ROME — Ma Thi Ninh thought farming would be relatively easy. The Yen Duong area of Viet Nam where she lives has excellent, arable land and offers many sought-after products, including organic sticky rice, seasonal vegetables and bamboo used for traditional handicraft products. But once she started to farm and trade in local products herself, she realised that whilst harvests were generally fruitful, the earnings were few and she, and many farmers like her, remained stuck in poverty.
It was only after several years that Ninh fully understood why. Local farmers were only able to sell to intermediaries and small-scale traders who offered low prices. The poor road and transport infrastructure in this mountainous, rural area also made it difficult to sell further afield or in other markets, where prices might be higher.
These situations breed a cycle of low earnings that leaves farmers unable to invest in technology and innovation. It is even harder for local women to break this cycle, as they often lack opportunities to study or access the capital needed to afford technology.
The Forest and Farm Facility (FFF), hosted by FAO, and the Viet Nam National Farmers’ Union (VNFU) supported groups of farmers in forming cooperatives in the Yen Duong area. By getting organised into cooperatives, farmers can sell their products more effectively, have a joint voice to influence policy and help their members get access to basic services. The FFF seeks to strengthen these groups as primary agents of change in communities.
Ninh immediately saw the benefits of getting involved. She quickly became the director of the Yen Duong farming cooperative, aiming to improve incomes, protect natural resources and strengthen collaboration between farmers, particularly considering the area’s many different traditional methods and approaches.
Ninh focused on creating an environment in which both men and women from all ethnic minority groups could flourish and benefit from agricultural innovation, sharing knowledge and helping each other implement their agricultural initiatives. All of her members, including Ninh herself, are from various ethnic minorities, including the Tay and Dzao groups. These mountain communities differ from one another in terms of their way of living and family life, including customs and beliefs related to building a home, traditional clothing, culinary culture and marriage customs.
Understanding the customs and cultural values of the people in her area, Ninh actively makes this an important part of her cooperative. These values are taken into account when setting the group’s regulations or applying farm production techniques, and this approach has encouraged many people to join the group. The cooperative also integrates cultural and religious activities into farming activities, which has inspired the whole community to participate in the cooperative’s activities in some way.
Ninh’s cooperative now has 45 regular members and nearly 100 associate members, with their land totaling over 100 hectares of forest and 50 hectares of cropland.
The benefits of working together
Working together with the community, VNFU and FFF helped farmers improve their technical knowledge and business skills in seven value chains: tree nurseries, timber, cinnamon products, star anise oil, herb, rice, pomelo and forest chickens.
By coming together and forming cooperatives, smallholder farmers have found it easier to earn organic certifications, invest in new production techniques and sign contracts with companies and traders.
With FFF support and trainings, members of the Yen Duong cooperative have gained more knowledge and learned to apply “participatory guarantee system (PGS) ” standards for organic products, a self-regulated quality assurance system created by the local farmers themselves that certifies their products based on active participation, knowledge of the methods used and a foundation of trust. PGS products do not use chemical pesticides and fertilisers, which protects the health of growers, improves the quality of their products and reduces the impact on the climate. At markets, these products fetch a better price and provide a better income for farmers.
“Currently we grow organic sticky rice, seasonal vegetables, organic herbs and vermicelli. The organic products are of good quality, delicious and attractive to consumers, so the selling price has increased by 10-20 percent, bringing real benefits to our farmers,” Ninh said.
The cooperative has signed contracts with organic distribution companies and organic shops. What’s more, through roundtable discussions, the FFF has facilitated favourable conditions for the coop to engage in policy dialogues to address challenges.
Ninh’s cooperative also runs tourism services offering people the chance to visit the beautiful forest and farm landscapes and natural waterfalls in the area. They can enjoy Tay and Dzao people’s cultural activities, including food, dances and costumes, and buy local handicraft souvenirs. The government authority in the area has additionally supported forest and farm producer cooperatives to build three kilometres of forest road, which according to Ninh, “will support community forestry tourism in the future.”
With FAO’s support, members of Ninh’s cooperative and many others have learned new skills, increased their earnings and, most importantly, stepped up inter-cultural collaboration to boost farming in their area and create a real sense of community.