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The failure of high yield
By Son Nguyen
Thursday,  Oct 11, 2018,20:41 (GMT+7)

The failure of high yield

By Son Nguyen

High productivity is generally deemed a desirable achievement, but for Vietnamese farmers, such an outcome poses risks, which under many circumstances can turn out to be a painful failure. That proves right for the dragon fruit these days, when the farm produce price takes a nosedive, resulting in huge losses for farmers and prompting calls for rescue from all walks of life, as seen in local media.

Within weeks, the price has taken a sharp plunge, from around VND20,000 a kilo in late September in the south-central province of Binh Thuan, which is the country’s key dragon fruit growing province, to a mere VND1,000 a kilo, meaning a free fall of 95%. Worse still, much of the fruit's output finds no buyers these days, and is simply dumped as manure as even cattle like cows are fed up with the fruit.

The local market is awash with dragon fruit, from growing areas like Binh Thuan, Tien Giang, Long An and Ba Ria-Vung Tau to localities with high purchasing power like Hanoi and HCMC. As traders are overwhelmed with the bumper crop, farmers cannot sell their output and many have simply chopped down the fruit. The oversupply is excessive, say local media.

Binh Thuan Province alone, with 27,000 hectares under dragon fruit cultivation, produces some 600,000 tons of the fruit a year, with 80% for export to China, according to Dai Doan Ket. Long An in the Mekong Delta has some 10,000 hectares of dragon fruit, while its neighboring province of Tien Giang also grows 7,000 hectares. To aggravate the market glut, farmers in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province have also engaged themselves in growing dragon fruit, with hundreds of hectares. The race to grow dragon fruit among various provinces has made Vietnam the top producer of the fruit in the world, while other countries like China and Cambodia have also started growing the fruit.

To make matters worse, the output has surged compared to that in the corresponding period of last year, as farmers have applied various technical measures to boost yield, says Tien Phong. “Around this time last year, the fruit sold for over VND20,000 a kilo, so farmers this year started cultivating the fruit en mass to cash in on the high price, resulting in oversupply,” the paper quoted Phan Van Tan, deputy director of Binh Thuan’s Department of Agriculture, as saying.

Consumption, on the other hand has been normal, including shipments to China.

Hoang Trung, head of the Plant Protection Department under the agriculture ministry, says in Nguoi Lao Dong after a fact-finding trip to Lao Cai near the border with China that transport of the fruit to China remains as active as usual. “Each day, some 13,000 tons of dragon fruit is transported to China via border gates,” Trung asserts in the paper.

Similarly, Thanh Nien cites another agriculture official to reject rumors that China has stopped importing the fruit, reporting that in one morning, he witnessed as many as 300 container trucks crossing Kim Thanh Bordergate in Lao Cai to China, each transporting 20 to 25 tons.

Therefore, the main culprit is the excessive yield of the fruit this year. In Binh Thuan alone, the local agriculture department estimates output this year increases by 51,700 tons against last year, says Tien Phong. And rescue efforts, as usual, also speed up.

In local media as well as social media, there are innumerable calls to farmers’ rescue, while enterprises have also stepped in to assist farmers.

Lotte Mart, for example, is buying dragon fruit from farmers at some VND5,000 to VND7,000 a kilo and selling the fruit at its supermarket at no profit, says Phap Luat Online. Similarly, Saigon Co.op as the country’s biggest retailer network is joining the campaign to buy dragon fruit for sales at hundreds of its stores nationwide, says Dai Doan Ket. Hundreds of individuals in the country, especially in major cities, have also lent a helping hand, calling on their relatives or friends to buy dragon fruit to buoy up the sagging price.

But, according to local media, coming to farmers’ rescue is not the right approach, given the high frequency of such charity-like campaigns over the years.

Hanoi-based media outlet An Ninh Thu Do gives a long list of rescue campaigns in the recent past, saying another remedial solution is needed if such chaotic production and consumption is to be avoided in the future.

The most striking rescue campaign took place last year when the entire society rolled up their sleeves to help pig farmers, since as many as three million pig-rearing households countrywide were hit by the greatest ever price crisis in 2016-17. In late 2016, the price of live pig tumbled to some VND25,000 a kilo from around VND40,000 a kilo earlier, compared to the rearing cost of some VND37,000. The crisis deepened into 2017, when prices fell further to VND15,000-17,000 a kilo. In Hanoi City alone, pig farmers incurred a combined loss of VND1,500 billion, the paper reports, citing data from Hanoi City’s Department of Agriculture.

Other recent rescue campaigns relate to onion in 2015, banana in early 2016, potato and radish last year, and watermelon in May this year, according to the paper.

Back to the dragon fruit rescue program this time, experts point out that the vicious cycle of high yield versus sagging price has repeated time and again in the recent past, and both farmers and State agencies should be blamed for the mishap.

Farmers pursue profit, and when the dragon fruit fetches high price, there is no way to ban them from cultivating the crop. A farmer named Tran Quan Hai in Ba Ria-Vung Tau says when the fruit sells for VND25,000 a kilo, it beats all other crops in terms of profit. And farmers rush to growing the crop, totally blindfolded as they have no market information.

“Farmers cannot calculate market supply and demand. Whenever a farmer gains a hefty profit, ten others will follow suit,” Hai is quoted as saying in vov.vn, the news website of the Voice of Vietnam radio.

In this respect, it is apparent that relevant State agencies have failed in their duties to keep farmers abreast of market developments.

Vo Mai, vice president of Vietnam Gardening Association, says that a radical solution to the farm produce oversupply in general and the glut of dragon fruit in particular must start with the Government. Relevant State agencies must introduce new changes to agricultural production processes, from market forecasting to planning and production, according to Phap Luat Online.

Such State duties have failed, says Nguyen Duc Thanh, president of the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research. “The ministries of Industry and Trade, and Agriculture fail to develop an alert system to supply prompt and efficient market information for production areas,” he is quoted in Phap Luat Online as saying.

Therefore, in the painful failure of high yield, the blame not only rests with farmers, but the two ministries as well, Thanh asserts.

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