Before Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Cambodia was known for producing the finest rice in Southeast Asia. But decades of civil war plunged the country into poverty and put an abrupt halt to agricultural development.
Paradoxically, it was this failure to adopt modern farming methods that made possible the rise of a "slow food" movement when peace finally settled.
"Cambodia is by default an organic country," former commerce secretary Sok Siphana told international media in 2005. The driving force behind the creation of Cambodia's first organic association, he was announcing plans to make the country "the green farm of Asia," eventually capable of exporting organic produce to the US and Europe.
Dissenting voices warned at the time that arranging the necessary organic certification would be complex and costly. Instead, they suggested, Cambodia should focus not on exports, but on the domestic market.
Today, local demand for organic produce is steadily growing, fuelled by concerns about the overuse of agricultural chemicals. For impoverished rural populations, the benefits are many: less money spent on fertilizers; higher selling prices and less exposure to potentially toxic pesticides.
"In Vietnam and Thailand, there has been an increase in the use of pesticides and chemicals, but Cambodia is more old-fashioned: they don't use them and they don't produce them," said Philippe Ammeux, who owns a small organic farm just outside Phnom Penh. "In France, we call this l'agriculture raissoner: growing vegetables with your brain. If chemicals aren't necessary, don't use them. If they are necessary, use only the smallest possible quantity."
Les Jardins du Mekong, perched on the banks of the river from which it takes its name, is emblematic of Cambodia's approach to small-scale organic farming. It's the creation of a trio of friends who met at French NGO Pour un Sourire d'Enfant (PSE) a year after the government first highlighted the sector's potential.
Philippe, an agricultural auditor born in Dunkirk, and Michel Remillon, a farmer from Strasbourg, joined forces with a young local woman, Leakhena Sophan. As a child, she was one of many who dined on rotting vegetables plucked from the festering refuse at the Stung Meancheay dump site before being taken in and given an education by PSE.
"I saw the children eating rotting vegetables right off the dump," Philippe said. "Whole families with up to six, seven kids were living in a house made only of four poles and a tin roof. We watched how PSE taught these kids vocational skills and now they have proper jobs in Phnom Penh. Wonderful! I thought maybe, with ten years, I could do something to help, too."
Collectively appalled by the quality of vegetables imported from Thailand and Vietnam, the trio secured a modest half-hectare of land in Pum Taskor for $99,000 in 2006. In seven days, a hole measuring 2,000 cubic meters was excavated and filled with nutrient-rich soil. Digging a 40-metre-deep well followed, necessary to penetrate past the toxic levels of arsenic that plague the Mekong's alluvial plain.
Poison wasn't the only obstacle. "In the beginning, we tried all sorts of things -- cucumbers, peas, beans -- but it was either too hot or there was too much rain," Philippe said. Les Jardins has since settled on seven varieties of French salad -- green Batavia, red Batavia, green oak leaf, red oak leaf, frisee, romaine and roquette -- and three herbs: basil, coriander and dill.
Flown in from France, the seeds spend their first three weeks in the nursery before being replanted. When the 50,000-strong crop reaches maturity at 10 weeks, it is cut before sunrise and ferried across the river to reach clients in the capital by 10am. "More fresh is not possible," Philippe said.
Clinton Webber, head chef at The FCC, was won over by precisely that. "Their products are delivered to your door, really fresh. Customers don't expect that much organic food in Cambodia at the moment, but it's something we'd like to promote as more of a health thing. We'd like to lead the way."
Formal control over Cambodia's organic sector has yet to be put in place and so, like most producers, it falls to Philippe to self-police. Les Jardins doesn't use chemicals, and the group makes its own compost from water grass, cow manure, rice straw and banana leaves. Experts at the Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh analyse the water, and soil samples are regularly taken to France for testing.
Les Jardins now supplies 12 restaurants around Phnom Penh, The FCC and Topaz Group among them, but it is at the local markets, particularly Central and Kandal, that the clamor for organic produce is loudest.
"Many restaurants didn't care about us being organic, but more and more Cambodians are asking for organic food at the markets," said Philippe. It is this burgeoning domestic demand, rather than export potential, that Les Jardins hopes to fan.
"I'm 60. I want some peace and quiet. We'll try to stay local," he smiles.