Plant-wise in Vietnam
Seated in neat rows in a multi-purpose municipal building in the heart of Vietnam's Mekong delta, farmers wait patiently for a doctor. Each carries a diseased plant, a sample from their farm, and hopes to be given advice that may benefit not just themselves but many others from their community whose crops share the same ailment. Wearing smart, lime-green uniforms, the plant doctors set about their work. Several farmers have come with a similar problem afflicting their longan trees, and are taken off separately for a mini-lecture. Others are seen individually, and handed a written recommendation of the necessary course of treatment.
Such plant health clinics were first introduced in Vietnam in 2007, in a partnership between CABI's Global Plant Clinic programme (now the Plantwise initiative) and the Southern Horticultural Fruit Research Institute (SOFRI), based in My Tho, 150km south of Ho Chi Minh City. Staff were given training in symptom recognition and management of a clinic, and quickly appreciated the impact they could have, at relatively low cost."The plant clinic activities help transfer new techniques from SOFRI to farmers, improving farmers' knowledge of how to manage their crops," says plant doctor Nguyen Van Son. "As a result they get a good income, reduce the application of chemicals and protect the environment."
New premises were built to better accommodate the clinic, including an area for consultation and a small sleeping area for farmers traveling from some distance. Farmers are invited to the Institute on one afternoon a week, and although equipment used is very simple, it is normally sufficient to produce the necessary diagnosis and advice for treatment. If the cause of disease cannot be established, samples are sent to a laboratory for further examination.
Investment and expansion
Since 2007 SOFRI has continued to invest in plant clinics, training further members of staff and contributing to a training programme for Cambodian plant doctors. Vietnam now has 19 trained plant doctors, serving farmers through clinics arranged on an occasional basis in six provinces - often in response to a specific local need - as well as through weekly clinics at the SOFRI headquarters and one other province. The occasional clinics operate in municipal centres and villages, and are efficiently advertised through a network of farmer information services. SOFRI provides most of the support to plant clinics, but sponsorship from local private agrochemical businesses has also funded factsheets on common plant pests and diseases.
The Institute's commitment reflects the high status given to farmers in Vietnam, and the importance of their being able to access advice. Hugging the Southeast Asian coastline for over 1,500km, the country has huge climatic variation, allowing it to produce a wide range of fruit and vegetables. Its booming economy is attracting major foreign investment and farmers here are keen to begin exporting to lucrative global markets, but control of pests and diseases is essential. Thus, while the plant clinics are currently based only in southern Vietnam, government staff in Hanoi are showing considerable interest in rolling out the approach nationally.
National health service
Beyond the work of informing and advising individual farmers, CABI sees the clinics as having an important role in Vietnam's wider agricultural health. The clinics collect and compile invaluable data, including disease prevalence and pest outbreaks. Once in a spreadsheet format, this data can reveal trends that will significantly inform agricultural strategy development at regional and national levels. In recent years, for example, Witch's broom disease has spread in longan (Dimocarpus longan) fruit trees, from Thailand through Cambodia and into Vietnam, causing a total loss in yields for many farmers. Had such a threat been documented, CABI suggests, the authorities may have taken stronger action to prevent it.
However, the spread of plant clinics is, according to CABI, just one stage in the development of an integrated plant health system. According to Philip Taylor of the Plantwise initiative, improved links between researchers, extensionists, commercial suppliers of inputs and the industry regulators could further help farmers. One of Plantwise's roles in the future will be to assist in bringing these actors into closer contact for their mutual benefit, and that of the farmers they serve. In the meantime, the plant clinic approach to extension has won the approval of Vietnam's independent and pragmatic farmers and, says Taylor, he's confident that in time they will be a national phenomenon.
Date published: March 2012
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