Peter Cornish and Elijah Ferrian take a trip down to the Delta to learn more about the sustainable farm project that is looking to shape the future of Vietnam for years to come. Photos by Romain Garrigue.
There’s a food and lifestyle trend that has been on the rise in the West for quite some time now: produce and livestock raised using traditional methods. No pesticides, chemicals, or unsafe additives are used. The ingredients are simply: dirt, water, sun and care. Whether branded ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’, or ‘eco-friendly’, the fact remains that the rise of the “old way” is quickly reclaiming territory in Vietnam.
Demand and Reality
It’s no secret that food safety is a concern in Ho Chi Minh City. With so many mouths to feed, and a job sector that is rapidly moving into the technologically driven, globalised economy, people want more from their food and have less time to find out where and how it’s produced.
While the world may know Vietnam as a powerhouse of rice export and fast-rising player in coffee production, those that live in country are enjoying a golden age of growth that has consumers demanding healthy produce more than ever. There’s a slight problem, however.
Local producers are having trouble keeping up with demand.
While this is a problem in itself, the grander issue is that because of this pressure, Vietnamese farms are being pushed to use more of the very chemical pesticides and yield-protecting sprays that educated consumers are looking to avoid.
It’s a common story across developing nations worldwide, and one that doesn’t ever seem to have a conveniently packaged solution. Luckily, there is light at the end of this tunnel and like any good solution the roots rest in education.
Classrooms to Crop Yields
We wanted to find out more specifics about sustainability here in Vietnam, so we met up with Quan Nguyen, owner of Sunny Farm, a private educational farm and activity centre about 45km from Ho Chi Minh City in the fertile Mekong Delta.
Sunny Farm educational centre was founded about five years ago as a place for young people to come to study, to learn, and to apply the techniques they acquire through the educational process in real time. The vision was to teach not only about sustainable agriculture, but to act as a training ground for life skills that today’s youngsters are in desperate need of.
“I wanted a place to inspire the next generation, and to encourage a greater understanding of how through sharing what we create, we can help build self-esteem. I want to encourage kids to think more about how their actions impact on society, to introduce a different way of thinking, to challenge people to think and ask themselves what do they really want? To give people an alternative choice.” Nguyen explained.
Sunny Farm combines ‘green’ farming with educational services. Produce is cultivated using contemporary farming and traditional permaculture methods. Permaculture is the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.
The general idea is that monoculture farming, the process of growing one single crop season after season with no recovery period, destroys soil integrity and drastically reduces crop yields, resulting in the over reliance on chemicals in the farming process.
The idea of natural and sustainable farming is valued to the highest degree at Sunny Farm, and they operate using no tilling, no fertilisers and no industrial pesticides or fungicides.
“People view what we are doing as organic farming, but we don’t say ‘organic’, we say naturally produced. We don’t buy into the organic marketing scheme that has grown. [We see it] more like micro farming, where people are just getting to know the land and the farmer, and how best to grow [the] crops.” Nguyen said.
The model used at Sunny Farm is both natural and environmentally friendly. It’s also cheaper than farming methods typically used by surrounding farms, and easier. They encourage the use of recyclable and biodegradable products which both lower costs, and support their long-term mission: empowering people to develop their own bright future through mindful practices in food production.
A New Return to Tradition
“To me, farming means you create the future,” Nguyen says. “What I started five years ago is a preparation for my ten year plan. 18,000 people already know our farm and our brand, and when they go home after a day at our farm they can’t help but think ‘Man, that’s a great idea!’”
Nguyen continues. “In many respects, we adopted an old style of farming, using methods that have been lost. [It’s] a combination of European techniques brought by the French, and traditional subsistence farming methods that have been used in Vietnam for many years. We ask: what are the best crops to go in what place and at which time?”
Much of this more traditional approach to farming has been lost to local farmers the world over, and information about it tends to be only available in English, so language is a barrier to those who might want to learn more.
But as Nguyen explained, those local farmers who do have knowledge of more environmentally sustainable farming techniques often choose not to use it.
“We are happy to share our knowledge, but local farmers are reluctant to adopt it. They are locked into a system that produces what they want; crops.” Nguyen shared with us.
The system he talks about is the use of chemical fertilisers which are quick acting, and lock people into spraying. “If you don’t spray something happens to your field and then you’ve lost everything. There is a lack of education, and a lot of people only look at the plants. Healthy soil is a road to everything being cheaper. You’re going to hurt your your family over the long run if you rely on chemicals. You will have to cut down and waste a lot of product just to plant another monocrop. You’re stretching the soil by pushing to have faster yields. [At Sunny Farm] we spend more time looking at all aspects of farming. We focus on moderation and balance.”
The land Nguyen and his staff care for is a serious treat to visit. A lone milk cow grazes near a natural swimming pool that acts as a constant recycling crop watering system for water spinach and other produce.
Guava and lime trees dot the back hectare, while a series of open-air holding pens house rabbits, ducks, pigs, chickens, and a large aviary is filled with all manner of birds and a lone monkey keen on his next escape.
Sunny Farm is a magical place that has plans to invite volunteers to stay and help with an expanding list of projects, while continuing efforts to expand its educational influence through several forms of outreach.
Nguyen and his team work closely with the local community and People’s Committee to share their approach, and encourage others to follow. They also employ local farmers and run educational support sessions for local schools. “The local community is aware we are here. They see busloads of kids coming in from International schools in Ho Chi Minh City and they want to know what is happening here.” Nguyen told us.
Reception has been mixed, and it seems a lot of the local farmers just don’t understand what Sunny Farm is trying to achieve. “They ask how we can sell our produce for a higher price than the market. Some just like to complain. Local farmers try to tell me what to do and insist that we need to use chemical fertilizers on our crops.” Nguyen confided. His response is simple – if you don’t want it, don’t eat it.
Although reaching out to local farmers is important, the key focus of Sunny Farm’s educational programmes is the next generation. As well as helping them learn about the environment and their consumption, Nguyen hopes a visit to his farm will encourage youngsters to realise that they are capable of creating their own value in the community, and that it’s better to create than consume.
“Vietnam really needs healthy, safe environments for kids to play and learn, to give them exposure to a natural environment, to try and re-unite urban Vietnam with its rural roots. If we inspire the young, the family will start to pick up on this.” Nguyen explained.
The farm is visited by groups from most of the city’s International schools, and Vietnamese schools are starting to take interest in what he is doing as well.
Nguyen’s words to skeptics: “Come see the farm and make up your own mind.”
We wanted to provide some information on legitimate retail sources of sustainably grown produce and other foods within Ho Chi Minh City. The following are the top three places to get into contact if you’re looking for organic products:
Organik Shop in D2 remains top of the list for most when thinking organic foods. With much of their produce supplied directly from their property in Dalat, the first EU certified organic farm in Vietnam, they hold a USDA Organic Certification, vouching for the quality of their produce. An additional certification from HACCP qualifies the process by which their produce is handled after harvest.
Operating on similar levels of sustainability to Sunny Farm, the produce from their Dalat farm remains untouched by any type of harmful chemical, ensuring a healthy ecosystem and soil quality. Adding a carefully planned crop rotation system to assist pest control, they are able to control their growing process without the need for chemicals.
As with Sunny Farm, the Organik farm produces its own ‘brown’ compost, made from local manure and decomposing organic materials. Where possible, they operate a zero-waste policy that means discarded fruit, vegetables or other organic matter is converted back into sustenance for future produce.
8 Thao Dien, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City
094 777 42 24
Also topping the list for organic produce is Organica, whose farm in Dong Nai province was certified shortly after opening in 2013. Founded with the mission to help Vietnamese consumers have access to organic, natural produce, they too opt for a more traditional approach to their farming.
As with Sunny Farm, Organica started as a small business with a vision to impact on the lives of their customers by providing them with clean, safe, healthy food.
As well as providing fresh, organic produce, Organica also provides helpful information about the benefits of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, both for individuals and the greater community. Working closely with other suppliers, Organica is helping to create strong relationships between customers and farmers, especially those in remote, ethnic communities. Part of their objectives include encouraging and assisting farmers to adopt organic, natural methods to their farming, in order to create long-term sustainability and better lives for all.
117 Nguyen Thai Hoc, District 1
130 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, W.6, District 3
54 Hoang Van Thu, W.9, District Phu Nhuan
Following an organic approach to farming, Happy Vegi is another certified producer of vegetables and fruit that uses a cultivation system based on the natural cycle of its ecosystem.
As with Sunny Farm, they adopt a traditional approach to their farming that doesn’t rely on synthetically produced chemicals.
Following a similar mission to Organik and Organica, they believe in sustainable farming that benefits both the community and the environment, and protecting the well-being of their customers, their farm and the greater eco-system.
Their 5000m2 farm in Tan Binh District is a stable producer of over 10 different kinds of leaf vegetables, and various types of fruits. As with Sunny Farm, they believe in re-balancing the ecological environment for cultivation of crops.
Their produce is grown without use of chemical pesticide or growth stimulant and without planting in soil that has been contaminated by agricultural chemicals