In a poor district in the Mekong Delta province of Long An, the setting up of maize co-operatives is ushering in greater efficiency and helping protect the environment.

Situated in the north of Long An, Duc Hoa district has a total area of more than 42,000ha, of which over 50 percent is made up of rice paddies.

But with its poor grey soil and water shortages, the district ranks among the lowest in the province in rice productivity.

"Since growing rice yields low profits to farmers, the province has adopted policies to restructure agricultural production by planting maize and sesame," Nguyen Thanh Tung, director of the province's Agriculture Extension Centre, said.

But a disconnection between production and consumption has perpetuated production inefficiencies, with farmers usually faced with price drops following a bumper harvest and vice versa, he said.

These problems have been addressed effectively by the Ecofarm Corn Project, which has brought together many small farmers to reorganise production and bring higher incomes to locals, he said.

Initiated by the extension centre and the Ecology Farming Corporation (Ecofarm), the project, which began in late 2012, also targets improving the quality of the soil and improve the long-term productivity and sustainability of agricultural production.

The company provides farmers with seeds and organic fertilisers at competitive prices on credit until harvest besides machinery to improve efficiency.

Agricultural experts work directly with farmers in the fields to make sure that their production techniques conform to standards, transfer technology, and sort out problems that may arise.

The project assures the purchase of maize products and by-products from farmers through contracts, Nguyen Dac Thanh, head of the Duc Hoa District Agricultural Extension Centre, said.

One innovation that has been introduced under this model is the conversion of maize waste into biochar, which is used to improve soil quality and help protect the environment, he said.

Funded by the Vietnam Business Challenge Fund (VBCF), the project has brought together more than 100 maize farmers under three co-operatives, Nguyen Hong Quang, Ecofarm chairman, said.

Three months ago, for the first time, they planted maize on 103ha. The harvest began a few days ago and the co-operatives hope to get higher yields than normal, he said.

Huynh Van Ro, chairman of one of the co-operatives, My Hanh Bac, said: "At the beginning, we felt insecure about the new model. However, now, after the harvest season began, we feel excited to see productivity going up by more than 30 percent."

Nguyen Van My, a member of the co-operative, said: "I was worried in the beginning, but no longer. Productivity is estimated to reach eight tonnes per hectare, one tonne higher than previous crops."

Mai Thi Rang, chairwoman of Tien Dat Co-operative, said for a long time farmers used to borrow at high interest rates to buy inputs. The project is helping farmers significantly cut costs, she added.

Thanh said since farmers had for long worked on their own, collecting them into co-operatives was not an easy task in the beginning.

But after seeing the higher efficiency of the new model compared to their traditional methods, more and more farmers are registering to enrol, he said.

Tung said the province plans to expand the model to thousands of hectares in future.

In a related development, the VBCF has agreed to provide a grant of nearly 9.1 billion VND (430,900USD) to the Southern Seed Joint Stock Company for a project to help 2,200 poor farmers, mostly ethnic Khmer living in Cau Ngang district, Tra Vinh province, switch from low-yield rice to maize.

Within 25 months around 1,100ha will be covered.

The VBCF is funded by the UK's Department for International Development and managed by SNV Netherlands Development Organisation.

It is a specialised fund that supports the private sector in Vietnam in three sectors - agriculture, low-carbon growth, and infrastructure and basic services.

Ly Van Son, Ecofarm's deputy director, said maize is a high-demand crop in Vietnam for animal-feed production.

Because of the heavy reliance on imported maize and other inputs, animal-feed prices in Vietnam are high, resulting in large demand for locally produced materials, he said.-VNA