Gardens Offer a Way Out of Rural Poverty

By JOHN SPRAGENS Jr.

TAN PHU THANH, Vietnam -- Nam Vinh doesn't keep the two pythons in the cage behind his house to startle visitors.

Like everything else in his carefully tended garden, just outside the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho, the snakes have an economic purpose. When they are old enough, he will breed the serpents and sell their offspring to other farmers in the area -- for rat control.

Nam Vinh's garden is a case study in the importance of cash crops to Vietnam's economy.

His collection of livestock also includes chickens and ducks (eggs bring 200 dong apiece, or about five cents), pigs, goats (milk sells for 800 dong a liter, a little more than 20 cents a quart), honeybees and, in ponds between the garden's raised beds, fish.

Cocoa pods yield the seeds from which chocolate is made and also produce a sweet liqueur.

Coconut palms 30 feet tall shade several varieties of cocoa trees, laden with green and red seed pods. Black pepper vines wind their way up poles sunk at intervals through the garden. And two lean working cats roam the grounds.

"I have half a hectare of rice land," Vinh says. The plot, just over an acre, is small even by Vietnamese standards. Yet Vinh's home is twice as large as others in this relatively prosperous area and his income puts him in the top 5 percent of all Mekong Delta farmers.

Vinh is a perfect illustration of a point made by Vo Tong Xuan, an agriculturalist who is vice rector of the University of Can Tho. He would like to get that point across to some government officials.

"The problem is the emphasis on rice production," Xuan says. "This is especially bad in the North."

He has no problem with the proposition that agriculture must be the foundation of the Vietnamese economy. In a country where industries are weak and more than 80 percent of the people live in the countryside, discussion has to focus how to make the most of the country's agricultural potential.

But for too many years, Xuan argues, Vietnam has made self-sufficiency in rice the primary goal for its farmers. In Xuan's view, the country would do better to divert a sizable part of its energies to growing cash crops, especially those that can be exported for hard currencies.

Vinh's garden and the prosperity it has brought him underscore Xuan's point. So Vinh has become something of a TV star in the Mekong Delta. He has been featured more than once on a weekly program produced by the university for the Can Tho television station.

The program reaches deep into the countryside, where battery-powered TV sets can be seen glowing in thatched homes lighted only by small kerosene lamps.

Equally important for Xuan's purposes, the program is watched by local agriculture officials. It is a way of helping to change their attitudes without preaching to them, Xuan says.

One of Xuan's most recent projects is encouraging farmers to raise shrimp along with rice in their paddies. Vietnam already has the facilities to export frozen shrimp, which command a good price in Asian markets.

And he thinks farmers in the North should spend some time learning about white potatoes.

"The winters up there are cool enough, and they could produce about 20 tons of potatoes per hectare," he says -- more than 8 tons an acre.

Potatoes would be worth more than the rice that could be grown on the same land, and there would be a ready market in Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand, Xuan says. Vietnam would be able to ship its crop just as supplies of European potatoes run out each year.

Farming remains a subsistence occupation for many of Vietnam's rural families. But teachers like Xuan and farmers like Vinh hope to prove there are alternatives.


Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Jan. 11, 1989

Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.


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