In Barshong these days, you must belong. And most farmers do, either in the vegetable revolution or in the goat rearing experiment. This inclusiveness is cemented by the creation of watertight thematic units of farmers’ groups.

Formation of farmers groups is not a new development. The recent group innovation encouraged by the agriculture and forests ministry within the legal boundaries of the Cooperative Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2010, has resulted in the mushrooming of hundreds of farmers’ groups.

The Rules and Regulations define farmers group as “a group of not less than three members deriving economic benefits from one or more economic enterprises related to Renewable Natural Resource Sector”.

With the recent increase in vegetable production and the introduction of a new goat breed from India, which is expected to improve livestock production, the Barshong gewog administration, with support from the dzongkhag administration, introduced a number of farmers groups.

These groups are expected to enhance collective efforts in resource management and agricultural marketing. With constant guidance from local officials, these groups are already moving towards being professionally managed business entities. The idea is to make them capable of sustaining themselves and increasing benefits to their members.

Barshong has multiple farmers groups, both at chiwog and gewogs levels. These groups serve various purposes and have cross membership; farmers can choose to be members of both vegetable and goat farming groups. While some groups are governed by informal written agreement among the members, others like the goat farming group are legally registered entities with well-defined management structure, bylaws, and conflict resolution and benefit sharing mechanisms.

The gup of Barshong, Santa Lal Poudel, says the formation of groups have brought several benefits to farmers. Apart from being more organised in their collective efforts, farmers are able to learn from and encourage each other in areas of production.

In August 2016, six farmers groups were formed with the aim to produce more vegetables and take advantage of collective marketing. The groups, five vegetable and one goat rearing group, have also been helpful in collective transportation of produce to markets and in setting fair prices.

“We hope the establishment of these groups will further strengthen the value chains and sustain the several new interventions introduced through the ongoing pilot project in Barshong,” said Gup Santa Lal Poudel.

The groups have both male and female members, and the pilot provided basic capacity building support by training 123 farmers on group formation and management. A revolving fund, also called grant loan, has been established within these groups. As of March 2017, the goat value chain group had a saving of Nu 80,000 and vegetable group Nu 25,000.

Krishna Tamang, 31, of Chunikhang chiwog, is the chairman of the Chunikhang Organic Vegetable Group as well as the auditor of the Chunikhang Goat Rearing Group. He says the group formation was done through a very democratic exercise where facilitators explained the four key points thought to be critical for the process.

This included explaining to farmers every clause of the Cooperatives Act of Bhutan, 2009, and the Cooperatives Rules and Regulation of Bhutan, 2010. They were then educated about the advantages such farmers group would bring them in the long run. Facilitators also shared examples of successful groups from other gewogs in Tsirang. For example, the Patshaling Vegetable Group, formed in 2004, had accrued Nu 400,000 in its saving account. Similarly, Doonglagang Rural Development Group had Nu 300,000 in its saving account. Further, these groups were already lending money to their members.

Lastly, farmers were explained the factors determining the successes and failures of these groups. This included the need for leadership, clear objectives and goals. The need for clear benefit sharing and conflict resolution mechanisms, operational rules, and plans and activities were also explained.

However, officials say there are challenges aplenty.

These include sustaining the groups in the long run. Community mobilization remained a challenge. And advocating for the need for group efforts for the larger benefit of the community was a daunting task. People also quoted examples from the past where efforts for collective action by forming groups hadn’t worked. People from poorer households were also worried about registration and membership fees.

But then, officials recognized opportunity in farmers’ lack of understanding of the concept of groups. It was clear that farmers understood little about the economic benefits of collective efforts to market agricultural products. Therefore, they were told about the incentives of being part of a group as well as how there were ways to institute equal benefit sharing mechanisms. For example, where households’ ability to contribute differed, a consensual benefit sharing ratio was devised, which was agreed to by all the potential members.

A major challenge observed was the lack of leadership. While many farmers shied away from the leadership role, others said they had no leadership skills. That’s many groups have already changed leaderships.

However, a unique feature of Barshong groups is the sustainability design. Several behavior change aspects came to the fore. For example, in the past farmers often received free support, which now would have a price. Similarly, the groups would also become formal channels to receive or deliver supports from the district administration. Sustained capacity building plans could be encouraged to improve skills and churn out potential leaders.

Officials say the most important feature was the idea of federating similar groups to enhance collective action, both at the geowg and dzongkhag level. This meant bringing together all vegetable groups together to consolidated the cooperative. For now, one gewog level federate group has been formed.

“The farmers groups in Barshong are intended to serve both as production group as well as the formal channels of receiving support from the district,” said an official involved in the ongoing pilot project. “More effort is required to further strengthen upstream and downstream market linkages through implementation of necessary value chain upgrading strategies and coordination mechanisms involving farmer groups.”

There is also the need to strengthen the existing farmers’ groups and make them more independent in terms of decision-making and management. Similarly, more women will be encouraged to join the groups.

There is more good news for farmers in Barshong. The upcoming 12th Five Year Plan has identified strengthening market and value chain development as one of the Sector Key Result Areas.

Contributed by 

Gopilal Acharya