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Coffee sector needs more gov't support   2011-03-28 - VNS

The coffee cultivation sector is struggling to ensure sustainable development, as many coffee growers run small-scale operations and lack funds to improve their operations.

Farming households manage about 80 per cent of Viet Nam's 500,000ha of coffee farms and many of them face shortages of money and are held back by out-dated farming techniques.

These challenges are especially acute for coffee farmers in poor areas, such as Central Highland Dak Lak Province, which is home to many coffee plantations thanks to the region's favourable conditions for the crop.

With 190,700 hectares of coffee plantations, Dak Lak is the nation's coffee capital. Yet many local farmers are still experiencing difficulty to get out of poverty by growing coffee.

Emap Village in Ea Pok Town, 15km from Buon Ma Thuot City, is home to almost 400 households, most of whom are Ede ethnic people who grow coffee to earn a living. However, 20 per cent of the households are still living below the poverty line, as compared to the national average of 9.45 per cent in 2010.

Local farmer Ma Khen, 49, said he did not have enough money to buy fertiliser and water for his 150 coffee trees. A lack of funds has resulted in Khen's farm suffering from low productivity, at about 1 tonne per hectare — half of the average provincial productivity rate.

Khen, a father of nine, said the VND10 million (US$500) he earned from coffee last year could not feed his family, so they have all taken on extra jobs.

"Previously I took out a bank loan of VND9 million ($450) and paid it back after a year, but this time, with the farm faring poorly, I can not afford to take out another loan," he said.

"I'm afraid I won't be able to pay it back."

H Run Knul, 50, said her family has 0.24ha under coffee cultivation but only harvested 120 kilos last year, earning VND4.8 million ($240).

"I don't have money to raise new trees," she said.

Farmer Y Prum Nie said he spent about VND20 million ($1,000) to buy fertiliser and ensure water supplies for his 1-ha coffee plantation. He earned a profit of VND70 million ($3,500) from selling 2.5 tonnes of coffee beans.

Nguyen Tuan Anh, official at Cu Mgar District's Ethnic Minority Department, said the Government had support policies for ethnic minority people that provided help for housing, schooling and farming.

Poor ethnic households in disadvantaged areas could get interest-free loans each worth VND5 million ($250) for 5-year terms, he said.

Agriculture official from Ea Pok Town People's Committee Nguyen Huu Vinh said poor farming households usually borrowed money from dealers to cover cultivation costs and then paid dealers with their produce.

"The coffee price is fixed under agreements between farmers and dealers when coffee crops are yet to be harvested," he said.

The agreed prices, in many cases, were only half of the market price, but farmers could do little to get better deals, he said.

Moreover, farmers usually harvested all of their coffee at the same time, regardless if some coffee beans were ripe or not.

"They continue this habit to save on labour and prevent their coffee from being stolen, although local Farmers' Association regularly offers to guide them with better farming methods and skills," Vinh said.

Viet Nam Coffee-Cacao Association Chairman Luong Van Tu said that picking green coffee beans reduced both the quality and the quantity of the harvest as green beans were lighter than ripe ones and their scent was not as strong as those of ripe coffee beans.

The association encouraged farmers to harvest their crops more selectively and recommended processing firms offer higher prices for ripe beans, he said.

"The firms should buy coffee directly from the growers to control the quality of coffee beans instead of through dealers, or require dealers to have a better understanding about coffee, and not focus solely on prices," he said.

About 80 per cent of Viet Nam's coffee farmers take care of less than 1 ha each. These farmers could benefit substantially if they work together to set up shared facilities, including machinery for processing coffee beans to improve their products, he said.

Nguyen Tri Ngoc, director of Cultivation Department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, said as one of the nation's key crops, coffee benefited from Government policies that supported farmers with preferential loans and technology to ensure average productivity of 2 tonnes per hectare.

Each locality would design detailed planning and incentives to local beneficiaries, he said.

In particular, a pilot public-private project on sustainable coffee production has been carried out in Dak Lak Province, in which Government and different economic sectors joined hands to support growers, he said.

Ngoc said he expected the project to expand to Emap Village in the future.

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