Meghan Mize Travels to Phnom Penh, Cambodia To Help Introduce Quality Standards to Vegetable Farmers
How to conduct surveys in new place? Rely on the local experts!
By Meghan Mize
I have been in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for about three weeks now. This summer I will be working with the Royal University of Agriculture to help introduce quality standards to vegetable farmers in the Battambang province as part of the Safe Vegetable Value Chain Project (SVVC). SVVC is a project funded by USAID’s Horticulture Innovation Lab at UC Davis. UC Davis has a long collaborative relationship with the Royal University of Agriculture, and I am excited to help out as much as I can this summer. My first few weeks have already flown by and I’m diving into my research objectives.
After some initial orientation and meetings with my university mentor, we set a plan to begin my data collection and surveying right away. My initial surveys and focus groups will help identify what practices and attitudes farmers have about quality standards as well as gauge their interest in joining a new marketing system known as the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS)-- a system that brings together growers and buyers to set community quality and production standards that offer farmers better and more stable pricing. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of jumping in to my research so soon, but fortunately, my university mentors connected me with another graduate student named Ratana at the Royal University of Agriculture who is conducting research on a similar topic.
Ratana explaining to me how cucumbers are sorted by quality (big vs. small) prior to pick up by the collection agents.
Ratana is an amazing person who really knows about agriculture and conducting research in this area. Along with my university mentor and the other SVVC project staff, Ratana helped me reality check and translate my surveys, advise me on the proper protocols for engaging community members in my activities, and helped me carry out the logistics of conducting over 30 surveys and three focus group discussions over five days.
During the initial “pre-test” of my survey (the process where test the survey on some participants before we actually conduct the survey on our actual target group), it was clear that some of my questions were not clear enough for people to understand. I was a bit stressed about how we would resolve this in time before we had to return to Phnom Penh, but of course Ratana and Gnean Nak (one of the other awesome project staff members) saved the day. They guided me on how to finetune the survey to really get across my questions and make my questions a bit more relevant to the context. We were quickly back on our way and got some good background information that hopefully help us plan our future activities with the community moving forward. I was so lucky and fortunate to be paired up with other graduate students and experts to help me carry out my research project.
SVVC project staff and university students carrying out a Focus Group Discussion in Battambang, Cambodia
Training Tips from Cambodian Vegetable Experts
This week, I took a quick side trip from my surveying to check out a training on the Participatory Guarantee System in the nearby province of Kandal, Cambodia. The Participatory Guarantee System (commonly referred to as PGS), is an alternative organic label and marketing system that meets farmers at their level and needs. Instead of attempting to adhere to complex and difficult to attain standards set up by international bodies, PGS brings together growers, buyers, and other community stakeholders to set production and handling standards that meet community-defined quality standards. This system relies on community trust and self-evaluation to ensure all members are adhering the the group’s standards.
Farmers from the area displaying their PGS vegetables at the training
As part of my research, I hope to be able to implement a similar training to introduce PGS to farmers in Battambang, Cambodia (where my project is based). I was very excited to have this opportunity, and my wonderful mentor from the Royal University of Agriculture went out of his way to drive me to this event and translate the training for me in real time. It would be a great opportunity to learn from PGS experts and learn some training organizing tips.
I will definitely replicate one of the exercises from this event at the next training or focus group I help organize. Frist, the moderator split up the participants into two groups: growers and industry or research technical experts. Next, both groups were presented with the same set of questions about production and handling techniques as well as (mis)conceptions about organic and conventional vegetables. Finally, the two groups shared their answers to see if there were similarities, differences of opinion, or information gaps between the two groups.
One buyer taking notes about the industry group’s answers to the questions from the activity
It was absolutely fascinating to see watch the two groups reveal their answers and see how they compared. Take the first question for example: If you don’t have to purchase pesticides, why are organically grown vegetables more expensive? Here both groups had pretty much the same answer. Organic vegetables take more labor such as weeding and compost preparation. However, there were different understandings on the next question: What is the role of the buyer in regard to food safety? In this case, the researchers, buyers and industry experts said their role is to identify best practices and find solutions. However, the growers said that buyers ultimately control the entire system and should do more work to train farmers and share their knowledge. This interesting discussion pointed to possible improvement on information exchange and relationship building that could be done to improve food safety in the vegetable production system.
The conversation sparked some interesting discussions about how to build more relationships between buyers and growers, and this training was definitely a great first step. I hope to bring some of these activities to my own work later this summer in Battambang.
Sharing Ideas and Exploring Cambodian Culture
This week, I had a fantastic opportunity to present the initial findings of my research and our project’s activities at the Annual Asia Food Safety and Security Association (AFSA) International Conference on Food Safety and Food Security. My timing for getting this awesome opportunity to work in Cambodia couldn’t have been any better as this year, as it was my host university’s (the Royal University of Agriculture) turn to organize the conference. This year, the conference was hosted in Siem Reap, the site of the famous Angkor Wat.
My poster at the 4th Annual AFSA Conference
Every two years, AFSA brings together scientists and practitioners from across Asia to present on their research and projects in a forum committed to exchanging ideas on a wide range of ideas on food security and food safety. Many researchers in Asia find attending large, international conferences cost-prohibitive, and the goal of AFSA is to host an accessible platform for information exchange in the region.
I was incredibly fortunately to have the opportunity to learn about the work of so many researchers from all across Asia, and I tried to contribute back by assisting in the organizing of the event as best I could and sharing some about my summer project. In giving an oral presentation about my work, I was able to practice my presentation skills and get some feedback on my project. I also was able to present a poster and see my work lined up with the amazing researchers who attended the conference (how cool!).
One farmer demonstrating his conservation farming practices to the conference participants
On the third day of the conference we also had the opportunity to visit innovative farmers in the area who are working on food safety and security issues in their community. One farmer was working with the Royal University of Agriculture to promote conservation agriculture. Other farmers were using innovative, low-cost cooling technologies to preserve food quality and deliver safe produce to their communities.
Lastly, the conference reserved some time for the participants to learn more about the history of Cambodia and explore the nearby cultural sites. Attempting to understand the historical and cultural context of the place in which you are working is so important when working in a new place. I took a bike trip through the temple complex as well as had the chance to learn more about the community way of life and agriculture practices in the area. I am really grateful I had the chance to learn more about the historical context of the area and explore another side of Cambodian culture.
Biking through the Angkor temple complex