The Women of Vietnam’s Central HighlandsOctober 25, 2012
Part III of a Vietnam travelogue from Dipika Chawla, our New York-based online communities coordinator.
The shade trees overhead provided welcome protection from the mid-morning sun as I joined about 100 farmers on a Robusta coffee farm in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. We were gathered for a NESCAFÉ Plan farmer training session, the first of six that will take place over the next year.
Here, Phung Thi Huu — a petite, middle-aged woman who wielded her megaphone with natural confidence — easily commanded the attention of the large group of mostly male farmers as she spoke about rejuvenation, grafting, pruning, harvesting and other topics relevant to the region. As a NESCAFÉ Plan participant and community leader, Huu had taken part in the NESCAFÉ Better Farming Practices (NBFP) training program earlier this year hosted with support from the Rainforest Alliance. She is now responsible for training and managing 90 farmers from her village, Cao Thang, in the Dak Lak province.
Afterwards, when the whole group sat down for lunch at the home of one of the farmers, Huu worked the crowd. She floated between different groups of people, joking, laughing comfortably and making sure everyone had a place to sit. At one point, I watched a farmer say something to her and saw her respond with a smile and a bashful, dismissive gesture. My interpreter learned over and said, “He was telling her what a great speaker she was today.”
After lunch, I sat down with Huu to talk about her experience as a coffee farmer. I learned that her family had once cultivated rice. Seeking a more profitable crop, they switched to coffee in 1989, and many families in the village soon followed suit.
According to Huu, who has been part of the NESCAFE Plan since 2011, the training has deepened her technical knowledge of coffee farming. For example, she now knows how to select better quality seedlings and how to determine the exact amount of fertilizer required without letting any go to waste.
Two other women farmers I spoke with during my trip, Phung Thi Ngoc Loan and Thi Huong Nguyen, identified pruning techniques as one of the most important topics covered during the training program.
“We learned that if you don’t prune the coffee trees properly, there will be too many branches sucking all the nutrients from the soil, which reduces productivity later on,” explained Loan. “If you do prune properly, the tree will be healthier and produce more cherries.”
Loan said that the training showed her how to identify early symptoms of coffee disease and pest damage. She has also started a compost pile with readily available materials, such as coffee husks, that she can use as fertilizer — thereby allowing her to decrease her use of chemical fertilizers. She estimates that she has reduced her fertilizer expenses by 10 to 20 percent as a result of composting.
Reducing chemical use is a common theme in the program. In addition to reducing chemical fertilizers, all three farmers reported using less herbicide for weeding purposes. On her small 3.7-acre (1.5-hectare) farm, Nguyen has cut out herbicides altogether, relying solely on hand weeding. In doing so, she’s protecting her family’s health and keeping valuable insects that help to soften her soil.
The Nguyen family carries out all of the field work, except in the harvest season, when they may hire a few extra laborers.
I asked Nguyen if she had noticed any other differences in the natural environment. “There are more birds, because of the shade trees and because we’ve been using less chemicals,” she said. “Actually, they’re very useful for catching small pests.”
The shade trees offer more than bird habitat. In the training, Nguyen learned how to more evenly disperse the shade trees on her farm to create a proper canopy, which protects the coffee plants, maintains humidity and limits the growth of weeds. Fruit-bearing shade trees (such as avocado, durian and lychee) provide an added bonus. “Some of the fruit we eat and the rest we can sell at the market for a bit of extra income,” said Nguyen.
For Nguyen and Loan, the transition to sustainable agriculture has been smooth. “In general, none of the new techniques are too difficult to follow,” Loan said. “If I have a question, I can just ask my neighbors and imitate what they are doing.”
Indeed, the vast majority of the coffee farmers in the region are smallholders, and neighbors are more than willing to help each other and exchange advice. “Some of my neighbors didn’t participate in the earlier trainings,” recalled Loan. “So when I returned from the training, I taught them what I learned about grafting techniques. After seeing how beneficial it was, they decided to participate in the next session.”
Huu, on the other hand, had a somewhat different perspective as a lead farmer responsible for formally passing on the information to the other farmers in her village. She identified cultural differences as an issue, since several of the farmers in Cao Thang belong to different ethnic groups. She found that the language barrier sometimes makes it difficult to communicate and the older generation can be more resistant to adopting unfamiliar modern practices. She noted, however, that the younger generation, regardless of ethnicity, is always eager to learn and picks up new techniques very quickly.
In the short time since she joined the NESCAFÉ Plan, Huu has already perceived noticeable benefits to her farm. Her yields are higher and her costs are reduced, and she is pleased with her family’s increased awareness. They have all improved their knowledge of coffee quality, sanitation, chemical safety and environmental impacts. This means a better farming business for generations to come.
All three women said they looked forward to participating in as many NESCAFÉ Plan training events as possible. “I am always trying to learn more,” said Loan. “Farmers always need to learn more.”