Rice farmers abandon fields to low income

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Experts call for respect, fair incomes to stop Vietnamese rice farmers from quitting

Many Vietnamese farmers have stopped working their paddy fields because returns are very low. Photo by Diep Duc Minh

Rice farmers are disenchanted with their lot as incomes are low and the system is not fair to them, experts said at a conference in Hanoi last week.

Agricultural output has grown by 2.9 percent annually in 2009-13 and export revenues by 15.2 percent to an estimated US$27.5 billion, according to figures released at the conference held to review five years of implementation of a resolution on agricultural development.

Farmers' average income has more than doubled since 2008 to around VND20 million.

But these are minor successes in what is a bleak picture overall.

Agriculture minister Cao Duc Phat said farmers may be earning more but their income gap with urban dwellers has widened even faster.

Farmers have no security since they have to bear the entire business risk on their own, he said.

They do not receive proper compensation when their fields are taken over for urban projects, and flooding caused by unexpected discharges from dams has worsened the situation, he said.

According to ministry statistics, 42,785 families simply abandoned 6,880 hectares of rice fields last year, while more than 3,407 others returned the fields they had been allocated for an annual fee.

They have since taken up other jobs in urban areas, many menial ones but offering larger incomes.

Nguyen Quoc Cuong, chairman of the Vietnam Farmers Association, estimated that a farmer with 360 square meters of land can earn a profit of VND100,000-200,000 from a three-month crop, an amount they can earn in a single day by working as a domestic help or construction worker in the city.

"With such low value for labor, it is understandable that they left their fields."

Vo Tong Xuan, an agriculture professor and acting president of the South Can Tho University in the Mekong Delta city of the same name, said farmers should be appreciated more.

"Farmers are benefiting the least in the chain and that is unfair" as they are the biggest investors, he said.

Intermediaries and businesses corner the lion's share of the pie by buying low and selling high while customers have to do with expensive grains, he said.

He called for comprehensive policies to guarantee a healthy relationship between farmers and businesses and a fair distribution of the income.

He blamed the production chain for having too many intermediaries, which only increased prices but gave farmers nothing extra.

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Ho Xuan Hung, a former vice minister of agriculture, said policies need to put farmers in control of the production chain instead of leaving their fate to businesses or the market as is happening now.

Businesses making profits should give back to farmers by helping with their cultivation, he said.

Le Huy Ngo, a former agriculture minister, suggested that farmers be supported with funding to adopt high-tech farming methods and increase cultivation areas.

Agriculture lacks economies of scale and used outdated methods, he said.

The ministry said that in the last five years VND520.4 billion ($24.7 billion) was invested in agriculture, but admitted that there was no focus on technological research.

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