Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Making money from trees in Vietnam

On a recent trip to Vietnam, Tony Bartlett, ACIAR's Forestry program manager, witnessed farmers' success of incorporating acacias and fruit trees into their farming systems...

Convincing poor farmers to include trees in their agricultural systems to improve land management is much easier if there are good prospects for them to achieve sound financial returns within 5 or 6 years. But there is never likely to be one tree-based system that will provide the best option to all farmers in a country. ACIAR forestry research aims to help farmers find the trees that work best for their situation.

Acacia logs loaded for market
Deciding what trees to grow depends very much on the site characteristics, the farmer’s preferences and access to markets for the tree products. ACIAR’s forestry projects in Vietnam provide two good examples of the potential economic benefits that come from trees in agricultural systems.

Probably the most successful example involves growing Acacia woodlots, where an estimated 250,000 farmers have adopted this forestry system into their overall farming. It is estimated that in 2012 about 70% of Vietnam’s 1.2 million hectares of acacia plantings were owned by smallholders with an average holding of just 3 hectares.

The Vietnamese farmers grow the acacias on a 6-year rotation and then sell the wood for conversion to woodchips – there is a strong export market to China for pulp and paper making.

In Vietnam, acacias generate a total of US$4.3 billion per year from pulpwood sales. Over the past 20 years, ACIAR has supported research on domesticating and improving the germplasm used in Vietnam’s acacia forestry system. Mr Stephen Midgley, one of the Australian scientists who has worked with Vietnamese forest scientists for most of this time, says that forestry research is a long-term business, but it can result in significant financial returns for farmers.

Agroforestry trials on a hillside in Vietnam
Professor Neil Byron, from the University of Canberra, has been studying the economic impacts that come from this smallholder forestry system in Vietnam. He estimates that an average smallholder acacia system will produce about 30 cubic metres of logs a year, for which the farmer receives $30 per cubic metre, thereby generating an income of around $900 each year. This is the equivalent of an average yearly adult wage in Vietnam.

So there are more than a quarter of a million Vietnamese farmers earning the equivalent of extra adult's wage simply by incorporating Acacia trees into their farming system.

A Hmong woman
In north-west Vietnam, the predominant farming system is maize mono-cropping and in most places trees are a rare site on the steep barren hillsides. ACIAR’s agroforestry project, which is managed by the World Agroforestry Centre, is trialling 11 different agroforestry systems with farmers in three provinces to see what types of systems might be best suited for this region.

One promising system involves the use of a native fruit tree (Son Tra) and fodder grasses. The project team has collected germplasm from the best fruiting trees and provided grafted Son Tra trees to the Hmong ethnic  farmers involved in the trials. These grafted trees should produce large fruit crops in only two or three years. The fodder grasses are used to improve the nutrition of the farmers’ cattle, which are an important part of the farming system.

The project team has also been working with farmers to establish cooperative marketing arrangements for the Son Tra fruit into high-value markets in Hanoi.
Farmer Giang Dung Vu and forestry scientist
Ms Lo Thi Kieu with a grafted Son Tra tree

The potential economic benefits that can come from this system are quite significant. The farmers participating in the group marketing scheme have been receiving at least double the farm-gate price for their Son Tra fruit – so for the same effort they get twice the return simply by being better connected to a market.

One farmer we visited in Tuan Giau district, Giang Dung Vu (pictured left), told us that he makes about VND 10 million per year from his best Son Tra tree. This is enough money from just one tree for the farmer to buy himself a new motorbike each year (if he so wanted!).

If the project can improve the yields and quality of Son Tra fruit as well as establish better marketing arrangements, farmers’ incomes will likely increase even further, and more farmers will become interested in this agroforestry system.

By Tony Bartlett, ACIAR’s Forestry research program manager

More information:
ACIAR forestry projects in Vietnam:
FST/2010/034 Agroforestry for livelihoods of smallholder farmers in north-western Vietnam, led by the World Agroforestry Centre (see their project website)

FST/2008/039 Enhancement of production of acacia and eucalypt peeled and sliced veneer products in Vietnam and Australia, led by the World Agroforestry Centre (see their project website)

FST/2008/007 Advanced breeding and deployment methods for tropical acacias, led by University of Tasmania (see their project website)

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