'Pity' buying not the long-term solution to save Vietnam's farmers

By Tran Ban Hung   May 10, 2018 | 10:01 pm PT
'Pity' buying not the long-term solution to save Vietnam's farmers
A farmer in Quang Nam Province harvests watermelons that some Chinese merchants had promised to buy but recently backed out of the deal in May 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh
Savvy market knowledge is needed to solve near-constant oversupply.

During a recent visit to a supermarket in Hanoi with my wife, she noticed that watermelons were on sale for VND20,000/kg, and whispered to me that she would buy some to help “save the farmers.” In the central provinces of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai, watermelons are on sale for only VND1,000-2,000/kg because Chinese traders have stopped importing them.

My wife tries to do this sort of thing as much as possible because she believes that “we are responsible for saving farmers since we are more fortunate in many ways.” Sometimes, she even buys kilograms of watermelons, kohlrabi and garlic, even when I have already brought some back from business trips.

Seeing her looking up information online and contacting vendors to buy food, I love my wife even more. All I can do is to quietly eat more. When I was a kid, I ate to satisfy my hunger. As a grownup, I eat to recharge my body after a hard day at work. I've never thought that it'd come to a day when I'd be eating out of a sense of social responsibility.

I am grateful that my wife is helping the farmers, but deep down I know that this is not at long-term solution. I think that buying products out of pity is a form of discrimination. Like my wife, many others are willing to buy kohlrabies, vegetables, garlic, pork and watermelons to help out the farmers, but it seems we are now doing this every year.

I'm sorry that farmers have been unable to sell their watermelons because they spend hard hours feeding the world. For years, I stood by the farmers and criticized foreign merchants, until one day, I met the leader of a passion fruit co-operative in Lam Dong Province in the Central Highlands who revealed to me the bigger issues. Chinese merchants were offering higher prices than the co-operatives, so our farmers started selling products to them and overlooked the contracts they had signed with co-operatives. The farmers then said that if co-operatives wanted their produce, they should pay more than the Chinese merchants. It is sad to say that these farmers neglected their responsibility, even at times when co-operatives were offering better deals.

When I was a kid, we only had watermelons at Lunar New Year. Now the fruit can be easily found year-round due to advanced agricultural techniques. But Vietnam is yet to understand these new changes and apply it to the current market.

China is expecting a bumper watermelon harvest, and won’t need to import the fruit from Vietnam. So why didn’t local officials warn farmers about this? If they had done, farmers would have planted different crops. Even for farmers who decided to stick with watermelons, officials could have looked for other prospective markets.

I am touched to see volunteers and labor unions actively helping farmers, but it’s time we ask ourselves who is responsible for this problem? Even though we buy products that are in oversupply every year to support our farmers, they still do not have proper understanding of the market or any guidance on which crops to grow to meet market demand and make a greater profit.

I think farmers should take more responsibility for their own produce. During my ten years of working closely with farmers, I can confidently say that they have a strong understanding of advanced technology, have great productivity, and produce high-quality products. A better understanding the current market would not be that challenging for our farmers to grasp. In addition, it would be nice to have support from local officials and government departments.

I hope that one day, farmers won’t have to rely on help from housewives, volunteers or philanthropists because we are not the experts or the right ones to ask.

For the next week, my family will be eating loads of watermelons and drinking watermelon juice. Instead of the image of struggling farmers popping into my head whenever I drink watermelon juice, I want to drink it because it's tasty and healthy.

Hopefully one day, we will achieve a fair relationship between farmers, traders and customers without each having to worry about saving the other.

*Tran Ban Hung is an activist. He is former chairman of Save the Children in Vietnam.

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