Trieu Thi Chau

Mega-tons of water we used for irrigation before were totally wasteful

In 2010 I took over my parents’ coffee farm that they had started in 1994. It’s our family tradition. Back in the day my grandparents worked on French coffee plantations. That’s where they learnt about coffee growing and passed their knowledge to next generations. We come from the Northern ethnic minority called Dao and migrated to Dak Lak in 1954. Since then all Dao in our area have been coffee growers.

We speak Dao language even though our neighbors are not only Dao but also ethinc Kinh and Ede. Inside our families we speak our own languages but when we communicate and cooperate on a commune level – which we do a lot – we use Vietnamese. My dad still remembers Chinese that was traditionally learnt by Dao people, and we wear traditional clothes for special occasions. When my grandparents moved to this village in the 1950s the whole family lived in a small wooden hut with an open fire in the kitchen corner. In the 1990s we built a big brick house next to the old one. As most other Vietnamese we believe that our ancestors help us in our mundane life so we have an altar to commemorate their memory.

From 1954 when my grandparents moved from the North to grow coffee on the French plantations in the Central Highlands till 1996 people only dealt with weeds and pests by hand. Herbicides, pesticides and fungicides have been extensively introduced and applied by the farmers after 1996. My grandparents had around 10 hestares of land.

Then those lands were passed down the generations and every member in our family inherited a few hectares of land. At the moment, my parents have around 5-6 ha, me and my sibblings also share that area for growing coffee. The workload is mostly distributed among the family members; we only hire extra workers in high seasons such as harvesting.  Initially the French were growing Arabica here and Robusta wasn’t introduced until 1987. But growing Arabica in our area is extremily challenging – the climate and soils aren’t suitable for it and therefore the yields aren’t high.

Gradually farmers switched to Robusta after 1987 and Arabica was moved to higher regions of Lam Dong and Dak Nong where the conditions are more favorable

I got my own experience in coffee agriculture from my parents and also through the Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung’s training programs. Three years ago, I attended an HRNS project that was focusing on sustainable coffee growing and adapting to the climate change. I learnt a great deal of agricultural techniques such as irrigation, pruning, fertilizing, composting organic by-products, pest and desease control, and harvesting.

When I returned to my commune I shared that knowledge with my neighbors. We immediately saw the results. Those techniques turned out to be very cost-efficient when it came to irrigation and applying fertilizers. Traditionally people here used much more water and fertilizers than the plants really needed. They didn’t harvest properly. The HRNS educational initiative helped us to reduce costs of chemicals, labor cost and the carbon footprint too.

We started to realize that mega-tons of water we used for irrigation before were totally wasteful

Those excessive amounts of water didn’t come without large amounts of extra carbon dioxide emissions from burning fuel. Another important thing that I learnt throughout the course and shared with other villagers was the use of grass cover to reduce soil evaporation during the hot season. And we found that planting shading trees can greately help to screen the coffee plants from the sun and decrease the erosive effect of wind. I’m talking about such trees as durian, avocado, jackfruit, pepper and some others. They grow tall, cast a good shade over coffee plants and provide a valuable extra income to farmers.

Despite my large previous experience, after getting trained by HRNS, I noticed that growing coffee became more sustainable and profitable. My family income has stabilized and we are no longer worried about unstable yields or losing the quality due to molding as in previous years. But the most significant change was the organizing of a cooperative in my commune. In 2015 with the support from HRNS I joined an international group of farmers at Lavazza’s Slow Food Conference in Milan for a training program. There I had a chance to learn about young coffee farmers’ initiatieves all around the world.

When I came back to Vietnam I thought: “Why don’t the villagers organize into a cooperative. Dealing individually with middlemen farmers are forced to sell coffee at the lowest price. But if we unite we’ll know the quality of our beans and sell in big batches directly with big traders avoiding middlemen”.

In a way, my situation is unique. Unlike other farmers in our area I got trained by HRNS and reinforced my expertise in coffee agriculture during my trip to Italy

Founding a cooperative I was well aware not only of the advantages but of all the difficulties too. It must be a combination of will, knowledge and luck that allowed me to succeed. It’s also my personality. I’m quite conservative, but also resilient. When I face an obstacle, I stop and step back in order to clarify the situation and consider solutions. And then move forward using different tactics and updated strategy. Nowadays the entire coffee sector is heavily affected by the climate change. We need to adapt constantly and there is simply no other choice for farmers but to keep learning and upgrading their knowledge about weather and its fluctuations. Changing climate has to be taken into account in planning Vietnamese coffee economy on all levels from individual households to cooperatives to government policies.

My kids will most likely continue growing coffee too. However, they will use new methods that I learnt from the HRNS program as those have proven to be efficient. All coffee farms in our village are sustainable now. In the next 10 years, I’m planning to make my parents’ coffee plantation fully sustainable. I started doing it from 2014 after attending HRNS trainings.

First of all, I planted shade trees to intercrop with coffee and switched to cost-effective irrigation and fertilization. Those measures have already made our yields and overall productivity of the plantation more sustainable – we don’t have severe seasonal income fluctuations. At the same time, the cooperative organizes selling beans, trying to always reach high standards so we get a better price. If HRNS programs are no longer available in Vietnam 10 years later, we can still learn new things from local extension centers and I myself feel confident enough to instruct fellow farmers in my area about the climate change and the ways they can successfully cope with it.

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