As the Agricultural Liaison Officer for Halton Region, I have a passion for agriculture and have been enrolled in the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program (AALP) for the last year and a half. AALP is a two year executive development program that attracts those interested in shaping the future of the agriculture and food industry as well strengthening rural communities across Ontario. One of the components of the curriculum is an International Study Tour.
Our Class 16 recently travelled to Vietnam and Thailand as part of an International Study Tour. We were all excited to set foot in Vietnam, the world’s 14th most populous country, and this was clearly evident when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). Ho Chi Minh City is home to over 10 million people with an estimated 8.5 million motorbikes. A Cyclo-trip through the downtown area allowed us to experience first-hand the chaos of travelling through a city which is not for the meek at heart. Moving through the city is effectively a “free-for-all” where traffic lights aren’t necessarily followed; passing can occur on the sidewalk amidst pedestrians; and scooters are pressed to their limits with some carrying a family of four or loads that would ordinarily fill a truck. And yet, through all of the chaos, there is some level of organization as it all gets worked out. However, it allows us to appreciate that Canada has well planned cities and investments here are made with respect to transportation infrastructure as our country continues to grow.
Food plays a critical role in the Vietnamese culture. The majority of Vietnamese insist on buying fresh food from local markets (similar to our farmers’ markets) as opposed to purchasing from a grocery store. Frozen foods ..... forget about it! Street food vendors are plentiful throughout the cities, and rural areas offer fragrant and colorful dishes made from the freshest of ingredients and nothing is wasted.
Many in our group noticed the lack of coolers, ice or refrigeration of some kind where food products were sold especially given the hot and humid conditions, but somehow this seemed commonplace. Of course, the artistic presentation of food dishes is paramount and can rival some of the finest restaurants in the world.
With 80 percent of the poor living in rural areas, agriculture is vitally important in terms of providing livelihoods and sustenance of the Vietnamese.
Class 16 visited Da Lat, a temperate region that is known for its agricultural production and located in the Highlands, approximately 5000 feet above sea level. Da Lat is known as a tourist attraction and offers picturesque scenery for those seeking a reprieve from the city. Temperatures are more moderate and the area has two seasons: the rainy season that typically runs from May to October and the dry season which runs from November to April. Due to the fluctuating temperatures, much of the area is covered in greenhouses. While heating of the greenhouses is not necessary, it does provide protection against the elements and lessens disease pressure.
The Vietnamese government owns much of the agricultural land which is leased to farmers for the long term. The average farm size in Vietnam is 0.63 hectares. This means that efficient use of land is necessary as is farm diversification.
Many vegetables grown in Vietnam are common to Canada such as cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, peppers, cucumbers to name a few. However, Class 16 had the opportunity to visit farms and learn about other types of production such as tea, coffee, rice production, peppercorns, rubber, worm, etc.
Premium crops are a means to assist with farm viability. We experienced this first hand when we learned about Weasel coffee. It is the most expensive coffee in the world and is more than just a brand, it’s a process. Weasels like to eat the juiciest and tastiest coffee berries. Their diet is limited for a short period of time to just coffee berries, and the digestive enzymes help to break down the components in the coffee bean. The weasel excrement is collected, washed and dried. The beans are then roasted and ground to produce a very smooth cup of java. If you get past the process, you will find the coffee to have an amazing aroma and taste.
We also visited a cricket farm that produced crickets for high end restaurants. The farm prepared and offered plates of crickets to our group. Thankfully there was sauce! This underlines the importance of finding a way to craft a story about farming and sharing this with customers to build a strong business.
Thailand offered a whole new set of opportunities to learn about agriculture. We saw the importance of farm diversification and value added opportunities while visiting Baan Suan Chamchoen which translates into “Fruit Garden”. Mr. Som Sak toured us extensively through his farm that produced goats, chickens and ducks as well as fruit such as banana, coconut, mango and loganberry. Irrigation took place by way of ditches on each side of strip planting. The farms canals connected with a larger body of water that allowed connection with a water market (a farmers’ market on water with sales taking place by boat). Finally, an on farm market provided a wide array of products from fresh bananas and coconut to coconut sugar (a syrup that is produced from boiling down coconut water). There were over 21 different products produced on farm that were offered. This demonstrated how value added plays an important role in driving agri-tourism with tourists looking to buy and share “a taste of place”.
The hospitality extended to our group was exceptional throughout the whole trip. It was a unique opportunity to learn about agriculture in Vietnam and Thailand allowing us to recognize our similarities with some of the issues we face such as farm viability, aging farmers, succession, etc. This was undoubtedly a unique opportunity to celebrate agriculture and appreciate it from a global perspective. It also gives a chance to reflect, to celebrate agriculture in Canada and the breadth of opportunities that awaits us.
By Anna DeMarchi-Meyers