From bloom to bust: The perils of planting without planning

March 15, 2023 | 03:21 pm PT
Nguyen Trong Binh Teacher
My friend Tuan called me up a few days before Tet to see if I wanted some king oranges, promising to send some my way from his family's field.

Over the phone, he told me he was going back to Vinh Long Province to see his father during the Tet holiday.

Although king oranges were relatively inexpensive (around VND4,000 per kilogram) at the time, dealers were not particularly interested in them.

The thought of his investment of hundreds of millions of dong into the orange field about to go to waste left Tuan's father very depressed.

"When I came home, he didn't bother to greet me as usual," said Tuan.

I gave Tuan a call later to see how his orange orchard was doing. He said that last month, his father "thought that the situation was not good" with the orange price and decided to sell the entire garden to a trader for VND2,500 a kilogram in the hopes of recouping some of his investment.

These days, oranges are being dumped all over the streets and sidewalks of the Mekong Delta alongside signs pleading for consumers to buy them. The agricultural industry's explanation for the tragedy is nothing new: the fruit is primarily sold on domestic market. People were warned not to plant too many trees, but they ignored the warnings, causing the supply to overwhelm demand.

This explanation is very similar to those given for jackfruit or sweet potato in the past. Could it be that every type of crop will eventually face such a situation, even if agricultural products are one of the backbones of Vietnam's economy?

The government tells people time and time again, every year, not to plant too many crops. I believe such advice will never work. Fields and gardens must be maintained, as people will starve without a steady supply of food. What would have made a difference is if this advice had come with clear and applicable suggestions of what people should do to get through the situation.

When there was a discussion about how to get people in the Mekong Delta to sell farm products, some have suggested applying advanced technology in agriculture so people can find potential customers online without having to leave the farm.

This is an intriguing proposal, but in my opinion it does not address the most pressing problem.

It's unrealistic to expect farmers to "swipe" the phone with one hand to find potential customers while holding a plow with the other hand. While producing fruits and vegetables is the job of farmers, selling them is the job of dealers. The government's responsibility is to foster a symbiotic relationship between producers and distributors with policies and mechanisms.

This is not an issue of a few acres of an orchard, but rather a market of thousands of tons of agricultural products. Officials in the agricultural sector and those in the Mekong Delta need to find solutions so that farmers are no longer left with unwanted produce.

Otherwise, after oranges and jackfruit, we will witness a rescue campaign for durian, now that farmers across the country are switching to durian in droves following the reopening of the China market.

A farmer checks a durian in his field in the Mekong Delta. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

A farmer checks a durian in his field in the Mekong Delta. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

To serve the Chinese market, the area of durian planting has increased across the country since 2014, to more than 85,000 hectares, while a "sustainable" area, according to the agriculture ministry, is 75,000 hectares by 2030. In Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, the area has increased from 537 ha to 2,487 ha since 2015.

Can Tho and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development worked together in 2022 to create a plan for a "Center for Association, Production, Processing, and Consumption of Agricultural Products in the Mekong Delta," which aims to make Can Tho serve as the "nucleus" of the delta's modern agricultural economy by 2030, performing a variety of essential tasks, such as bridging the gap between supply and demand in the agricultural sector. In 2050, this "nucleus" will serve as the hub for the entire supply chain, from initial production to final export or domestic consumption.

That plan seems reasonable to me. From what I can tell, however, the authorities need to speed it up.

Above all, this work needs to be done with a strong will and a profound sense of responsibility. Only then will the durians of the delta not become a national sorrow, and the mango and the oranges will no longer need to be rescued.

*Nguyen Trong Binh is a lecturer at the Cuu Long University in Vinh Long Province. The opinions expressed are his own.

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