Environmentally conscious farmers and engineers in localities scattered throughout Vietnam’s Central Highlands are going to great lengths to adopt organic growing methods that leave traditional soil and hydroponics out of the equation.
Top quality fruits and vegetables are a trademark of Da Lat, a beloved resort town nestled in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong and known for the produce it ships out to the rest of the country.
Safe greens currently account for more than 700 hectares of growing space in the province, according to statistics recently released by the provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The new ‘clean greens’ are the result of replacing soil with a mixture of coconut coir or waste, rice husks, pellets, bales, and briquettes. Although the mixture has no nutritional value, plants are able to easily dig their roots into the compound and absorb any nutrient additives the farmer adds.
According to Nguyen Van Son, the provincial agriculture department’s deputy head, in traditional farming, growers do not know which nutrients in the soil have been absorbed, an obstacle that can be effectively controlled with this technology.
Pesticide residues are kept at minimal levels to give a boost to the look and texture of the greens, satisfying even the most fastidious clients and distributors, Son added.
“Traditional agricultural soil had become irreversibly tainted causing the quality of my greens to plummet before I switched to the model two years ago,” Mai Van Khan, head of Tan Tien Cooperative in Da Lat, said.
The coconut waste and rice husk ash mixture can be recycled for use with multiple crop cycles, he stressed.
Tien’s neighbors have also started to adopt the practice, though many were initially deterred by its costly investment.
Tran Huy Duong, director of Langbiang Farm in Da Lat, has begun using the new approach to distinguish his plants from their chemical-dipped Chinese counterparts. By tucking potato seeds into coconut coir, his potatoes yield high-quality tubers that stand out when compared to those from Chinese farmers.
He added that compared to conventionally grown potatoes, his tubers are almost equal in size and boast spotless look and texture.
Though the same area yields over 30 percent less produce compared to conventionally grown plants, the high quality vegetables can be sold at double the price of veggies grown using traditional methods.
A bed of clean veggies are grown without soil. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Farmers in Lam Dong province have introduced hydroponics into their operations – an innovative agricultural approach in which leafy vegetables are grown in nutrient-filled water pipes.
The method has become so popular that several farmers have traveled to Malaysia and Thailand to seek experience and purchase equipment.
The model requires well-equipped greenhouses, a circulation water processing system, and pipes with pores designed to fit small trays of saplings.
Nutrient-filled water runs through the pipes and moderately fills the trays.
Pham Thi Cuc, a farm owner in Lac Duong District, noted that access to her water tanks is strictly limited.
“We cannot afford to allow strangers to approach the tanks. If they become contaminated the entire veggie garden could flop,” she explained.
At Cuc’s farm, technicians are tasked with constantly gauging and adjusting the water’s nutrient concentration.
During harvests, farmers gently pull the vegetable stems from the pipes and chop off their roots before immediately consuming the stems and leaves, without rinsing or preliminarily processing.
Hydroponically-grown greens fetch prices three to five times higher than their soil-based counterparts.
The latest analysis by the Lam Dong Agency for Agricultural, Silvicultural, and Aquatic Product Quality Management showed that hydroponically grown samples are proven to have almost zero residue, a rate considerably lower than the maximum allowed by Vietnamese Good Agricultural Practices (VietGAP), set by the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The rates are also within the permitted range regulated by Japan and Singapore.
Da Lat is currently home to 15 hectares of greenhouses dedicated to the cultivation of hydroponically grown vegetables, according to statistics released by the provincial agricultural department.
Demand for the high-quality, pricey produce usually exceeds supplies.
Technicians are seen working at the laboratory at QNA Safe Co., based in the central province of Quang Ngai. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Though some early-movers have been quick to jump on the new technology, six young engineers in Quang Ngai City, a central city in its namesake province, have encountered countless difficulties talking local farmers into adopting their safe vegetable production process.
Despite repeated hefty losses, they have refused to give up on their dream.
They are founders and staffers of QNA Safe Co., which currently owns approximately 1.1 hectares of safe greens and is the first in the province to use greenhouse technology in their production.
Organic fertilizers and soil enriched with beneficial microorganisms are used instead of pesticides and conventional manure.
Products from QNA Safe Co. must meet stringent standards at the company’s laboratory before being put on the local market. Produce that fails the company’s stringent tests is immediately destroyed.
Their produce has qualified for VietGAP.
Nguyen Ngoc Vien, a QNA Safe member, was greatly impressed by Japanese farmers’ hygienically ensured vegetable gardens during a trip to the country in 2013.
He then shared the story with his like-minded friends and their company came into being shortly after that.
Unfortunately, their faith in the new model was not shared by many other farmers in the area.
“Several shook their heads, believing the model would lead to lower profits, while others hesitantly agreed, but their products were still found to be riddled with pesticide residues,” one of the engineers recalled.
The company paid these workers, before destroying the products and ending contracts.
“Despite devastating failures, we have persevered in introducing our technology to farmers and ensuring outlets for their products,” Huynh Van Tiep, director of QNA Safe, said.
Their persistent efforts have partly paid off: many safe green gardens have cropped up in Quang Ngai City and neighboring districts over the past six months.
QNA Safe has also expanded their model to the province’s Mo Duc District, and Kon Plong District in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum.
According to statistics provided by the Quang Ngai agricultural department, the province boasted 20-hectare safe vegetable growing areas out of 13,000 hectares of orchards and veggie farms in 2015.