Vietnam's Mekong Delta may toss out rice for corn, soybeans

By Hoang Phuong – Quang Duan, Thanh Nien News

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A farmer tends his corn field in the Mekong Delta’s Kien Giang Province. The delta is slated to shift toward animal feed crops to help farmers earn better income. PHOTO COURTESY OF TUOI TRE

Pham Van Beo's 15-hectare rice field cost him some VND100 million (US$4,744) during the last summer-fall crop, but the Delta farmer is expecting a different outcome this year.
Beo has reserved six hectares exclusively for corn cultivation.
“I’m experimenting with hybrid corn, hopefully the price will be high, the yield will be high and I will have a profit,” Beo said.
Neighboring farmers in Kien Giang Province's Giang Thanh District  plan to follow suit the minute his crop proves a success, he said.
Beo believes that planting rice is only slightly wiser, these days, than leaving a field vacant, as it costs a lot of money to prepare the soil for each crop.
He's among the few farmers who remain resolved to tough things out in their fields; many have left for city jobs, disillusioned with endless losses as analysts push for new and different reforms at every agricultural conference.
In the most recent example, agriculture ministry officials gathered Tuesday to discuss the possibility of switching fields in the delta, the country’s rice basket, from rice to other plants like corn and soy.
A ministry report released earlier this year said the world’s leading rice exporter imported more than US$4 billion in corn, wheat and soybean feed last year to raise its livestock.
Pham Van Du, deputy head of the ministry’s cultivation department, said  many models of using rice fields for other plants have proved highly effective.
“The products can compete with imports,” he said.
The soybean model in Dong Thap Province costs less than VND1 million a hectare but has earned farmers nearly VND9 million a hectare -- far more than rice paddies, Du said.
He added that many farmers in the area have earned an extra VND5-16 million a year by reserving their fields for a single sesame crop rather than planting all three rice crops.
Rice-turned-corn fields in Long An Province have earned farmers there an average profit of VND22-25 million a hectare.
Officials at the conference said around 600,000 hectares of rice fields in the delta have proven ineffective. More than 87,300 hectares were converted last year for planting corn, soybeans, sweet potato and sesame.
The ministry hopes to convert a total of 112,000 hectares by 2015 by offering farmers VND2 million per hectare for new seeds.
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Officials at the conference expressed concerns that farmers may find few customers and face price pressures when their new crops begin to multiply.
Pham Van Quynh, director of the agriculture department in Can Tho, said the market for the new plants has not received much attention.
“If the program doesn’t work out well, the farmers can scold the government and give it all up,” he told Tuoi Tre.
His counterpart Cao Van Hoa from Tien Giang Province, also said the market for corn, soybean, sesame and watermelon isn't stable in the area. “The connections have not been tight.”
The province converted 1,483 hectares of fields for watermelon, corn, red chili and vegetables during the last winter-spring crop. All told, the crops brought farmers a profit up to 2.6 times higher than rice.
The officials also pointed to other problems like farmers’ lack of experience with the new plants, and called for more mechanization.
Minister Cao Duc Phat said local governments need to advise farmers on cultivating plants that have a secure market.
Phat said the authorities need an accurate assessment of the market, even for plants that see initial success.
“They may see good returns when planting on a small scale, but we have to be careful [about expanding.]
“We need to know who the customers are going to be.”
The minister said corn looks like the best choice and can bring sustainable gains.
Vietnam imports 2.5-3.5 million tons of corn every year for animal feed, even though the delta is suited to growing high-yield corn varieties.
“The market for corn is right here, stable and growing as feed demands for cattle, poultry and aquaculture keeps rising,” Phat said.
Businesses attending Tuesday's conference, including the New York-based global agribusiness and food production company Bunge, made commitments to cover corn cultivation in Vietnam.
Le Tan Tai, an agriculture service company director, promised to buy every part of corn plants to ensure farmers see more than a 30 percent profit.
Wai Cheng Chan, general director of Bunge Vietnam, said the company is working with prestigious animal feed producers to secure a stable demand for upcoming corn crops in the country.
He said the company also plans to build warehouses and drying systems for future Vietnamese corn crops.

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