Rice may be a staple in the Vietnamese diet, but the country may face a shortage of the crop as struggling farmers leave their jobs.
Some farmers, such as those in the Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, have been illegally converting their paddies to shrimp farms. Others who come from families that have been cultivating rice for generations have chosen to leave agriculture altogether. Young farmers, in particular, have been flocking to cities to work better-paying factory jobs.
“When our children grew up, they rushed to the big city to work in industrial zones, where they earn double or triple what we make growing rice,” said one 53-year-old farmer who plans on selling his land. “Costs such as seedlings and fertilizer are much higher than in the past and rice prices often fluctuate.”
In 2013, 42,785 families left over 6,882 hectares of fields untouched, allowing them to be turned into football pitches for children or grazing areas for cattle herders. Moreover, 3,407 families returned over 433 hectares of land, according to official figures. Some farmers state that the income they receive from growing rice has shrunk. A few hundred square meters of land can only provide them $2.37 to $3.79 a month on average.
In recent years other major rice exporters such as India have managed to increase their exports while importing countries have increased their domestic output. As a result, Vietnamese farmers are facing increased competition and lower rice prices.
“In the beginning the land allowed us to feed the six people in the family and send the children to school,” said Le Thi Thoi. “But now I have to return it since the income from growing rice is very low.”
Although Vietnam is the largest rice exporter in the world, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development plans on converting 200,000 hectares of rice fields in order to grow more profitable crops such as maize or corn, hoping to attract farmers back to their land and improve their incomes. The move has won support from experts.
“Rice output may fall in the next few years because farmers will switch,” Pham Dong Quang, deputy head of the Vietnamese government’s crop-production department, told Bloomberg. “While the issue of boosting rural incomes has been addressed for some years, it’s now become much more urgent amid the difficult economic situation and more competitive rice market.”