In Vietnam, sustainable coffee farms bear new fruit



In Vietnam, sustainable coffee farms bear new fruit

Ask Nguyen Xuan Truong how his coffee fields are doing, and the 58-year-old’s serious demeanor breaks into a smile.

“Too wonderful!” he declares, striding into the 2-hectare farm he owns in the Di Linh district of Vietnam’s Lam Dong province, pushing aside foliage to show off clusters of bright green pearls: coffee berries, still ripening to red.

Instead of neat rows, this farm looks a little wild. A grassy carpet covers the land, dotted with yellow wildflowers. Different varieties of trees are interspersed: pepper next to avocado, durian beside coffee. The former three types of plants are relatively new, with over 100 trees having been planted in the past few years.


Reviving the soil

Truong’s use of intercropping – a technique to reduce soil erosion by growing different varieties of crops in a field – was, at first, an enigma to his community.

In Vietnam, which is the world’s second-largest coffee producer, farmers typically grow java as a mono-crop, as they believe taller plants will block sunlight from reaching the relatively stumpy shrub, curtailing its growth.

They also remove the grass from their fields, thinking it competes with the coffee for nutrients, when it in fact helps retain moisture and combat soil erosion.

Soil erosion is a major challenge for Vietnam’s coffee farmers, as years of planting have stripped fields of nutrients. But Truong’s bet has paid off: not only is his land recovering, but the temperature on the farm is also lower and cooler to work in, and his yield (an average of 5 tons per hectare) is up 10 percent.

This translates to a 30 percent increase in income, a figure he expects to rise to 50 percent in the next few years when his extra varieties of fruits are ripe for selling. This could mean an additional four-figure sum per year, per hectare.

“At first, my family and neighbors didn’t believe intercropping would be successful,” says Truong. “But when they saw how my farm had changed, they wanted to know how I did it.”


Raising farmer incomes

Truong’s farm is one of 30 demonstration plots in Vietnam’s key coffee-growing areas

adopting intercropping, water irrigation systems, and new techniques for soil, fertilizer, pest, and disease management as part of a larger project to make them more sustainable.

Launched by Louis Dreyfus Company, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, and Syngenta in 2016, the project has since benefitted some 4,000 farmers and covers land totaling over 10,000 hectares. 

The farmers were trained by the project partners on topics including environmental protection, responsible application of crop protection products and fertilizer, and how to protect their health with the use of personal protective equipment. To facilitate the uptake of intercropping, they were also given durian seedlings.

For Truong, who spent four years in the army and two in a tea factory before creating his farm by tilling wild land as a 28-year-old, having an open mind despite the skepticism of his family was key to turning the situation around.

“I was interested in the project as it was run by famous companies, so I believed it would be a success,” the farmer of 30 years explains. “I wanted to try the alternative farming methods taught and see if they were effective.” 

And he is satisfied with the many fruits of his labor, which apart from a financial boost also include 4C certification, a mark of green coffee production.

As a project pioneer, he is now also a community leader, using his newfound know-how to train a group of 50 farmers to achieve similar results. “I motivate and teach the others,” he says. “I want to share my knowledge with them to help them increase their income as well.”