While most people are falling asleep, Leang Phally is climbing onto his old motorbike and driving out to the fields to dig for earthworms.
From 12 midnight until 4 am, Phally is able to gather from 20 to 30kg of worms, ready to sell to a trader who visits his home in the early morning.
Formerly a migrant worker at a Thai towel factory, he returned home in 2019 when his wife gave birth to their baby.
“If it is raining, I go out every night to catch the earthworms. When it is raining, they are afraid of the water and from the soil,” he told The Post.
Phally, 36, is rarely alone on his expeditions – many of his neighbours in Tuol Kroeul village, in Prasat Balang district’s Toul Kroeul commune, Kampong Thom province are in the same business.
According to Phally, the villagers can harvest between 500kg and 1 tonne of earthworms per night, with some families using two or three members to catch them.
“A large family can earn up to 100,000 riel per day – when the price per kg is high –from catching earthworms and selling them to agricultural depots, who buy them to dry,” he said.
Because the prices are decided by the buyers, it varies from 1,500 and 4,000 riel per kg of live worms. After working on their farms each day, the rice fields of the village become noisy at night, as the villagers dig for extra income.
Tuol Kroeul commune chief Preap Hav said earthworms are harvested in four of the seven villages in the commune, as they can be sold for reasonable prices, and there is no expenditure.
“There are a lot of people who go out to look for worms. Because the traders pay cash, they try very hard to find them. Nobody is drying the worms in this commune – so the dealers come to the villagers homes to buy them,” Hav told The Post.
Although most of the villagers have their own private land, earthworm hunters are free to catch them in any vacant land.
A buyer of earthworms, Bun Loeung from the commune’s Krapeu village, says she usually purchases from 300 to 400kg per day, although the occasional bountiful harvest may reach up two tonnes.
The 34-year-old woman said: “I sell both fresh and dried earthworms to the factory in the village at the current price of 3,500 riel per kg for fresh earthworms and 80,000 riel for dried earthworms.”
She has been trading in worms for almost three years, and said the factory exports the dried worms.
“Some say they are eaten, some say they are made into cream or powder. There are even some people who claim they are used to make medicine,” she added.
The owner of one of two agricultural depots in O’Sandan Thmei village, Teuk Hout commune, Rolea Ba’ier district, Kampong Chhnang province purchases up to a tonne of worms each day.
The woman, who asked not to be named, said: “I have the capacity to process about 1 tonne per day, any more than this amount we cannot do it.”
With 40 employees, she launched her business this season. She sells the dried product to a merchant in Phnom Penh.
She said she has to be careful to check the production process at every step.
“If I don’t make sure that everyone is taking care, I lose revenue. It is really tiring work, with almost no free time to eat meals. First, we wash the worms thoroughly with water before putting them into a machine and washing them again. Then, the staff peel the worms and dry them one by one,” she told The Post.
She said that if the sun is not out, her workers dry the worms over heated charcoal. If they are not dried thoroughly, they can end up smelling bad. 10kg of fresh earthworms can be processed into a single kg of dried worm.
“I have heard that they are being bought to make medicine in China. But obviously we do not know for sure what they are doing,” she added.
The owner of the other processing plant in O’Sandan Thmey village, Chey Kunthea, said that her business employs about 60 staff, who work five months of the year.
She said that the staff who dissect the worms are paid 800 riel per kg, with the most experienced of them able to earn nearly 80,000 riel per day.
Like the other traders, she said she was unsure what the dried worms were used for.
Her plant processes only one large type of earthworm. She purchases up to two and a half tonnes of the species – which can be almost half a metre long – every day.
She said the she only buys the larger worms because her machinery tears the smaller worms too easily. Torn and damaged worms must be thrown away, resulting in too much wastage.
Chey Moth, Teuk Hout commune chief, said thanks to the two processing plants, the commune is well-known for its role in the worm trade. He says there are only two worm drying plants due to a lack of capital and few business contacts.
“These two businesses operate on a relatively small scale, as the productive season only lasts for five months a year. With that being said, the worm trade provides a convenient additional income for many of the commune’s residents,” he told The Post.
Pen Vannarith, director of the Kampong Thom Provincial Department of Agriculture, said that he was also unaware of the end use of the dried worms – he just knew that foreign companies purchased them.
However, he said that harvesting of earthworms did not affect the fertility of the soil, and the ease of gathering them meant it was a viable secondary income for many people.
“It is the nature of earthworms. When the rainy season arrives and the rain floods their habitat, they emerge from the ground to find a safe place. This makes it very easy for our people to collect them,” he added.