent ways to help increase soil fertility,” he added.

The United Nations is currently pushing for a reduction in fertiliser prices on world markets to avoid future crises.

Rebeca Grynspan, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, told reporters in Geneva on October 3, after talks on promoting the import of Russian fertilisers and ammonia that: “In order to avoid future crisis, we need to drive down fertiliser prices.”

“If we cannot, the crisis of availability we have today will be the crisis of availability tomorrow and that is what we are working on now,” she said.

The World Bank has predicted that Urea fertiliser prices should start falling next year, with some fertiliser-producing countries such as Brunei, Nigeria and India currently increasing their production.

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