A series of measures to develop the cocoa industry in the Mekong Delta region were proposed at a recent seminar held in Ben Tre province.

Phan Thi Thu Suong, deputy director of the Ben Tre Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said the area under cacao trees in the province plummeted from more than 10,000ha in 2012 to 5,100ha now.

Volatile prices and low productivity due to poor farming practices and limited use of technology were to blame for farmers chopping down cacao trees for other crops, she said.

Le Thi Phi Van, a cocoa researcher, said around 30 percent of the cacao-growing area in Ben Tre was not nurtured while another 40 percent suffered due to improper farming techniques.

The failure to balance various fertilisers had affected yields, she said.

Despite being an auxiliary plant, cacao trees needed proper caring in the form of irrigation and fertilisers, she said.

Nguyen Vinh Thanh, cocoa sourcing manager for Cargill Vietnam, said global demand has outstripped supply for the last three years, and this was expected to continue.

Demand, especially from China, India, and Indonesia, has surged while the area under cultivation has not increased, and offered the cocoa industry in Ben Tre a good opportunity, he said.

Nguyen Van Hoa, deputy director of the Crop Production Department, said Ben Tre has suitable conditions for growing cacao and intercropping it with coconut would result in higher profits for farmers.

Since cacao was still a relatively new crop in Viet Nam, more research needed to be done to come up with better cultivation techniques to improve efficiency, he said.

More agricultural extension programmes to teach farmers the skills and techniques needed for growing, harvesting, and processing cocoa were required, delegates at the seminar agreed, as were close links between various stake holders.

Each area should draw up its own plans for cacao farming, they said.

Scientists and agricultural research institutes should focus on creating new high-quality strains and measures to prevent and control pests and diseases, they said.

Huynh Quang Duc, deputy director of the Ben Tre Agriculture Extension Centre, said large cocoa buying and processing firms should offer reasonable prices to encourage farmers to grow cacao.

Hoa said information about farming techniques, markets, and Government policies needed to be transmitted promptly and precisely to the cacao community to enable them to understand and feel secure about growing the crop.

Cocoa bean prices in the domestic market have increased from 45,000 VND (2.1 USD) per kilogramme late last year to 55,000-59,000 VND (2.5-2.7 USD) now.

Ngo Van Bu, a farmer in Chau Binh commune in Ben Tre's Giong Trom district, said intercropping with his one hectare of coconut has improved his income substantially.

"Earnings from cocoa match that from coconut, and I did not need to hire people to harvest cocoa as I do with coconut," he told Vietnam News.

But without much experience in growing cacao, farmers remain wary.

According to Hoa, the quality of cocoa grown in the province is rated among the best in Asia, persuading many large cocoa buyers and processors to set up business there.

The seminar was held as part of the Vietnam – Netherlands Public Private Partnership for sustainable cocoa development, whose members include the Vietnamese and Dutch governments, Rabobank, Mars Incorporated, and Cargill.

The project is aimed at improving the lives of cacao farmers and their families and ensuring the long-term sustainability of cacao farming.-VNA