Today’s blog from Dipika Chawla, our New York City-based Online Communities Coordinator, is the last in the series from her recent trip to meet with coffee farmers in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam.
The shade trees overhead provided welcome protection from the mid-morning sun as I and about 100 farmers gathered on a robusta coffee farm in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. We were attending a NESCAFÉ Plan farmer training session—the first of six that will take place over the next year. Delivering one portion of the training was a petite, middle-aged woman who wielded her megaphone and pointer stick with natural confidence. Despite her short stature, she easily commanded the attention of the large group of farmers before her, of which about 80% were men.
Her name was Phung Thi Huu, and she was the lead farmer from Cao Thang, a rural village in Vietnam’s Dak Lak province. She, along with several other lead farmers in the region, had been trained months earlier by Nestlé and the Rainforest Alliance as part of the NESCAFÉ Better Farming Practices (NBFP) training programme. She was responsible for training and managing 90 other farmers from her village. The day I was there, she was presenting the training material to a group of farmers from all over the Ea Kao commune, covering a variety of topics such as replanting, rejuvenation, grafting, pruning and harvesting.
Afterwards, when the whole group sat down for lunch at one of the farmer’s houses, I couldn’t help but note this tiny woman’s large presence in the room. She floated between different groups of people, joking and laughing comfortably and making sure everyone had a place to sit. At one point a farmer said something to her and she responded with a smile and a bashfully dismissive gesture. My interpreter learned over and said, “He was telling her what a great speaker she was today.”
After lunch, I sat down with Huu to talk about her experience as a coffee farmer, NESCAFÉ Plan participant and community leader. I found out that her family, along with the rest of her village, was originally rice farmers. Seeking a more profitable crop, they switched to coffee growing in 1989, and many families in the village soon followed suit. Twenty-two years later, in 2011, she started participating in the NESCAFÉ Plan.
According to Huu, the training has deepened her technical knowledge of coffee farming. For example, she now knows how to select better quality seedlings, and the exact amount of fertiliser she should use so that nothing goes to waste. Two other farmers I spoke with during my trip,
and Thi Huong Nguyen (incidentally, also women), identified pruning techniques as one of the most important topics covered during the training programme.
“We learned that if you don’t prune the coffee trees properly, there will be too many branches sucking all the nutrients from the soil, which reduces productivity later on,” explained Loan. “If you do prune properly, the tree will be healthier and produce more cherries.”
Loan said that learning about the early symptoms of disease and pest damage has also been a large benefit. By quickly identifying the source of the problem, she can prevent it from spreading, minimise the amount of chemicals she uses and avoid having to uproot the entire tree. She has also started a compost pile with readily available materials, such as coffee husks, which she can use as fertiliser—thereby allowing her to decrease her use of chemical fertilisers. She estimates that she has reduced her fertiliser expenses by 10-20% as a result of composting.
Reducing chemical use is a common theme in the NBFP program. In addition to reducing chemical fertilisers, all three farmers reported using less herbicide for weeding purposes as well. Nguyen has cut out herbicides altogether, choosing to rely solely on hand weeding on her small 1.5-hectare farm in order to protect her family’s health. With exception of harvest season, during which they might hire a small amount of external labour, the field work is carried out entirely by the family. Another benefit she’s noticed from eliminating herbicides is that insects in the ground can survive and help to soften the soil.
I asked Nguyen if she’s noticed any other differences in the natural environment due to her new sustainable farming techniques. After thinking for a moment, she says, “There are more birds, because of the shade trees and because we’ve been using less chemicals. Actually, they’re very useful for catching small pests.”
The shade trees have proven to be useful for more than just bird habitat. In the training, she learned how to more evenly disperse the shade trees on her farm to create a proper canopy, which protects the coffee plants, maintains humidity and limits the growth of weeds. Fruit-bearing shade trees (such as avocado, durian, and lychee) provide an added bonus as well: “Some of the fruit we eat, and the rest we can sell at the market for a bit of extra income,” said Nguyen.
When I asked if there were any challenges associated with implementing these best practices, neither Nguyen nor Loan could think of any. “In general, none of the new techniques are too difficult to follow,” Loan said. “If I have a question, I can just ask my neighbours and imitate what they are doing.”
Indeed, the vast majority of the coffee farmers in the region are smallholders, and neighbours are more than willing to help each other and exchange advice. “Some of my neighbours didn’t participate in the earlier trainings,” recalls Loan. “So when I returned from the training, I taught them what I learned about grafting techniques. After seeing how beneficial it was, they decided to participate in the next session.”
Huu, on the other hand, had a somewhat different perspective when it came to the challenges of implementing what she learned in the training. As a lead farmer, she herself is responsible for formally passing on the information to the other farmers in her village. She identified cultural differences as an issue, since several of the farmers in Cao Thang belong to different ethnic groups. She found that the language barrier sometimes makes it difficult to communicate, and the older generation can be more resistant to adopting unfamiliar modern practices. She noted, however, that the younger generation, regardless of ethnicity, is always eager to learn and picks up new techniques very quickly.
In the short amount of time since she joined the NESCAFÉ Plan, Huu has already perceived noticeable benefits to her farm. Her yields are higher and her costs are reduced, and she is pleased with her family’s increased awareness. They have all improved their knowledge of coffee quality, sanitation, chemical safety and environmental impacts. This means a better farming business for generations to come.
All three women said they look forward to participating in as many NESCAFÉ Plan training events as possible. “I am always trying to learn more,” says Loan. “Farmers always need to learn more.”