Vietnam coffee belt to expand after price rise

Farmers in the Central Highland coffee belt are expanding their farming areas to take advantage of rising coffee bean prices despite concerns about the environment.

Coffee bean prices reached a 13-year high of VND40,000 (US$2.50) per kilo earlier this year, as major exporting countries experienced a drop in production.

As a result, the 434,000 hectares of coffee plantations in the Central Highlands, which produces 80 percent of Vietnam's coffee output, is forecast to expand by more than 22,000 hectares this year.

The last peak, when the beans were priced at VND35,000 ($2.19) per kilo in 1995, also led to a boom in coffee farming in the Central Highlands.

But a surplus of coffee sent prices to a record low of VND4,000 ($0.25) per kilo four years later.

This past lesson does not seem to scare local farmers, including Ama Thai from Krong Pach District.

"Coffee farming is much more profitable than farming corn, beans or watermelons," Thai said.

Prices would not drop as much as in 1999 "because we joined the World Trade Organization," he said with confidence.

Farmers like Ama Thai have rushed to buy seeds and seedlings while waiting for the rains, which usually come this month or next.

The Central Highlands Agriculture and Forestry Science and Technology Institution (AFSTI) said it had sold 10 tons of seeds in the first quarter of this year.

It sold only five tons last year.

Another major provider, Duc Anh Company, said it had sold 170,000 coffee seedlings this year, more than four times the amount last year.

Company director Le Duc Tien said he "has never seen people rushing to buy seedling so early [in the season] since the company was set up in 2002."

But expansion of coffee farming was threatening forests in the area, he warned.

"Wherever coffee was grown, forests have disappeared," said Tien, who used to be an agricultural engineer.

Meanwhile, AFSTI Deputy Director Le Ngoc Bau warned that many providers were selling low-quality seeds and seedlings, which will lead to low and poor-quality coffee yields.