Freshly pressed, red and sandy soil is finally laid into place after this year’s monsoon washed out a portion of the road. Driving down the bumpy surface, you can feel the tires further compact the soil beneath them. Stilted houses start to appear from behind rows of sugar palms as a herd of cows are guided past you. Lush fields of rice, ready for harvest, stretch all the way to the horizon as you travel the three kilometers from the main road to Smach village.
On the left side of the dirt road, near the center of the village, lives Mr. Sim, the Deputy Village Chief. He and his wife live with their two daughters, Savoy and Savi, along with their two small grandchildren.
The Sim family was the first to adopt the Community First aquaponic system inspired by a design from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Since its installation, the family has already been able to enjoy picking fresh salad greens and two harvests of morning glory.
Separating crowded seedlings as they sprout up from the gravel, feeding pellets to the fish, and checking the water levels has sparked curiosity in Savoy, the youngest of the daughters, and she has added caring for the system as apart of her daily routine.
Over the past few weeks, the family has welcomed and encouraged their neighbors to come see what they have been growing in their aquaponic system.
One of those neighbors is Lang Chat, the former Deputy Chief.
Mr. Lang has been assisting Community First in projects since 2009, helping us with our first agricultural project at the local primary school and the setup of bio-digesters in the village. He and his wife have seven children that are now between the ages of 21 and 10 years old. Their oldest is off and married, and the rest attend the local school.
Mr. Lang decided to be the second to adopt an aquaponic system in his home seeing how it would benefit his family to have vegetables growing this season.
As we say goodbye to the community leaders, we head back down the road as the village continues west and follows the road to the left.
Just past a few houses is the home of Pawn Am and her husband, One Wan.
This hardworking couple make use of their many skills to get them through the year.
One Wan also likes to fish when he can. During monsoon season the river swells and the land floods, filling the waterways with fish. One Wan catches what he can and brings it home for his wife to smoke over a fire.
We asked Mr. One what he was looking forward to with having an aquaponic system, and he was excited to have a system near their house will allow him to keep fish and have the option of eating fresh fish all year round.
The smell of smoked fish still lingers in the air as we say goodbye to One and Pawn, and it slowly fades as we continue west toward the end of the road.
The last house on the left is the home of Treat Hap, a 50 year old, single grandmother.
At home, her oldest son helps her with daily tasks and works the family’s rice field. Treat’s other two children are currently working construction jobs in Thailand. Like many families in the countryside, Treat relies on money sent from her children working across the border to supplement what the family can earn from their rice field.
In the rainy season, they like to grow vegetables in a small backyard garden, but find it incredibly difficult to do the same in the dry season where temperatures can reach up to 104°F (40°C) with very little rainfall, leaving nothing but arid land for farming.
During this time, people in the countryside line up in queues at the water wells with their buckets to carry water back to their homes, but even this simple task comes with great difficulties. Most of the men and young adults have left the village to work in Thailand, leaving behind mother’s and small children to carry the water back to the house on their own.
Treat is hopeful that the water efficiency of the closed-loop aquaponic system will make a big difference this dry season.
Aquaponic systems contain and recirculate the water put into them, reducing water loss and maximizing productivity. Water flows from fish tank to grow bed back to the fish tank, providing a clean home for the fish and continuous water and nutrients for the plants.
Being able to raise fish and grow vegetables with this recirculating system will save Treat and her son hours of labor, and at the same time, provide their family with the much needed nutrients they can’t get from a predominantly rice diet.
Across the street Treat’s neighbor, Tap Huan, lives with her two young children. Tap’s husband left for Thailand when their baby girl was born, and there has been no word from him since. Now she depends on their 15 year old son, to work the family’s three hectares of rice fields after he returns home from school.
Like others in the village, Tap has seen the aquaponic system at Mr. Sim’s house and is excited for the benefit of the better water management for growing her vegetables. Adding more produce in their diets, free from chemicals and pesticides, will give her baby a better chance at survival and proper development. She wants nothing more than to give her children the best so they can go to school and have a better life.
As the sun sets in the village, we leave the families as they prepare for the night, and we head back down the long red dirt road back towards the city.
With the continued collaboration from our donors and our Community First team, the families in Smach village and rural Cambodia have a new hope for a better livelihood, especially during the upcoming months of the dry season. Aquaponics is a sustainable foundation they can count on to provide their families with better nutrition, better water management, and hope for the future.