Story and Photos by Rebecca Standen
The Organization to Develop Our Villages (ODOV) was started by MCC in the early 90’s in response to the need for increased food security and improved livelihoods in the rural rice farming province of Prey Veng, and became a local NGO in 2004. The team of hardworking staff are involved in a variety of community development projects, including the establishment of village banks, vocational training for high school students, and training on sustainable agriculture and climate change adaptation techniques. ODOV also has a demonstration farm with the space and resources to test different agriculture techniques and seeds before sharing them with farmers.
One of the garden plots at ODOV where we are demonstrating crop rotation and growing a variety of crops in a small location, which is useful if you only have a small home garden and want to grow a variety of vegetables year round.
The demonstration farm is where I come in. I am volunteering at ODOV for one year as a part of MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program. My role at ODOV is first and foremost as the Demonstration Farm Coordinator, which sounds a lot more impressive than it actually is.
The gardeners already do a fantastic job of planting, growing, and selling vegetables on the farm, all the while demonstrating techniques such as drip irrigation, intercropping, crop rotation, and integrated farming (using crop residue to feed pigs and fish; using fish pond water and pig manure to feed the plants, and so on). Most farmers in the province do not have enough land or financial resources to spare for testing new techniques that might not prove beneficial. This is a valuable community learning centre, used to give hands-on training to farmers, and provides an area for training and development of the staff. My job is to get the ball rolling on some new experimental trials, assisting with data collection and management, and making the place more visitor-friendly.
After discussing the needs of the community members, we decided that the first plant trials would be attempting to grow vegetables that are not currently produced in Mesang. These vegetables could earn a lot of profit for farmers by selling them at the market, as well as providing more variety and nutrition in their daily diet. Poor farming families (around 98% of the population of the province) have a diet that consists mainly of rice and fish. (For that matter, even the not-so-poor families eat an awful lot of rice and fish.) The lack of variety and vegetables in their diet is in part due to low availability of vegetables in the market. Even when vegetables are available, they are imported from other provinces or neighbouring Vietnam and are too expensive for most families to afford on a regular basis.
ODOV helps poor and vulnerable farming families to establish home gardens. Farmers want to be able to grow a variety of nutritious vegetables for household consumption, selling the surplus at the market for additional income. The demonstration farm allows us to test new techniques and vegetables before sharing this information with farmers who don’t have the extra land area or financial resources to risk experimenting with untested varieties or methods.
Ming Uk Lun helped me plant garlic from cloves we purchased at the local market. So far they seem to be growing well.
So far this year, we have planted ginger, three varieties of tomatoes, garlic, shallot, potato, cabbage, and experimented with inter-planting carrot and radishes. Some of these trials have been more successful than others! But hopefully we will soon have success and be able to pass on what we have learned to farmers around the province. I have also been helping with regular data collection; by keeping careful record of all that transpires in the garden, we will be able to objectively compare the results of various trials, learn from our mistakes, and improve our methods.
Of course, there have inevitably been challenges along the way; ants carrying away our tomato seeds, chickens scratching in the seed beds, potatoes rotting instead of sprouting, etc; but what fun is science if everything goes exactly as planned? The gardeners have been a wonderful source of knowledge for me, and I love spending time with them. Though I do have experience in research and experimental trials using plants, my knowledge of vegetable farming in Cambodia was next to nothing before I arrive (OK, it was absolutely nothing before I arrived).
After being here for a bit, I realized that no one was going to invite me out and show me how to do things in the garden. If I wanted to get involved, I had to go outside, awkwardly watch for a while (it is hard to ask specific farming questions after taking language lessons for just one month), and then jump in and start helping! Now that the gardeners are getting to know me, they are happy to teach me farming techniques, and are much quicker to tell me when I do something wrong! Perhaps the greatest evidence of their dedication and patience in helping me learn is that I can now name more of the vegetables in the garden by their Khmer names than by their English names!
My one year term in Cambodia has sadly reached the half-way mark already, but I look forward to the next few months I have to continue serving and learning with the farmers of Cambodia.
This is an unbelievably tiny red ant carrying away a tomato seed down the side of the old tire that is used for a seed bed. I was both distraught that my experiment was being methodically removed, seed by seed, by an army of ants, and amazed by the incredible feat of strength.
Watch a short video about ODOV’s demonstration farm to learn more.