Machines have transformed the country’s annual rice harvest. This is the sixth
in a 12-part series on Cambodia’s rice cycle, to be published monthly.
SANGKE DISTRICT, Battambang Province – Leaning on a hoe at the edge of his uncle’s rice field in O’Dambang II commune, Kong Sal said this year’s rice harvest had left him with little work to do.
In an adjacent paddy, also owned by his uncle, a small Kubota combine moved up and down the field, making quick work of the rice stocks standing in its path.
“Before, when we harvested by hand and there were six or seven people working together, it would have taken two or three days to harvest one hectare of paddy,” the 21-year-old farmer said on a clear, mild Tuesday last month.
“Now, when we use the machine, and if it has no mechanical problems, it only takes us two hours to finish harvesting the same amount of land.”
While this mechanized harvesting saves farmers a great deal of time, Mr. Sal explained that the main reason he believed it had grown in popularity—compared to its hand-and-sickle alternative—was the area’s increasingly empty villages.
“People have gone to work in different places. From here, I think many people go to Thailand,” he said, adding that he himself had been tempted to leave at one point before being dissuaded by stories of poor working conditions there.
Instead, Mr. Sal has decided to stay near home, content to help his family with farming, which on this day involved using a hoe to create an opening in the berm separating the two rice paddies — allowing the combine to pass between the two without problem — and hauling bags of threshed rice from the machine to a waiting truck, which would transport the crop to be sold at a nearby rice mill.
As Mr. Sal returned to work, he was joined by the combine’s owner, Koh Reaksmey, 46, who had rented the machine to Mr. Sal’s uncle.
“In this village, there are about 100 families, and now only two still harvest by hand,” Mr. Reaksmey said, pointing to a distant field where a team of about 10 people were hunched over, methodically cutting fully grown rice stalks before bundling them together.
“That is one of the last families to do this work by hand.”
A fish farmer by trade, Mr. Reaksmey said he had bought the Japanese-made combine for $38,000 in 2013 after saving up for the purchase since 1990.
“I saw it as a good way for me to make money because farmers have become increasingly interested in harvesting with tractors,” he said, adding that he rented the machine to farmers for between 450,000 to 500,000 riel (about $113 to $125) per hectare.
“There have been tractors in this village for four or five years already, but I only bought my first tractor two years ago,” he said, adding that he had recently purchased another combine and sent it, along with a hired driver, to a nearby A few hundred meters away, Mr. Sal’s uncle, Ton Dok, 50, stood on top of a cargo truck, helping a team of four other men to load 60-kg bags of freshly harvested rice—planted in May—for delivery to the Eang Heang Rice Mill Factory, which loomed in the distance.
At the base of the truck, two men hoisted each bag onto the shoulders of a third man, who climbed on top of a stack of full rice bags to reach the 2.5-meter-high truck bed, where he handed his cargo over to Mr. Dok and a partner.
“These are my sons and nephews, and one of the them is a hired worker,” Mr. Dok said during a short break, as the men sweated and caught their breath.
He said he owned 39 hectares of paddy, and was pleased with changes to the annual harvest over the past few years.
“I think now when we use the machine, it is better than before when we harvested by hand because now we spend only a short amount of time collecting the rice,” he said, adding that while combines used to be in short supply, this was no longer the case.
“It’s easy to find a machine, and the price of using it and using hired laborers to harvest is similar,” he said, adding that hiring 25 workers to harvest one hectare used to cost him between $120 to $125.
Plus, he said, he no longer had a choice between the two options.
“Right now, if we want to hire laborers, it would be hard anyway because many of them have gone to Thailand and others went to Phnom Penh to work as garment workers,” he said, adding that only large families whose members had not yet moved away were still able to harvest by hand.
With business booming, Mr. Reaksmey, the combine owner, said he had no plans to stop expanding his nascent enterprise.
“When I have earned enough money from my old tractors, I will buy another one,” he said.