After several years of trial and error, Huynh Thi Quoc Tri has successfully equipped rural farmers, including ethnic minority households in central Vietnam, with the skills they need for a transition to clean farming.
Tri, in her mid-40s, is proving that success is always achievable, regardless of the hardship life presents.
Over the past six years, she has worked hard to pass down clean agriculture technology to farmers in Don Duong District, located in Lam Dong Province, and its neighbors of Gia Lai and Kon Tum in the Central Highlands.
Farmers in Ninh Thuan and Quang Tri Provinces have also benefited from the technology.
She believed that with profits outweighing costs, the practice will do them good in the long run.
Going clean and green
After graduating in literature from a reputable university in Ho Chi Minh City in 1999, Tri worked as a reporter for around seven years before going to Japan, where she earned a scholarship to major in social welfare studies.
Upon her return to Vietnam in 2014, Tri worked as an interpreter while resuming her teaching job at KOTO, an organization that offers tuition-free vocational training in cooking, hospitality, English, and computer skills to needy locals.
The woman also took up sewing and embroidery in her spare time.
The journey she embarked on to launch a social enterprise in embroidery took her to Ka Don Commune, nestled in Don Duong District, Lam Dong Province, where many young women of the K’Ho ethnic minority are long known for their dexterity in the craft.
There she asked the women to join a project in crafting fashionable embroidered items to help improve their incomes.
The project turned out to take an unexpected twist when she noticed another problem.
During her multiple visits to local farming households where the women made embroidery to supplement their incomes, Tri was startled at their indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides on their crops as she witnessed their cultivating methods at work.
“It was then that the idea of chemical-free farming hit me,” she recalled.
With neither financial nor human resources, the social entrepreneur walked away from her stable job in Ho Chi Minh City and boldly embarked on her sustainable farming project.
She single-mindedly focused on producing veggies free of pests and diseases in a 1,600-square-meter facility she bought with money borrowed from one of her friends.
Tri acknowledged that it was a risky move, as she considered herself an outsider lacking a farming background or experience, despite spending a while learning about a clean farming model run in Osaka Prefecture by Teikei, a system of community-supported agriculture in Japan.
The woman was, however, confident that it was the right thing to do as increasingly health-conscious consumers would prefer clean produce.
“Seeing how indiscriminately many farmers sprayed chemicals, I was set on making the project a success,” Tri shared.
Her journey was, however, not without difficulties.
Her well-meaning project was initially met with doubts from local farmers, including K’Ho ethnic people, who dismissed her methods as unreliable and unrealistic.
“Actually what they said made some sense,” Tri recalled.
“Ravaged by worms and snails, the veggies looked unhealthy and could not reach full growth.”
She gave only one explanation to the incredulous farmers: the abuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has left the microorganism system of the soil seriously degraded.
It took her quite a while to improve the microorganism system.
Still, that failed to impress the farmers, who said all that a wealthy woman like her wanted was to get her money laundered.
The less appetizing produce failed to get customers’ attention and confidence, even Tri’s own parents and siblings would not consume her veggies.
Her staff were filled with dismay as she persistently refused to use chemicals, leaving her no other choice but to wastefully dispose of the produce.
The local farmers’ deep-rooted practice of growing a single crop on a large area was also a stark contrast to Tri’s plan for diversified cultivation on the same area, which was labor-intensive and left the plants prone to pests.
Despite the best efforts she threw in, Tri’s initial yield was only one-tenth of that grown in a traditional way.
She recounted a challenge she took on with young local farmers six years ago.
While they sprayed their crops intensively, Tri did nothing to stop weeds from growing and pests from attacking her crops.
Her initial harvest was poor compared to the youths’ abundant crops.
Tri’s hard work finally bore fruit.
As the experiment entered its second year, her cauliflowers weighed up to 0.9 kilograms apiece while those cultivated by the youths only 0.7 kilograms.
“I heaved a sigh of relief then,” she shared.
“The first lesson was learned.
“Since then, they have listened to me.”
Growing with social impact
Unable to find outlets for her hygienically ensured produce, Tri launched her own Page on Facebook and shares her farming stories on a daily basis.
She also alternates flowers with vegetables while using only environmentally friendly manure and no weed control methods.
Her crops began to yield positive outcomes and wound up pulling in good revenues.
More customers have come back for her green produce.
Tri’s project now attracts a large, devoted following, made up mostly of farmers who initially cast doubt on her cultivation methods.
Members of the same families also join the project.
“My whole extended family have now adopted Tri’s methods,” said Grek, a K’Ho family.
“Chemical-free farming is good to both growers and consumers’ health.
“We have also found great outlets.”
Compared to highly priced organic products, Tri always tries to make her rates affordable so that her produce, which mainly makes its way into schools, factories, hospitals, markets, and clean produce stores, can reach average-income consumers.
Tri noted as clean farming productivity is double or more than double doing it the traditional way, farmers still gain more profits despite selling them at affordable prices.
“Farmers can save costs investing in green houses, net houses, chemical fertilizers, pesticides or technology transfer studies,” Tri explained.
“This keeps our prices low while local farmers can maximize profits from their harvest.”
Her products now have a high consumption rate thanks to their consistent quality and low prices.
Tri revealed three principles she always bears in mind: preserving indigenous breeds, diversifying crops based on topography of different areas, and choosing suitable crops that vary from one season to another.
The enterprising woman is also working on a farmstay model, which aims to raise awareness of clean farming among communities and promotes cultural exchange.
At each locality, customers can visit the farming households, who will benefit from chances for cultivation and cultural exchange with colleagues from other provinces.
As an intermediary between farmers and customers, Tri finds herself constantly racking her brain to make sure farming households can maximize their profits while consumers can buy guaranteed produce at the lowest possible prices.
“This always gives me headaches, as risk management is not always effective when it comes to produce,” she explained.
“In clean farming, with no intervention in crops, all we can do is growing them at the mercy of weather conditions.
“Fortunately, our customers and wholesalers/agents are willing to share risks of natural disasters so that farmers can still earn revenues if they suffer poor crops in bad weather.”