A farmer harvests pepper in Cu Kuin District of Central Highlands Dak Lak province. (Photo: VNA)

HCM City (VNA) – The high price of pepper, combined with a drop in coffee prices, has pushed many farmers to switch to cultivating pepper vines.

Experts, however, have warned that unzoned pepper development could hurt farmers in the long term.

In the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak, considered the country’s coffee capital, many farmers are now growing pepper.

Hoang Minh Hung cut down one hectare of coffee trees to grow pepper in the province’s Krong Nang district in March. “Many families here have switched to pepper,” he said.

Dak Lak has the largest pepper cultivating area in the Central Highlands region, according to the provincial People’s Committee.

As of May, the province had nearly 22,000ha of pepper, exceeding 15,000ha compared to the province’s zoned pepper cultivation area for 2015.

Similarly, the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai plans to have 6,000ha of pepper in 2020 but the province’s current pepper area is more than 12,000ha.

Do Ha Nam, Chairman of the Vietnam Pepper Association, said the country’s pepper area had reached about 100,000ha as of the end of March, double the country’s pepper area zoned to 2020 by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The pepper areas in Southeast and Central Highlands provinces would continue to increase by 10-20 percent in the coming time, he said.

"If agencies do not have measures to limit unzoned pepper development, the pepper sector’s sustainable development will be affected," he said.

Currently, pepper farmers grow the plant on many kinds of soil, including in areas not suitable for pepper cultivation.

Many farmers have also intercropped pepper in rubber orchards, which can cause rubber trees infected with phytopthora, a kind of fungi, to die, according to experts.

A number of farmers overuse fertiliser and pesticides to increase yield, causing a decline of pepper quality.

Tran Vinh, deputy head of the Central Highlands Agriculture and Forestry Science Institute, said pepper seedlings without clear origin are being used due to the lack of information about disease-prevention techniques, as well as farmers chasing after profits.

This can lead to the mass death of pepper plants caused by disease outbreaks or pepper bearing no fruit, he said, adding that farmers could suffer severe losses.

To grow one hectare of pepper, farmers have to invest more than 500 million VND (22,000 USD).

Pepper companies are now buying pepper from farmers at a price of 170,000-180,000 VND (7.7-8.1 USD) a kilo.

The price of pepper has been high for nearly 10 years, providing stable profits for farmers.

Vietnam is one of the world’s top pepper exporters. The country exported about 70,000 tonnes of pepper worth 562 million USD in the first four months of the year, up nearly 24 percent in volume and 10 percent in value against the same period last year, according to the Vietnam Pepper Association.-VNA