More Cambodian Farmers Minimize Soil Ploughing

Sustainable agriculture
Field ploughing has been a conventional method for land preparation in Cambodia agriculture practice since the ancient time. The practice is so traditional that every year Cambodians come together to celebrate Royal Ploughing Ceremony, a sacred rite that marks the beginning of a new farming season.

In recent years, early adoption of newly introduced Conservation Agriculture (CA) farming technique has become more visible among Cambodian farmers, encouraging some farmers to reduce soil ploughing operation and other to stop tilling their land completely.

Mrs. Sok Nen, a maize and cassava farmer from Battambang’s Ratanak Mondul district, described her disadvantaged situation before adopting no-tillage. “In the past, we ploughed our field several times to prepare the land. My soil quality had been degrading over the years because of erosion. The yield dropped by around one ton per hectare, every single year. Some bad year, the maize only yielded 3 tons per hectare, it was not profitable,” she said.

In 2012, Nen began her first attempt to farm maize with minimized soil disturbance, to experiment if she could trust this new no-plough technique introduced by Conservation Agriculture Service Centre (CASC), under Department of Agriculture Land Resources Management (DARLM), Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).

Reducing land tillage is a gradual process for Nen.“It was hard to convince ourselves not to plough the land as we were taught to do just that for generations. We also needed to terminate the grasses through ploughing, so we decided to reduce from ploughing a few times to only once,”  she recalled.

Minimal soil disturbance is one of the principles of Conservation Agriculture, a sustainable intensification farming system that also endorses permanent soil organic cover and plant species diversification. This technique mimics natural biological processes, favoring biodiversity above and below ground surface and making food production more sustainable and efficient. Conservation Agriculture can be practiced across different types of crops from staple crops such as rice, maize, cassava to vegetables.

Nen is an early adopter of CA practice in her community and now a model farmer who is looked up to by her community members. “We get a good result from planting Sunnhemp as cover crop and reducing land tillage. We get more yield, more profit; so we are confident to convert more and more farmland to CA practices,” said Nen.

By 2020, about 1,300 of rice, maize and cassava farmers from Battambang, Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Kampong Cham have partially adopted some Conservation Agriculture principles on 2,065 hectares of farmland area.

Dr. Seng Vang, Director of Department of Agriculture Land Resources Management (DALRM), during an interview mentioned “a big challenge to sustainable use of land is that despite the growing number of farmers using of machinery, many still rely on traditional tillage method for land preparation which is not ideal for soil health.”

One of the barriers to broader adoption among local farmers is limited investment in Conservation Agriculture technologies. Appropriate machineries such as no-till planters, roller crimper, soil cultivator and land leveler are not commercially widespread. In fact, there are only a few private sector companies in Cambodia have no-till planter for sale. The same is true for cover crops, types of plant that can become a permanent orgic soil cover, as there is only one private company to have produced and marketed this technology through Conservation Agriculture business model.

Fortunately, as more farmers start to witness the benefits of Conservation Agriculture practice, the demand for these technologies is driving more investment. Swisscontact and partners believe that private sector engagement is a catalyst to foster more investment in CA technology in Cambodia.

Swisscontact has joined hands with DALRM and Department of Agricultural Engineering (DAEng), Department of Extension Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DEAFF), Center of Excellence on Sustainable Agricultural Intensification and Nutrition (CE SAIN) of the Royal University of Agriculture under the Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab (SIIL) project of Kansas State University, CIRAD, and other private sector partners in implementing CA projects, namely Conservation Agriculture Services with a Fee (CASF) and Innovation for Sustainable Agriculture (ISA), which aims to bring about positive change in the agriculture sector by implementing Conservation Agriculture Production Systems (CAPS) in the Cambodia farming practices.

In 2021, the partners have designed an innovative conservation agriculture and sustainable intensification extension model MetKasekor (famer’s friend) to engage the private sector in promoting Conservation Agriculture to farmers. This new model is expected to open the market for the private sector to enter and provide CA services to the farmers.

Shifting to this innovative cropping systems and practices based on CA principles will not only result in reduced labour, conserved water, increased yield and income for small holder farmers, but also improvement in improved soil fertility and agroecological sustainability for future generations.