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QUANG TRI PROVINCE, Vietnam — Three times a day, Do Thien Dang pulls himself 6 feet up a handmade bamboo ladder. His arms are powerful, doing the climbing work usually done by two legs. He lost both of his just below his hips more than 30 years ago.

Atop the ladder, the 52-year-old farmer sprays water on hanging columns of mushrooms. Regular watering is about all the attention mushrooms need — making them an ideal crop for farmers who can no longer get out into fields because of missing limbs.

About 100 farmers who have been disabled by unexploded ordnance in the province have taken up fungi farming under Project Renew’s Mushrooms with a Mission, according to Ngo Thien Loi, its program manager. The program was established with the assistance of New York-based Humpty Dumpty Institute and receives funding from the U.S. Department of State and the Foreign Ministry of Taiwan.

Do was born in the province in 1960, and his preteen years coincided with the escalation of the conflict between North Vietnam and America.

The U.S. deployed about 50 million tons of munitions in the country during the war. No province received more than Quang Tri, which had the misfortune of being severed by the DMZ, or demilitarized zone, that split north and south.

Do weathered that storm of ordnance without harm.

He was rice farming in 1980 when war caught up with him. While working his field, he stepped on something “strange,” he recalled. Moments later it exploded, blowing off both legs.

With that detonation, Do joined 66,000 of his fellow countrymen who’ve been injured and maimed by unexploded ordnance (UXO) since 1975, according to a tally maintained by the Vietnam Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs. Unlike the other 40,000 victims who died in similar circumstances, however, Do was quickly taken to a hospital before he bled to death.

He married in 1989 and has three daughters. His wife tends the rice field, while he fashions by hand bamboo strips into hoops and pedestals for flower arrangements.

He’d tried mushroom farming on his own once, but disease decimated his crop.

Mushrooms with a Mission provided what Do and others like him needed to succeed. The program identifies farming families whose primary breadwinner lost limbs from UXO. Once a disabled farmer agrees to participate, he receives a day of training at Project Renew’s mushroom center — a 12-acre complex that the local government turned over to the organization.

At the complex, liter-sized plastic bags are filled with sawdust to provide nutrition for the mushrooms. The filled bags are sterilized to prevent disease, after which the germinated spore of a particular kind of mushroom is implanted.

Once growth begins, the bags are moved to a covered shed at a farmer’s home. The mission built a tin-roofed shed on concrete poles for Do. Depending upon the type of mushroom, harvest comes 45 to 90 days after germination. Two to three crops can be harvested from each bag.

Mushrooms with a Mission guarantees to buy the crop at market price. They sell the mushrooms locally, but the big markets are in China, Taiwan and Korea, Ngo said. The mission is looking to sell and market the harvest internationally, and have chosen a brand name: Namus, which conjoins parts the names of Vietnam and the U.S. (“Nam” is also the word for mushroom in Vietnamese.)

The project has also expanded into “lingzhi,” the bitter-tasting mushrooms long used in traditional Chinese medicine. Prices for lingzhi can be up to 10 times higher than common mushrooms used in cooking, Ngo said. (Sixteen ounces of dried lingzhi carried a price tag of $24 on Amazon recently.)

Project Renew is working with Switzerland-based Institute for Marketcology in order to become certified in Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP. The certification will allow them to sell the mushrooms internationally. Their goal is to set up 1,000 families in the mushroom business.

Do makes about $300 during the five months when the weather is suitable for the kind of mushrooms he grows. He declined to say how much he earns overall each year, but Ngo said farmers in the area typically make $700 to $1,000 a year.

By way of comparison with the latest data available from the World Bank, Vietnam had a per capita gross national income of $1,160 in 2010, but double-digit inflation the past two years has been driving up prices and wages.

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.
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