by Nguyen Van Man
VAC is an acronym formed from the three Vietnamese words Vuon, garden or orchard, Ao, fish pond, and Chuong, pigsty or poultry shed. It refers to a form of domestic agriculture in which food gardening, fish rearing and animal husbandry are wholly integrated, and stems from farming methods developed in the Red River delta of Vietnam.
The VAC system is a highly intensive method of small scale farming that makes optimal use of land, water and solar energy, achieving high economic efficiency for low capital investment. Plants are used for food, fibre, and fuel, and always products are passed into the production cycle. Developed from age old production agricultural practices, VAC farming now takes place in many regions of Vietnam, with models varying according to the terrain and the climate.
Background & Prototype
In the fertile plains of the Red River delta, a major rice growing area, farmers have traditionally had gardens around their houses for growing produce for their domestic needs. Such gardens form the model for VAC farming.
Initially a hole is dug in the ground. The soil from the hole is used for the foundations on which the house and the animal sheds are built, and to build up banks around the garden beds. (The buildings and the gardens need to be protected from rising water, as the delta floods each summer.) The hole itself becomes a pond, as a result of rainfall and the high water table, and a well is dug for fresh water for the household. Thus an area is created in which animal husbandry, gardening and fish rearing can all take place in an interrelated fashion adjacent to the house.
Plants are grown in the garden in a system of tiered cultivation, in which various species are intercropped and overlapped to make full use of solar energy and soil nutrients. Fruit trees are interspersed with vegetable and legume crops that will grow in the shade. Other legumes are grown around the perimeter of the garden, and timber trees and rattans are planted to form green fences.
A variety of fish is reared in the pond, so that food resources are fully used at different water depths. (For example, tench feed at the top, roach in the middle and carp and tilapia at the bottom.) Taro is planted around the pond and on part of its surface. Gourds are grown on trellises just above the water. Sweet potato is cultivated as pig feed.
The pig sty and the poultry shed are situated close to the pond. Pig manure is used for fish food, and various garden products are used to feed the livestock and fish. During the dry season the pond provides nutrient-rich water and sludge to irrigate and fertilise the garden. Surplus fish are fed to the pigs, or sold.
The whole VAC system is operated by the farmer’s family. They consume meat, eggs, fish, fruit and vegetables and in turn they contribute waste products to the system.
The late president Ho Chi Minh had a great liking for gardening and fish rearing. In 1979, on the tenth anniversary of his testament to the country, the ministry of agriculture, the ministry of fisheries and the Ho Chi Minh museum launched two movements: "Uncle Ho’s Orchard" and "Uncle Ho’s Fish Pond". These were not true VAC models, but they marked the beginning of the reintroduction of small scale intensive farming as an alternative to the socialist cooperative large scale farms.
As a result of these initiatives many collective VAC gardens have been established by cooperatives, businesses, kindergartens, schools, churches and pagodas. They are often established around centres for orphans, the aged and the disabled, where people provide free labour and are in turn provided with food that they have helped to grow. They can then either share the produce with family members, or sell it.
VAC practice leads to increased income and improved standards of living. Research has shown that in some communes in the Red River delta where VAC farming is being practiced, VAC income constitutes 70-90 percent of farmers’ incomes, and that their annual income through VAC farming is from 3-5 times higher (and sometimes as much as ten times higher) than that derived in the same area from growing two rice crops per year.
With VAC practice, dependency on rice is reduced as other dietary items constitute a greater portion of food consumed. This assists in reducing malnutrition.
Environmental Impact and By-Products
VAC leads to the creation of pleasant, peaceful landscapes with little or no agricultural pollution. No artificial chemicals are used and tree planting is encouraged. Employment is provided for people of all ages because hard manual labour is not required. Vietnamese women commonly work on the roads, in lime kilns and in distant rice fields. VAC offers them the opportunity to work in a healthy environment close to home, enabling them to care for their children rather than leave them in the care of others.
VAC activities also result in a variety of by-products. Food can be salted, dried and preserved, and crafts such as weaving, spinning and basket-making contribute significantly to family income and quality of life.
VAC Models for Coastal, Delta and Mountainous Regions
The original VAC model as practiced in the Red River delta has been modified to suit Vietnams three principle climatic regions, and further modifications are being made to suit particular conditions, such as in cyclone-susceptible coastal areas. The three main VAC models are outlined below.
The typical VAC garden-farm in a coastal area is from 2000-5000 square metres. It is bordered by a row of Casuarina equisetifolia which acts as a windbreak, hinders drifting sand and filters salt. Other timber trees and rattans are densely planted on mounds built up around the garden as protection. Within the garden a variety of fruit trees is grown, such as bananas, mulberries, figs, papaya and citrus, plus tuber crops such as sweet potato, arrowroot and jicama. Fish and prawns are raised in brackish ponds and canals. The most common forms of livestock raised are buffalo, cattle, pigs and poultry, especially ducks.
The Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta has saline, alluvial soils, and a wet and semi-dry season. People dig canals around their gardens to achieve better drainage and to wash salt from the soil. The fruit trees grown here, such as coconut palms, are selected according to their suitability to the available water (either brackish or fresh), and to the type of soil. On the flat land close to the coast coconut palms are intercropped with the bananas, guavas, citrus, pineapple and rambutan. A little further inland citrus species dominate, and are intercropped with coffee, cocoa and pepper plants. Fish and prawns are reared in the canals, with pig sties and poultry sheds situated by the canals. Bee hives are kept beneath the tree canopy.
Foothills & Mountains
Timber trees are grown on the steeper slopes, with perennial shrubs such as coffee and tea planted lower down. Peanuts (ground nuts), pulse legumes, medicinal herbs and tuber crops are planted beneath shade trees such as cassias. A series of small ditches and contour banks are built along the slopes to prevent soil erosion. Pineapples are grown along the banks. The house is built near the bottom of the hill, surrounded by bananas, orange trees and medicinal herbs. In front is the vegetable garden. The fish pond is at the foot of the hill with the animal sheds nearby. If there is a stream, fish are often raised in cages in the running water.
Since 1985 the Vietnamese government has been encouraging the development of family sized economic units. In 1986 the association of Vietnamese gardeners, VACVINA, was founded, and currently it has branches in 33 of Vietnam’s 44 provinces. This non-governmental organisation has the following objectives:
- to promote VAC development;
- to provide education, support and technology transfer to enable farmers to practice VAC; and
- to exchange information with international organisations.
VACVINA, with its emphasis on teaching nutrition and farm/garden design, shows how old and new food systems can be combined in ways that are highly productive and environmentally sound.