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New farming models and healthier produce catch on in Vietnam


A farmer at work at the Thanh Xuan Organic Vegetable garden in Thanh Xuan Commune, Soc Son District, Hanoi. Since mid-2008, the garden has distributed some 1,000kg's of organic vegetables to about 300 regular customers every week in downtown Hanoi.(Photo courtesy of Action for the City)

Since 1999, Nguyen Thi Nhung had been growing "safe vegetables" in her group with nine other households on the outskirts of Hanoi.

Safe vegetable production allows chemical fertilizers to be used at low-levels and certain classes of pesticides, but most toxic classes of chemicals are banned.

So when Nhung and other households in Bai Thuong Hamlet, Thanh Xuan Village, were approached by staff from local NGO Action for the City in mid-2008 to make the transition into organic production, Nhung said not a single farmer in her Soc Son District group thought that it would bring them additional profits.

"We thought we wouldn't have any vegetables to sell without using any form of chemical fertilizers," she said.

But now, the 10 households in Bai Thuong, known as Bai Thuong group 1, are well-known for producing Thanh Xuan organic vegetables on their 1.7-acre patch.

The initiative received support from Oxfam International and about US$60,000 from the Australian development agency AusAID.

The group distributes about 1,000kg of produce to about 300 regular customers every week in downtown Hanoi. The farmers use safe water and compost fertilizer and natural measures such as garlic, alcohol, ginger and crop rotation to treat and prevent diseases.

The vegetables are certified by Danish NGO Agricultural Development Denmark Asia (ADDA) and compliant with the Vietnamese Organic Standards issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in 2006.

Action for the City is one of a few local organizations that have been implementing projects to produce natural foods a result of Hanoians' growing concern with food safety and their health, and preference toward environmental-friendly products.

Mai Van, assistant coordinator of the organic vegetable project, said the demand for organic vegetables had increased as the prices for such produce have dropped.

Customers can view the available vegetables in a monthly newsletter and order bags that can be delivered to their homes or offices for VND15,000 per kilogram.

For those who want to visit the farm, the collective provides tours where they can interact with farmers. Foreign customers account for about 30 percent of the buyers, according to Mai Van.

"It's very difficult to establish trust with the customers," she said. "We have heard of many incidences in which even "˜safe' vegetables were not so safe."

Nhung said the farmers are subjected to testing from ADDA experts and any household found using chemical pesticides can be fined up to VND15 million.

Satisfaction, safety

So far, the farmers in the group are satisfied with a regular income that ranges from VND3 million to VND6 million. They have also begun learning how to cater to clients' needs by being more selective in their choice of varieties to grow.

For those looking to find other types of high quality and safe food products, the Weekend Market located at 67 To Ngoc Van Street is also a popular choice, attracting about 100 customers every week.

Launched in March, the market offers products such as jams, fruit juices, coffees, tea, French baked goods, organic vegetables, and free-range chicken and eggs.

The market was initiated by ASVELIS, the main implementing partner of STOP AI Vietnam, which is a 20-month USAID-funded project to stop avian influenza through developing and improving free-range chicken supply chains since February 2009.

According to Bui Duc Tri, project coordinator for ASVELIS, the initiative has reached about 100 farmers in seven provinces: Ha Giang, Thai Nguyen, Hanoi, Bac Giang in the north and Ba RiaVung Tau, Binh Duong and Tien Giang in the south, following the "Naturally Vietnam" standards for free-range chickens.

Under this project, farmers must comply with Good Animal Husbandry Practices, such as raising chickens with free space to walk, limiting the use of antibiotic drugs and ensuring low-risk of diseases transmission with regular inspection from ASVELIS vets.

The farmers have also been assisted in investing in small-scale slaughterhouses, which allow them to ensure Good Slaughtering Practices, part of the "Naturally Vietnam" standards.

According to Patrice Gautier, director of ASVELIS, farmers under the project are now starting to supply free-range chickens directly, mostly to major hotels and resorts, such as the Hanoi Hilton and Victoria Sapa Resort, which place large orders and have strict food hygiene regulations.

Tri said such high-end markets had greatly encouraged them to strictly follow the standards and enjoy a no-commission trade on higher margins.

Growth paradigm

Gautier said there was the potential to expand and develop a natural food market in Vietnam for the general public because of increasing consumer awareness and higher income levels.

"Presently, for consumers, it's difficult to know what [can be classified] as "˜quality' and what is not," he said. "For people to trust us, it is important for all actors in the supply chain to be transparent with consumers."

Dominic Smith, agricultural economics advisor for MDI, a company that works to promote fair-trade and organic products in Vietnam, said local consumers are getting used to the idea of safe and clean foods because they have become more aware of the use of unhealthy chemicals in food production.

"However, it takes some time to reach a big market," Smith said. "In order to promote environmental-friendly and safe organic food, there needs to be a bigger range of products available and also the price should be reasonable."

Funding for the Naturally Vietnam and the Thanh Xuan projects will run out in the next couple of months.

Tri of ASVELIS said the project will soon assess whether the farmers should choose third-party companies or organizations to certify their free-range products and continue the farming model.

For the farmers at Thanh Xuan, the plan now is simply continue growing.

"We love it now that we don't have to wear masks while picking the vegetables," Nhung said in her garden. "We'll continue with this as long as we still have customers."

For more information about Thanh Xuan Organic Vegetables or to order, visit www.rauthanhxuan.com.

The Weekend Market is held every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at No. 4, 67/12, Lane 67, To Ngoc Van Street, Hanoi. For more information about Naturally Vietnam chickens and eggs, please visit www.naturallyvietnam.com.

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