Female farmers plot an organic future

HANOI - The road is narrow and obstructed by heaps of drying corn. Past the farm's perimeter, marked by a curtain of elephant grass reaching toward the sky, conical hats bob among rows of greenery.

Under the hats are 18 women and a lone man, all residents of Duy Tien District in Vietnam's northern Ha Nam Province. Together they form the Trac Van Organic Farmer's Cooperative, a hectare-sized experiment in self-preservation.

Vietnam -- an agrarian society in which nearly half of the workers are farmers, according to official figures from 2013 -- faces a future that demands either innovation or a wholesale change in identity.

It is one of the world's biggest rice exporters, but Vietnam's agricultural sector faces numerous challenges, from an aging and shrinking farming force to poor practices and infrastructure. Slow productivity growth and low-quality crops produce profits so tiny that many farmers are better off leaving land fallow.

One attempt at rethinking the sector has been organic farming, which, after more than a decade of concerted effort, is finally gaining traction. Farmers, desperate to abandon cheap commoditized crops like rice and corn, are increasingly willing to stop using pesticides and old techniques to meet demand for pricier organic products.

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