In May 2019, Rural Funds Management Limited (RFM) committed to providing resources to establish an agricultural project in the Cambodian village of Tahen. Tahen is located in the Battambang prefecture of western Cambodia, approximately 350 km northwest of the capital, Phnom Penh.
The aim of the project was to educate and mentor local farmers to develop a sustainable and diversified agricultural enterprise. To achieve this aim, RFM provided $1 million over three years. As we move beyond the initial three-year project term, we are starting a new phase in the relationship between RFM and the village of Tahen. During this new phase, RFM will continue to provide advice and support through various initiatives to ensure the improvements that have been made to farming practices, are permanent.
The project was implemented in conjunction with Catholic Mission, which has a permanent presence in the Battambang prefecture. Catholic Mission manages several projects designed to improve the standard of living in each community where it operates.
The funds that RFM donated were used for infrastructure and land development, primarily the development of 16 ha of land to a check bank irrigation system and the doubling of water storage capacity, as well as crop inputs, machinery purchases, fencing, and other farm infrastructure. Funds were also directed to employ and train a farming team overseen by an Australian agronomist, living locally.
Image: Staff fertilising by hand due to wet weather conditions, Tahen, Cambodia, February 2023.
Due to changes in farming practices, together with access to quality crop inputs, RFM is pleased to report that the amount of rice that is being produced at Tahen has doubled over the past four seasons.
One of the main reasons for the increase in production is a change to the way water is used. Traditionally, Cambodians have grown rice by flooding flat fields, known as paddy fields. On the 16 ha that have been set out for irrigation, the fields have been developed with a small gradient or slope, ensuring that the water runs off the field, rather than remaining on the rice field as in traditional paddy rice growing. At the end of each field, the water drains to a channel and is then directed to a holding store before being reticulated.
While this method of farming provides for a more efficient use of water, the farming team is still trialling the correct gradients, as they have not yet achieved consistent yields. Some fields have achieved more than 5 T/ha whereas others are around 3 T/ha. The gradients of all fields are being checked to ensure that the crop receives a sufficient and consistent water supply and if necessary, gradients will be adjusted accordingly.
Another milestone was achieved when the Tahen farming team was able to undertake an extension of the water storage, providing greater water security for the farm. This increase to the storage capacity, together with the more efficient use of water with the check bank irrigation system, means the team is now able to grow two crops per year on the irrigated area. Growing two crops per year is a big step forward for the farming team and only possible because of the adoption of the new method of farming and the security of having sufficient water available to complete each crop.
Image: Mixed fertiliser of urea and kali, Tahen, Cambodia, February2023.
The farm is divided into two areas: Area 1 includes the 16 ha of land developed to irrigation and Area 2 is traditional paddy farming area. At the commencement of the project in 2019, the farmers were growing an average of 2.2 T/ha, producing a total of 108 T of rice annually across the two areas. By far, the largest increase in production has come from Area 1, specifically the 16 ha of irrigated farmland. From the table in Figure 1, you will observe that production in Area 1 has increased from 49 T to 139 T over the past four years. The yield from Area 2, which is farmed by traditional methods, has also increased, albeit at a much slower rate.
In the table (Figure 1), you will also note the very low production levels in 2020–2021. During this season, much of the country received heavy rains, causing widespread destructive flooding.
This flooding event caused major issues at the Tahen farm, not only with the rice that was planted, but also the newly laser levelled fields. The fields were submerged in approximately 100 cm of water for more than a week, causing widespread damage to both the farm and to the homes of farm staff. This resulted in the need to laser level the fields once again to assist with productivity.
At the time of writing this article, the wet season is just starting in Cambodia. The aim, over the next two years, is to increase production to an average of 5.5 T/ha in Area 1 and 3.5 T/ha in Area 2. This would mean a 37% increase above the production achieved in the 2022–2023 year.
What happens to the rice grown at Tahen?
All rice grown at the Tahen farm is milled locally and sold on a commercial basis to other projects that are run by Catholic Mission. These include a boarding school located within the village of Tahen which houses around 140 students aged from four to 16, an Outreach Project which looks after those in extreme poverty and sickness, and boys’ and girls’ boarding schools. Cambodians typically eat rice at all three daily meals, so every grain can easily find a home.
When rice is milled, some grains are chipped, broken, discoloured or damaged and this rice cannot be sold. As part of their own “outreach” or charitable endeavours, the Tahen farming team visits the mill, collects the damaged product and donates it to the local families that eke a living from sifting through rubbish. This is a great initiative that the farmers undertake on their own accord.
Image: Staff repairing the front fence at Yie Aurn Farm, Tahen,Cambodia, February 2023.
Apart from rice, other crops grown at Tahen include bananas and mangoes. These areas were improved with groundcover, which helped minimise erosion and weed growth, while also providing nitrogen and improving soil structure.
Improvements were also achieved in animal production, including the lowering of mortality rates of goats and cattle due to better control of feeding, pen management, and successful fattening. Workshops were held by the RFM-funded agronomist who focused on creating a self-sustaining feed supply based on using groundcover crops.
Other workshops in pest identification and management, basic soil science, organic fertiliser production, and other relevant topics were also undertaken.
Image: Straw baled for planting, Tahen, Cambodia, April 2023.
Image: Rice straw being baled for sale as animal feed, Tahen,Cambodia, April 2023.
RFM advice and funding has been the catalyst for doubling rice production over the past four years increasing from 108 T to 204 T. A big part of that increase was a result of the team learning how to grow two rice crops per year on the irrigated area.
Pleasingly, at this level of production, the farm achieves a very modest profit and provides employment and regular salaries for around 14 people. This is an important employment source for people who wish to remain in their home village and has a flow-on employment effect at the rice mill, as well as the local shops and schools. Employees also receive other benefits including a rice allowance and a monetary bonus.
RFM will continue to work with the farmers of Tahen. The next goal is to ensure the field gradients facilitate maximum production. Once this is achieved, it may be possible to grow three crops per year, provided there is sufficient water – this would be another significant increase in production. In Area 2, where the fields are not contiguous, the farming team will look at how to continue to improve production using traditional methods.
RFM is pleased to be part of a project that has made real economic and social difference to the lives of people in Cambodia.