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Chinese merchants leave, Vietnamese sweet potato growers go moneyless   2012-05-16 - SGTT

The high prices of sweet potatoes paid by Chinese merchants prompted Vietnamese farmers to expand the sweet potato growing area. However, Chinese merchants have left right before the harvesting time, leaving Vietnamese farmers in distress.

Chinese merchants hold the handle of a knife

In the southern province of Vinh Long alone, there are more than 6000 hectares of sweet potato growing area. Local farmers rushed to grow sweet potatoes after they heard about the high demand from China. However, the sweet potatoes have not found the buyers, because Chinese merchants have stopped collecting the farm produce.

In Binh Tan district of Vinh Long province, sweet potatoes (Japanese violet variety) are selling at 280,000-320,000 dong per 60 kilos. The price is just equal to ¼ of the last year’s price and ½ of that in late March 2012.

However, even if accepting the low prices, farmers would still find it difficult to sell them. Le Hoang Lam, a farmer in Binh Tan district, said local farmers have been half dead with the potato fields which have not been picked.

Pham Van Doi, who has 4000 square meters of sweet potato fields, said that the investment rate is about 20 million dong for every 1000 square meters. Meanwhile, with the current sale prices, he can recover 50 percent of the production costs.

According to Tan Thanh Sweet Potato Cooperative Son Van Luan, the sweet potato market has been controlled by Chinese merchants over the last many years. As the big buyers, they set up a lot of different requirements on the products. Especially, the requirements on product specifications have been changed regularly.

“They have been turning Vietnamese farmers round and round. They set these requirements today, and other requirements tomorrow,” he said.

In the past, farmers in Binh Tan district grew different varieties of sweet potatoes with the same growing area for each variety. However, since Chinese merchants only collected violet Japanese potatoes, the growing area of this type of potatoes has increased rapidly, now accounting for 90 percent of the total area in the district.

Two years ago, Chinese merchants only accepted big bulbs of potatoes, then they collected both small and big bulbs. However, they have refused big bulbs (300 grams and more). As a result, farmers do not know whether to bargain potatoes away right now. If they sell right now, they would have to accept the low prices. But if they keep waiting with the hope about the price increase, the potato bulbs would get bigger and unsalable.

The farmers in Co Do district of Can Tho City said that they are incurring the loss of 10 million dong for every hectare of sweet potatoes. Approximately 1000 hectares of sweet potatoes have been kept at the fields in Co Do and Binh Tan districts for the last five months, because of few buyers.

Not only sweet potatoes, but coconut, chili have also seen the prices drop dramatically because Chinese merchants have left after they flocked into the market to collect the products, thus pushing the prices up.

Who to blame?

Vo Van Theo, Head of the agriculture division of Binh Tan district, said farmers have been advised not to chop down some plants to grow others, because this would spoil the farm produce development program. However, no one could prevent farmers from growing sweet potatoes, which could bring high profits to them.

Theo said that the state management over the sweet potato trade has been loosened. Meanwhile, Chinese merchants have sufficient information and deep knowledge about the market, which allows them to dominate the market and control the market prices.

“Chinese merchants now hold the handle of a knife, while Vietnamese enterprises hold the edge, and farmers are on chopping board,” he said.

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