This rice field in Thanh Hoa Province has been left uncultivated for many years. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre
Many poor rice farmers across the country are giving up farming because it fetches them too little money and turning to other livelihoods.
Farmers in the northern provinces of Thanh Hoa and Hai Duong, who were allocated paddy fields more than 30 years ago for a small annual fee, are returning or just abandoning them.
Official figures show that 42,785 families left their fields (6,882 hectares) untouched this year, leaving them covered in weeds for children to use as football pitches or people to graze their cattle, Tuoi Tre newspaper reported. Another 3,407 families have returned 433 hectares.
Most said that the income from growing rice has shrunk, with some saying that a few hundred square meters of land only provides them VND50,000-80,000 (US$2.37-3.79) a month on average, enough for two bowls of pho in a city.
Le Thi Thoi of Thanh Hoa has recently sought to return her 3,500 square meters of rice field. Her family got 5,000 square meters and gave some to her two married daughters.
She had asked to bequeath the land to her children but none of them were prepared to take it.
"In the beginning the land allowed us to feed the six people in the family and send the children to school.
"But now I have to return it since the income from growing rice is very low," she told Tuoi Tre.
But the cost is increasing, she said, estimating that the cost of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides for 100 sq.m -- besides ploughing and harvesting -- is VND300,000. But it only yields 60 kilograms of rice which fetches VND360,000.
Thoi has switched to making dry pancakes, earning more than VND1 million a month, while some have switched to their traditional blacksmith's job to earn VND3-4 million.
Many garment companies have also opened in Hau Loc District and employed nearly 1,000 locals.
Many farmers in Hai Duong Province have asked to return their fields, even promising they would never ask for any benefits relating to them if policies change in future.
Local officials said it is "painful" to see farmers give up rice fields.
The area being abandoned is increasing crop by crop, and authorities have no plans to utilize them, they said.
Pham Xuan Truong, vice chairman of Van To commune in Tu Ky District, said new policies have been drafted to encourage farmers, like waiving the annual fee and providing seed and cash subsidies worth VND500,000 per hectare.
"But it has failed to get the farmers back."
Nguyen Ninh Hoat, a local, said the problem is that farmers have no hope left. Thousands of people in the district made a living from rice farming but no one has become rich from it, he said.
"Planting rice gives a person VND10,000 a day. How can you live on that?
"It is just enough for a few cups of iced tea in the city. If you want a bowl of beef noodle for VND25,000, you have to spend three days' income."
Young people are not interested in it, and most now work for companies and factories in urban areas.
"The lowest paying job now, in garment factories, gets them VND3.5-4 million a month."
Another local, Pham Thi Nguyet, 50, has been collecting water chestnuts for extra income besides farming her 3,600 sq.m paddy field.
"I have been working rice fields since I was young, and I have never seen it being such a dead-end job as now."
She only works half the field, growing just enough rice for her family.
"Working the field the whole year does not earn me as much as collecting water chestnuts does in a month."
Rice basket falling apart
The indifference towards rice farming is also growing in the Mekong Delta, the country's biggest rice producer, where farmers rent out their fields or convert them into fish ponds or orchards.
"It does not fetch enough for a living, so we have to quit," local Le Van Ngon said.
He himself made regular losses since rice prices have been fluctuating in recent years.
So he sold a part of it and kept a small area to create a fish pond.
"Recently I harvested 40 tons of fish and made a profit of VND160 million. So a five-month investment made me more than growing rice for a whole year."
Tri Ton District has 43,000 hectares of rice fields but only 60 percent of the fields are planted.
Le Van Tinh, another local, said many more families are renting out their fields, while switching to vending or working in factories. "Life becomes easier that way."
The fields are rented out to people with deeper pockets who both grow crops and raise livestock and fish.
Bui Van Nam, who rents Tinh's and others' fields, said his family makes profits thanks to the large area it has.
The cost of farming is increasing and farmers hardly make profits from fields of less than two hectares, he said.
"You need at least four hectares, and your own machinery to make profits,"he said.
Putting pieces together
Officials in Hai Duong and Thanh Hoa are also creating large fields by adding together smaller ones to achieve economies of scale.
The large fields are given to the farmers who stay, especially those having equipment at their disposal.
The model has also attracted some businesses.
Nguyen Viet Ban, vice chairman of Hai Duong's Thanh Mien District, said the district has created around 2,000 hectares of large fields, and some of them have made profits for the last two crops.
Tien Nong Agriculture JSC in Thanh Hoa has taken over 30 hectares of rice fields abandoned by farmers.
Le Van Bay, a local, said the company takes care of all the costs and pays the fields' owners 12 kilograms of rice for every hundred square meters per crop. "We farmers in the meantime do other jobs."
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