The Good Life? A Treatise on Raising Meat in CambodiaSeptember 15, 2017
By Pedro El Millardo
The former owner of K440 had been asking me to write an article about experiences with farming out in the provinces for some time, which, to be frank, really isn’t interesting at all; basically ground hog day with more faeces. But the new head honcho says he too wants some sort of musings on rural life, and since things have been a bit slack on the front page ever since the big PH departed, I have reluctantly complied. Apologies to those who have no interest in provincial farming stories- go read a jazz mag, the Khmer Times or the last printed copy of the Cambodia Daily for nostalgia rather than leave ‘that was shit m8’ comments below.
Introduction to the Farm
A while ago I used to have hobbies, the normal ones which expats tend to enjoy, like drinking until falling over, chain smoking packets of Mild Sevens, cavorting with ladies of the night, substance abuse and driving large motorbikes which always broke down. Good, old fashioned sorts of things.
Somehow, after a sustained period of binge drinking in a provincial village, I found myself thrust into costumes from the wardrobe department of the off-Broadway flop ‘MC Hammer does Liberace’ and was photographed more times than a Kardashian’s arse. The next day, with a god awful hangover, I discovered that that was my wedding, and now I was legally married. The tent and extravagantly dolled up peasants should have been a big hint.
Now several dictator sized framed portraits hang in the family gallery of a drunken white guy doing a passable Yul Brenner tribute.
Luckily, I did not have to actually stay out there and hot-footed back to my big city residence with access to western supermarkets, decent bars and Burger King. Then came the game of threes:
- The good lady wife, who was spending most of the week in A/C comfort, works for the government. The government called up and suggested that she really should go back to work, seeing as her salary was still being paid every month and she hadn’t been seen for best part of a year.
- A reasonably well paid job suddenly came up in the area close to the village; it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, and a year of hell, but was at least a regular income.
- My tadpoles swam better than anticipated and the much hallowed white baby was on the way. Although not the ‘newest’ and progressive thinking of men, the thought of having my own half-chat offspring being raised in the mud by Cambodian wolves, without even a modicum of paternal parental supervision, sealed the deal. I regret missing that vasectomy appointment back in 2012.
One thing I did get was land, with fruit trees, squirrels, snakes and smouldering piles of burning plastic. So it might as well be put to a little good use, take off the reliance on the local market and try to eat something home grown.
The Chicken Years
Years ago, on a dark and cold January evening in Luxembourg, I was presented a one-eyed chicken as a birthday gift. It lived in a box in the laundry room for a bit, because it was snowing outside. A special house was built and about 3 days later it got eaten by a fox.
However, this set-back to poultry productivity was only minor, as a move to sunnier climes, with significantly less salary than a freezing European tax-haven city state, brought more avian opportunities.
Since the purchase of a few scraggly looking, barely feathered specimens, my flock has boomed, with many different varieties and cross-breeds. Seeing as I’m no longer allowed to stay up late and listen to loud music anymore, I have become somewhat of a chicken geek. As most of the general populace are still into smoking drugs and disco dancing until dawn, there is little point regaling on my clucking knowledge, but will state some facts which can easily be verified by Google:
- 2017 is the Year of the Chicken;
- There are at least 19 billion birds in production farming at any one point, with 50 billion killed a year;
- Chickens are the closest living relative to tyrannosaurus rex;
- The Real OG chickens (gallus gallus, or red jungle fowl) originated in the forests of SE Asia;
- A chicken was the first animal to have its genome mapped in 2004.
On my farm I have accrued a menagerie of: red jungle fowl (mouen prey), silkie bantams (mouen son lay, those black skinned chickens you see in the supermarket), Malay bantams (mouen Malay, tiny things that look pretty), the standard Khmer chicken (mouen srok) and a few Asian game fowl.
Despite the risk of disease, in-laws demanding blood sacrifice for every Chinese/Khmer festival and the ever present chicken thieves who take any opportunity to rob, the past few years have been productive and I am now at the stage where I can sell a few a week to cash in on my time and effort.
Although I could wax lyrical regarding chickens, there’s more to Don P’s farm. Less success has been had in raising teang kropar or Muscovy ducks.
First of all is the risk from local village mutts. Domestic ducks are pretty shit when it comes to running and getting off the ground, making them vulnerable to attack from semi-feral dogs. My own pooch got into the brother-in-law’s poorly secured pen and did over most of his ducklings. He then smashed the dog’s teeth with a hammer and things escalated quite quickly and ended up with me building a walled compound and new house next door (more on that in my upcoming, self-published straight-to-kindle auto biography, in the chapter entitled How I Dropped 20 Grand ‘Cos of a Mongrel and a Dozen Dead Dollar Ducks).
Whilst chickens are harbingers of sometimes fatal diseases, they seem to get stronger with the genes of survivors; ducks however drop down dead en-masse. A local remedy, I’m told, is force feeding boiled rice mixed with diesel every few months to purge the internal systems. This seems a little extreme, so I have dealt with a high life:death ratio, but seemed to have cracked it now, to the point where they are successfully breeding and rearing young.
*Edit, a few days after this boastful sentence was written most of the things dropped dead en mass, so back to the drawing board, hopefully the strong will make it through.
Some facts about ducks in Cambodia:
- Ducks are a bit pathetic and harder to kill due to their sad little eyes;
- Duck meat is delicious;
- Khmers always manage to ruin any duck meat, turning it into something inedible;
- Ducks sell for twice as much as chickens.
A Cow for Christmas
A couple of Chinese New Year’s ago, an impoverished distant cousin turned up with a cow. He needed cash fast to pay off some loan and offered me first dibs on a great bargain, namely 1 pregnant bovine for the sale-of-the-century price of $900.
Of course he was either mistaken, either accidently or not, and Daisy failed to expand and came into season. Luckily my neighbor has a prize ox, which those in the know bring their horny heifers for a servicing at $20 a pop shot. Many a Sunday has a live show with a trio of short Cambodian farmers trying to not only manhandle a thousand kilos of bull onto a terrified cow in stirrups, but also guiding a cock as long as a docker’s tea break into the correct hole- with much grunting and groaning from both man and beast.
Daisy then went on an eating rampage, devouring everything green and vaguely plant-like on the ranch. After stripping the land bare, it was decided to send her off to live more of her sort on the family land in another village. On Christmas day she calfed, giving birth to another female (which automatically has higher $ value than males), which means I’m quids in at some point, or have at least started my cow based retirement fund.
Khmer tradition dictates that every second calf from either cow goes to the relative taking care of them, then the next mine and so on. Through just a bit of grazing and a calf a year, it’s not surprising that cow ownership/caretaking is not only popular, but profitable in the countryside and a major source of income for many subsistence farmers.
The Quail Conundrum
A while ago a certain agricultural Del Boy Trotter called me up and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He was packing up shop and off to try his hand at gem dealing in Albuquerque or somewhere and had a quail farm with all the cages, machines and gubbins, along with several hundred feathered flappers. A bargain, he assured, at a mere $500 the lot. I could, he assured me, pay off in monthly installments, interest free. Behind the smiles and assurances there was a fortune to be made, his eyes were basically pleading with me to take the damned things away.
Two van trips later and a rudimentary animal shed hastily constructed, I found myself knee deep in quail eggs and quail turds. Firstly, these birds grow at a tremendous rate of knots, around 6-8 weeks from a tiny chick to a fully grown, egg popping adult, and they lay an egg every day. Secondly, they eat a lot of specialist feed to achieve this. For a while it was a little like that scene from Forrest Gump, ‘Roast quail, fried quail, BBQ quail, quail soup, curry quail, quail baw-baw…’, with the odd 3 dozen egg omelet as a side.
To avoid drowning under a sea of speckled ovals, this man had to hustle yolks harder than a Harlem crack dealer. It worked, for a while, but the actual effort/reward started to look a bit skewed in favour of effort. It was going reasonably well, until my best customer got embroiled in some sort of sex/management/wtf –is-happening -here (?) scandal making the contract null and void. Plus having to drive to Phnom Penh every weekend was getting somewhat tiresome.
A few Stalinist style purges brought the flock down to a more manageable size, and the day saving discovery that local people can’t get enough of 10 day old fetuses, so dreams of retiring to become a commercial quail farmer slowly faded. As a hobby, it’s still going strong; I can make enough for a few beers and always have something to offer any visiting Waffle-Munchers and their hot wives.
Recently the breeding programme is less intense; there is the capability of hatching 600 eggs every 2.5 weeks, but the orders for ‘baby eggs’ keep the incubation machine running 24/7 and the chick rate low.
As for the previous owner, his rock selling enterprise didn’t go to plan and now he’s back in the kingdom raising insects, apparently a racket I really need to get in on….
As for quail related facts:
- Quails are double hard bastards. Occasionally one of those massive swamp rats finds a way into the shed and carnage ensues. Some survivors of the slaughter literally had the legs ripped off them, they went about daily life as normally as a seriously disabled quail could, before being eating a few months later.
- The luckier male quails get to live like Mormons, with each having 4-6 lady birds to boom-boom every day.
- Unlucky male quails are killed and eaten as soon as they hit bird puberty, otherwise they will fight to the death over who gets the bitches.
- Quails just pop eggs out their chuffs and never sit on them; all quails must be incubated in a machine.
- You can’t get salmonella from raw quail eggs.
If foolishness is your forte, and you have land and time to spare to follow the great agricultural path, please remember these words of advice.
- Animals stink. All of God’s wonderful creations shift out more turds than an IBS sufferer after a night on king prawn vindaloo and Guinness. There is the argument that domesticated animals are nothing more than a biological machine, finely tuned over a few millennia to convert grass and seeds into a tasty meal, so can leave the big G out of it, but the point still stands- they shit a lot, and it don’t smell too pretty. In dry season, it’s not too bad, but when monsoons dump half the Gulf of Thailand on the garden in an hour, the smell of wet poo can be something else, so always make sure your neighbours aren’t moaners. And make sure a regular supply of Raid is kept handy, ‘cos we all know what flies get attracted to.
- Vaccinate chickens against Newcastle disease- it only costs a few hundred Riel and is the responsible thing to do. All chickens are pretty retarded anyway, so the anti-vaxxers have no high ground on this one.
- Purchase an incubator. They are the most crucial way to keep a steady supply of chicks of all species coming. Essential for quail, hella handy for chicken and ducks.
- Don’t expect to become rich. Thai and Viets farm quail intensively, and the breaking even point is impossible to compete. Same with chicken and ducks locally, feed your family first (and keep the in—laws happy with gifts every holiday feast time) and sell a bit to family and friends, if possible to recoup some of the feeding costs.
- Be ruthless with males. Simply an angry lesbian’s dream, as males are just a pain. They make a lot of noise, fight each other and get all gang rapey with hens. Keep the numbers down and eat soup from the ones which don’t make the grade.
- Beware of the jao. Chickens are hot property and can be sold (or eaten) quickly and anonymously on the black market, so are a favourite target for meth heads who have nothing better to do than skulk around the countryside at night stealing anything that isn’t nailed down.
- Never, ever get tempted to buy a pig. They just ain’t worth it, and to chew through a dead body, you need quite a few, so between murders someone’s still got to feed the nasty, stinking beasts.
- Enjoy the hobby, the life and death of it all. As the Bard of Avon once wrote ‘The most ancient aristocrats in the world are gardeners, ditch-diggers, and gravediggers. They keep up Adam’s profession.’