Hundreds of pepper farmers in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai feel they have won the lottery.
With just one crop they have turned into dong billionaires, thanks to a sharp increase in world pepper prices.
In the last crop, pepper prices rose higher than at any point in the previous 15 years, reaching VND120,000 (US$ 6) per kilo of black pepper and VND200,000 (US$9) per kilo for white pepper, about VND20,000 per kilo higher than that in early April.
In Chu Prong District alone, nearly one hundred families in the communes of Ia Pia, Ia Ver and Ia Ga harvested between 10 and 30 tonnes each, turning all of them into dong billionaires.
Nguyen Van Tap, a farmer in Ia Pia Commune, said his family harvested about 20 tonnes from two-thirds of their pepper garden.
“After paying all the expenses for fertiliser, fuel, and labour, we earned VND2.5 billion (US$119,000),” Tap said.
According to the Viet Nam Pepper Association (VPA), Viet Nam now has about 15,000ha under pepper, 70 per cent of which is located in Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong and Lam Dong. Each ha yields an average of 2.5 tonnes per crop.
The Gia Lai Agriculture and Rural Development Department also said that the province now had over 6,000ha under pepper cultivation, the majority of which were in the two districts of Chu Se and Chu Puh.
A VPA representative explained the record increase in pepper prices, saying Indian pepper output had fallen sharply this year, so major processors in the world had turned to buying the spice from Viet Nam.
The pepper fever is now spreading across many districts in Gia Lai Province, prompting many farming households to chop their coffee plants, according to a report by the Sai Gon Giai Phong (Liberated Sai Gon) Newspaper.
Ngo Van Tu, a farmer in Chu Prong District’s Bau Can Commune, said his family had spent more than 20 years planting coffee trees, but now they had to shift to pepper to make more profit.
“This crop, we harvested nearly five tonnes of coffee beans and sold them at VND 40 million per tonne. After paying all expenses, we ended up with very modest gains,” Tu said.
However, the cultivation of pepper is not as smooth and easy as it looks, experts say.
Hoang Phuoc Binh, vice president of the Chu Se pepper association, said the job was also fraught with risk.
For a ha of pepper creepers, farmers have to build about 2,200 cement pillars which cost VND150,000 each. On average, the cost of cultivating one ha of pepper is VND700 million ($33,000), exclusive of land rentals, Binh said.
In Gia Lai Province, many farming households have used bank loans for growing pepper, but it was not always the case that the spice fetched very good prices, he said.
Apart from the interest rates that added to cultivation costs, pepper, like other crops, was also exposed to natural calamities and diseases, he added.
This can be seen in the fact that many pepper farmers were close to bankruptcy because of piled up debts, Binh said.