Dates are rapidly becoming one of the most popular fruit crops in the Kingdom, with farmers in Battambang, Kampong Thom, Banteay Meanchey, and Stung Treng provinces discovering that the sweet results of their imported seedlings are in demand in local markets.
A former cell phone repairman from Banteay Meanchey province, who claimed to have no background in agriculture, took a risk and leapt into the date farming industry. He has not looked back, and now earns from $6,000 to $8,000 a year from the sticky fruit.
Yean Men is the 39-year-old owner of a date plantation in Pong Ro village, Kampong Svay commune, Serei Saophoan town.
“I was not making much income from my cell phone repair business, and was thinking about changing the direction of my career. Coincidentally, while browsing the internet, I came across a company selling date seedlings. The company claimed that 1 hectare of date trees would yield one tonne of dates and earn about $3,000 per year,” he told The Post.
Men then made the bold decision to quit working as a cell phone repairman and instead ventured into planting date palms.
He travelled to Phnom Penh to purchase the seedlings, and was also given some training from the suppliers. When he returned to Banteay Meanchey, the provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries provided him with additional specialised instruction. Once he felt that he had acquired the knowledge he needed, he purchased 6,600sq m of land for $15,000, and began the journey of becoming a full-time date farmer.
“The seedling provider told me to expect a yield of one tonne or so in the first year, and that this would increase significantly every year thereafter. I was very pleased when their estimates proved to be accurate,” he said.
Men explained that he planted each date palm at a distance of 7-8 metres apart and uses only natural fertilisers, including chicken manure. Initially, the yield was small, but after the first year, his trees bore plenty of fruit. Each of his trees may bear from 20 to 100 kilogrammes of fruit, and despite unseasonably hot temperatures, the date trees remain unaffected.
He added that there is a considerable demand for dates which, sell for 60,000 riel per kilogramme. He doesn’t have to handpick and sell them at the marketplace as his buyers visit the plantation directly. The date palms only bear fruit once a year, but with proper care like fertilising and frequent watering, the yield increases every year. Since the market demand for dates is high, he intends to extend the area of his plantation and grow additional seedlings.
“The date palms bear fruit from March to July. My dates taste slightly bitter sweet, probably because of the natural fertilisers I use. I am pleased that I can earn enough money to support my family,” he said.
Sou Hiek, chief of Kampong Svay commune, where the plantation is located, said that two families in the commune are growing dates, and have been doing so for four or five years. He had noticed that their incomes appeared to have improved, as opposed to the more traditional farmers, who cultivate cabbage, cassava, onions, and other crops.
He believed that date trees have a high yield, and appear to command a high price in the market.
“Approximately 90 per cent of the families in Pong Ro village make their livings from agriculture, and receive training from the provincial agriculture department,” he said.
“I am told, however, that dates are challenging to cultivate, so this may be why so few people are growing them,” he said.
Agriculture department head Pang Vannaseth told The Post that only about 10ha in the province were planted with dates.
“There are several small operations, some of just one or two hectares, or even less. In the scheme of the wider agriculture sector, we consider this family farming,” he said.
Vannaseth added that the market price for dates is around 60,000 riel per kilogramme, and sometimes even higher. However, he pointed out that as more and more people establish date plantations, supply may outstrip demand, causing prices to plummet.
“This is a new crop, so we are still attempting to decide on the optimal amount to grow. Some palms can yield a huge amount of fruit – up to 200kg in some cases. We believe that if we plant too much, we may have challenges finding buyers for the surplus product. We worry that once the price increases, everyone will start growing them, resulting in an oversupply in the future,” he warned.