Farmers in Zhemgang’s major maize-growing areas, usually by this time, would have stored enough maize to last through to the next summer. Today, most farmers run to shops to seek cheaper alternatives for their staple food. 

Maize cultivation, once widespread, has dwindled to a few households today due to various factors. Farmers now prefer more affordable imported rice, while the labour-intensive nature of traditional staple has contributed to its disappearance. 

The decline in maize cultivation signals a broader shift in Bhutan’s agricultural landscape. 

Farmers in the region are increasingly choosing more profitable crops like cardamom, mandarin orange, ginger, avocado, and areca nut, causing maize cultivation to dwindle to a mere hundred acres from once thousands. 

Challenges posed by wild boars, monkeys, and birds further exacerbate the situation.  

The decline is further aggravated by challenges such as crop losses to wildlife, declining soil fertility, changing farmer preferences, and challenges in accessing markets.

Challenges persist, including the human-wildlife conflict and the increasing age of farmers who are unable to engage in labour-intensive farming. Maize cultivation is considered both expensive and labour-intensive, with daily wage rates for labourers economically not viable for many farmers.

Farmers are now looking to the government for support, hoping for the provision of chain-link fencing to protect their fields.

Despite these challenges, Zhemgang’s dzongkhag administration remains committed to prioritising plans and programs for cultivating cereals, including maize. Forming proper farmers groups could ease facilitation of markets. 

The decline in maize cultivation is part of a larger trend affecting Bhutan’s food self-sufficiency. And  the two political parties contesting the general elections, Bhutan Tendrel Party and People’s Democratic Party (PDP), have outlined pledges to address such pressing issues facing farmers across the country. 

Both parties acknowledge the pivotal role of agriculture in sustaining livelihoods and fostering economic growth. 

Bhutan Tendrel Party’s pledge includes earning Nu 7 billion by 2029 through export, making periodic changes to trade regulations for market access, developing online trading infrastructure, and introducing agro-tourism for rural development. 

PDP, on the other hand, pledges to promote the export of Bhutanese goods and services, encourage foreign direct investment in agriculture and ICT sectors, and introduce the “Buy Bhutanese Product” initiative.

As Bhutan navigates these challenges, addressing issues such as changing farmer preferences, wildlife conflicts, and labour-intensive cultivation practices will be crucial to achieving sustainable food self-sufficiency. 

Having enough to eat is not enough. We need to have adequate nutrition intake that takes the food self-sufficiency dialogue to a whole new level. It requires us to look at the agriculture sector holistically and design large scale initiatives.