ARDC evaluates cold-tolerant chili variety; expected release in July of next year

Nima | Gelephu

Despite increased efforts to produce commercial-scale chilies in winter, farmers in Sarpang are still struggling to meet the demand for the most sought-after spice in Bhutan.

Sarpang is one of the major chili-producing dzongkhags in the country.

The chili-growing area almost doubled from 102 acres in 2018 to 227 acres in 2020 in Sarpang. Farmers rushed into growing chilies on a commercial scale after the import ban on green chilies in 2016.

Sarpang received some of the highest budgetary support under the economic contingency plan last year to enhance winter vegetable production, including chilies during the lean season.

However, soaring green chili prices triggered by a drastic drop in the supply of chilies has become a common phenomenon every winter. A kilogram (kg) of chilies cost Nu 700 in Gelephu last week.

There is only a limited supply or no supply of green chilies in the market today. Those available in the market are sold at an exorbitant price.

There was a huge supply shortage in November, December, and January, according to the officials from Agriculture Research and Development Centre (ARDC) in Samtenling, Sarpang.

Why limited supply in winter?

The farmers in Sarpang should start cultivating chilies by the end of September to have a stable supply of chilies in winter (November to February). The earliest variety of chilies takes at least two months to start fruiting.

Principal horticulture officer with ARDC, GS Rai (Ph.D), said that chilies were produced in winter but not sufficient for all.

“We have to raise nursery plants by mid-summer, July, and August, but they fail. There was a total failure of the nurseries because of high temperatures and high humidity. Seedlings get infected by a severe disease called damping off,” he said.

The official added that farmers should complete transplanting seedlings by September to have a stable chili supply in winter. This message was passed to extension officials and farmers after proper research and study.

“But, transplanting season coincides with monsoon retreat time. We see lots of seedling mortality, 80 percent of them due to disease. The soil becomes moist, leading to rampant pest infection,” said GS Rai.

Over 15 percent of seedlings die because of root damage and a majority from sucking pest infections such as mites, aphids, and thrips.

Officials from ARDC said that the chilies grow well in warm temperatures. The night temperature should not fall below 15 degrees to enable proper growth of the crop.

“In southern Bhutan, the night temperatures fall beyond 15 degrees during winter, sometimes hitting six degrees. That will arrest growth. The crop performs after the winter season,” said GS Rai.

Sarpang produced over 119 metric tonnes of chilies in 2018 and 2019, more than 103MT in 2019 and 2020, and 227MT in 2020 and 2021. Most chilies hit the market after March.

Dzongkhag agriculture officer, Deki Lhamo, said Sarpang introduced winter chili cultivation in 2016 but the cultivation scaled up significantly only in the past two years.

“Only seven dzongkhags: Sarpang, Samtse, Dagana, Chhukha, Mongar, Pemagatshel, and Samdrupjongkhar are feasible for winter chili cultivation. Considering the agro-ecological zone, meeting the demand is always at stake during winter,” she said.

She added that the dzongkhag managed to supply chilies, despite the price factor many grieved about.

“Chilies are not free from pest and disease attacks. And given the environmental policy, we do not use highly toxic pesticides. The key factor determining the production is exploring a suitable variety. The ARDC is working on it,” said Deki Lhamo.

ARDC officials said that the incidents of pest and disease infection increased with more farmers growing the crop on a commercial scale. The control measures recommended from the centre were not followed properly.

For the past three years, the ARDC studied methods to control the pests and diseases organically, using Neem oil and garlic extract sprays. A few farmers are also using the control measures evaluated at the centre.

Research officials from the ARDC say the centre has yet to ascertain the effectiveness of the control measures, as the control measures are still in the study phase.

In the first year, officials focused on mites, aphids, and thrips, as they are major sucking pests. There were no promising results while trying only organic control measures, and inorganic control measures were implemented starting this year.

The effective control measures were recommenced to farmers after the evaluation.

Kamana Gurung said it was not convenient to start growing chilies by September because of the heat and rain. “We could grow them in a greenhouse. But, the structures were of the same size, mostly used for raising nursery seedlings,” she said.


Winter chili hopes pinned on cold tolerant variety

Research officials from the ARDC are evaluating a new variety and also started a field trial at Chuzergang for a cold-tolerant variety to enhance chili production in winter.

The new variety was brought from India and the Asian Vegetables and Research Centre in Taiwan. Ten different types of cold-tolerant chili varieties are being evaluated at ARDC.

This variety of chili is expected to perform well in colder temperatures. However, the yield is expected to be 50 percent lower when grown in winter.

The new variety will be released or available for use in July next year, tentatively. However, the emergence of new pests and diseases such as yellowing of leaves, reported last year, is a challenge concerning the new variety.

“The production area must be expanded. The main chili growing areas in winter are in Samtse and Sarpang. It’s challenging to feed all 20 dzongkhags. Farmers don’t practice the control measures properly for the lack of land,” said GS Rai.

Winter chili cultivation is suitable only in areas below the altitude of 800 metres.


Lifting import ban in the lean season? 

Phurpa Zangmo, a vegetable vendor from Gelephu, said that lifting the import ban during the lean season would solve the chili shortage problem and make it available at an affordable price.

“There has been no supply of chilies since Sunday. Farmers from Dagana used to provide a supply during winter but they couldn’t this time. The price wouldn’t go beyond Nu 100 per kilo if we are allowed to import chilies in winter,” she said.

Gewog and dzongkhag agriculture officials say lifting the import during the lean season would affect the farmers, as many started commercial chili farming availing loans in the millions.

Agriculture extension officer with Chuzergang gewog, Tashi Dawa, said almost all farmers in the gewog availed loans to cultivate chillies on a commercial scale.

“We should not have encouraged farmers to grow chilies. They have invested so much. The financial institution supported them. Farmers will run into a loss, and with it, financial institutions. The government’s support will be in vain,” he said.

Deki Lhamo, said that a provisional lift of the ban would work against the farmers who have kept producing chilies so far. “Such interruption amid the peak cultivation period would discourage farmers and make consumers dependent on imported chilies, instead of producing on our own,” she said.

A farmer from Samtenling, Deepak Chhetri, said that there would be an abundant supply of chilies by the end of February. “More farmers started growing chilies on commercial areas. The early batch of seedlings failed because of pests,” he said.