From Rags to Riches: Mr. Roth Chan and Mrs. Lek Sophy of Cambodia by Chantola Nat, National Secretariat Specialist, WGA-Cambodia

December 22, 2016

Mr. Roth Chan, 36 years old, his wife, Mrs. Lek Sophy, 35 years old, and 3 kids live in Chrork Mtes commune, Bavet city, Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia. The couple supports their kids with farming, planting rice in 2.8 ha of their farmland and vegetables (0.2 ha during the rainy season and 0.4 ha for dry season vegetable production).

Before joining the TA subproject, Mr. Roth Chan planted a few varieties of vegetables, such as Chinese cabbage, morning glory, leaf onion, mint, and lemon grass. The vegetables were mainly for family consumption. The limited surpluses were sold in the village. He earned around KHR 20,000–30,000 (or $5-$7.5 per day during the harvesting season. Net take home pay is meager as he paid a lot of money to buy the chemical fertilizers, pesticides, ash and black char from Viet Nam and other green manure.

The game changer
For the TA subproject on biochar and organic vegetable production, Mr. Roth was one of the 6 farmers who was selected to conduct farm demonstrations on biochar application for vegetable and rice farming. Mr. Roth Chan planted morning glory for vegetable farm demonstration. He was trained on good agronomic practices for organic vegetable production. The project also provided him a biochar kiln that he used to burn rice husk for biochar. He experimented on different biochar combinations on his demo plot: 100% of biochar (5 ton/ha) in one plot (10 square meters), another plot (10 square meters) using 50% of biochar (2.50 ton/ha) mix with cow manure 50% (2.50 ton/ha) and the control plot (10 square meters) based on farmer practice.

Mr. Roth Chan was happy with the results. He observed that the crops on his vegetable demo farm had long and strong roots; the leaves were of dark green color; the vegetables were not damaged or spoiled by soil acidity. The soil was soft in texture and showed longer holding water capacity. With bio-pesticides, there was less damage by insect pests and diseases on his crops. From the start of the project in 2015 till November 2016, he has planted morning glory, mint, pak choy, kale, spring onion, and lettuce.

More importantly, for Mr. Chan, the net income returns have been significant. The yield with biochar use has increased, while costs have been reduced significantly. With conventional use of agro-chemicals, the yield was only 47 kg/10 square meters. For treatment plots with 100% biochar application, the yield was 48 kg/10 square meters. The half biochar-half cow manure combination produced higher yields at 50.4 kg/10 square meters. Further, the price of morning glory from the demo farm was higher prices KHR 1,500/kg (equal to $0.37/kg), than the same vegetables using agro-chemicals sold only for KHR 800/kg (equal to $0.20/kg).
Besides the successful testing of using biochar in vegetable and rice production , Ms. Lek Sophy tried germinating and growing bean sprouts from biochar. With biochar and clean water, the grain beans germinated quickly and easily, and the bean sprouts with rich creamy color, were firm but crispy and tastier. She sold the bean sprouts in the nearby Chipo market.
Before, she produced the bean sprouts by using a combination of rice husk, rice straw and sand. The bean sprouts produced and harvested were of lower quantity and quality when compared with when she applied biochar.

Business for bean sprouts has been brisk. Total income daily from bean sprouts was KHR 80,000 (or about $ 20). After deducting the costs, net return for her family was KHR 46,250 (or $11). Demand is growing. Orders during Buddhist and wedding ceremonies are pouring in.

From rags to riches
In a year’s time, the combined incomes of the couple from biochar use and shift to organic production have resulted to a net income of KHR 2,700,000 (or about $675) monthly.
Mr. Roth Chan and Mrs. Lek Sophy are really satisfied with the stable market demands at the Chipo market especially for morning glory and the bean sprouts. Mrs. Sophy is also now producing pickled bean sprouts.

With the additional income, Mr. Roth Chan expanded the farm’s size and production to also meet demands of outside markets in Phnom Penh. With being so close to Viet Nam, the couple intends to try their luck to reach out to the Vietnamese buyers. The couple has fulfilled their dream. They now own a car, and bought a solar disk to run their new television, which they share with the community.
Other villagers who saw their quick rise to a better life have changed their production practices as well.

For their being an effective role model, the Provincial Department of Agriculture has presented him a plaque of appreciation and recognition for his exceptional work as a true “extension worker.”

Note: In this story, “$” refers to US dollars.
KHR = Cambodian Riels.