Project Alba - Lesser known game plan for increasing income in agriculture
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We’ve just stopped producing one of our crops, namely bunching onion ( also known as spring onion or scallion ). Not that it did not have good sales price. It does. Not that we had major production issues, our yields were actually better than ok.

What’s the problem then ? Time and costs.

Bunching Onion is a relatively popular crop here in Cambodia, and in Southeast Asia in general. It’s part of the local diet, in many soup recipes but not only.

In terms of production, you can find a large number of farmers doing it all over the country. Some of the benefits for farmers is that it does not require much care and you can continuously harvest it. You take a few bulbs, leave the rest in the ground and it continues to grow.

The problems start when you actually try to make a decent income with it over a sensible period of time. Resources such as land are limited for farmers in Cambodia. We work with farmers who have on average about 500 m2 of land. That’s 0.03% of the size of an average farm in the US (178 hectares).

So it’s important to make the most of it. And land occupation - how much time the crop occupies the land - becomes a key parameter.

Hence our key metric to compare crops is ( yield * price per kg ) / occupation time - costs. And at that game bunching onion is not winning.

A key reason is that it’s really hard to get bunching onion seeds in Cambodia. So the only way you can do that crop here is by duplicating bunching onions of another person’s production or from your own past production.

So either you keep a source of onion that you duplicate; but then you have to factor an occupation time for the source. Or you buy bunching onion bulbs or seedlings from other farmers.

Given the limited land, keeping a source of bunching onion just hurts badly your income if you’re a farmer with 500 m2. So we went with the second option, buying bulbs. Problem, the price increased twofold just as we were about to scale production of the crop. So we just had to stop.

To us, this story illustrates very well the issues you have to navigate with, when farming in a country such as Cambodia, and why it’s hard for farmers to get good income from their land :

  • Suppliers are not always reliable and sometimes you cannot even find any which can supply certain key crops.
  • Other farmers seem to make money out of a production but they may have very different constraints than yours ( land, time, labor ). And you have to factor in those constraints. Land occupation is way too little considered by small-scale farmers here.
  • You need to master a portfolio of crops in order to swing between them while problems get solved.

On our side, we’ll probably get back to bunching onion later. The crop is nice, it has a good market and fits well into our crop rotation. But we’ll need to work with our international suppliers first in order to get adequate seeds, not yet available here.

Guillaume, 27th February 2015