PM calls on youth co-operatives to take it up

YK Poudel

Bumthang—The fences are crumbling, bushes grow tall, and the machinery lies unused. Except for two of the nine greenhouses used by the staff of the nearby cattle farm, the organic farm, which started with a wow, spreads far and wide but is lifeless and desolate. 

This is Wobthang Organic Wonders (WOW) in Bumthang. The 35-acre organic farm launched in May 2020 with a big investment – an even bigger promise – has dwindled to this state due to multiple challenges. The locals call it a failure. 

Located in Tang Gewog at an altitude of 3,021 metres above sea level (masl), the farm was one of the biggest organic farming undertakings in the country.

Four years on, as the government prepares to take over the WOW farm, one of the practical steps to start with, is to improve the road connectivity which was a major cause of its failure.

What is WOW?

The WOW project was initiated by Pema Gyamtsho (PhD), the current director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the former Opposition Leader. He started it with a group of retired agriculture officials in collaboration with the erstwhile Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, Bumthang dzongkhag, Tang Gewog, and the community people.

The farm was started with an initial investment of Nu 10 million from the Prime Minister’s Office and a personal contribution of about Nu 6 million from Pema Gyamtsho. In addition to potatoes and buckwheat, the farm grew chillies, tomatoes, and beans under nine protected structures. The farm also has a house for the caretaker and a storage house.

The Farm Machinery Corporation Limited assisted with the machinery. When the contributions from various agencies are put together, including the construction of nine greenhouses with support from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), an estimated Nu 20 million was invested in the farm.

Between 1976 and 1983, the WOW farm was a barren swathe of land used as a sheep breeding centre. After the land was given to the community as a royal soelra, sheep were provided to the local farmers, and land used for growing vegetables.


Today, not a single employee works on the farm full-time. The farm manager has also left for better opportunities abroad. Records, government studies, and testimonies from local farmers and nearby cattle farm manager point to several challenges. 

The initial enthusiasm was dampened by challenges related to the high cost of production and the limited market for the produce. Besides, due to rural to urban migration, the availability and affordability of farm labour were another challenge. Those challenges were compounded by crop damage caused by wild animals and the farm’s inability to integrate with other enterprises. 

The locals say the road to the farm is pathetic. Vehicles cannot ply on the road during the monsoon season. The road winds through the villages of Tang. It takes more than two hours to reach Chamkhar from Wobthang, a distance of only 23 kilometres.

Moreover, the farm workers did not get the expected salary because of the bad market situation. Most workers were students who had to go back to school and college after their vacation.

Tandingang Tshokpa Tashi Lhendup said wildlife depredation, especially by wild boars and deer, was rampant. “At once,a herd of between 30 and 40 boars can be seen in a night,” he said. “With such challenges, farmers here are unable to produce crops in large amounts. The WOW farm faced the same challenge.”

Intervention in sight 

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay has promised to support the farm. He said that high-value apples like Mustang apples, which grow at high altitudes, will be studied and prioritised for the WOW farm with a more scientific approach. “This investment in modern technology can also increase apple production,” he said.

The WOW farm and the adjacent community cattle farm together are approximately 1,980 acres wide.

The fenced WOW farm is divided into three plots – plot 1 measuring about 10.8 acres, plot 2 measuring around 16.3 acres, and plot 3 measuring about 6.5 acres. The uncultivated land is intended to be used as a solar farm, for which a feasibility study has been done.

On April 12, a technical team from the UNFAO, the Department of Agriculture, and the National Soil Services Centrevisited the farm. It carried out a feasibility study for the introduction of high altitude apple varieties from the Mustang region in Nepal. 

To assess the feasibility of apple cultivation at WOW, biophysical conditions, especially climate variables of the site, were compared with those of Paro, a major apple-growing area, and Yusipang, one of the highest apple-growing places in the country. 

The 35-acre farm started in 2020 is one of the biggest organic farms in the country. The farm lies idle without anyone to take care of it. Most of the fences are also damaged.

However, the WOW farm is much higher in elevation than major apple-growing areas. Temperature and precipitation in Wobthang are lower than major apple-growing areas, indicating that existing apple varieties in Bhutan may not do well on the farm. 

A preliminary study suggests that, to assess the feasibility of introducing apple varieties from Mustang, a thorough analysis of climatic and soil conditions, apple varieties, plant physiology, including blooming characteristics and management aspects practised in major apple-growing areas of Mustang, needs to be carried out. 

“The advantage of growing apples is that the slopes are south-facing at 10 degrees, which is favourable for agricultural crop productions,” the study stated. Low rainfall is not seen as a serious concern as the farm can be irrigated with water from the nearby perennial streams.

Locals say crops commonly grown in the area are buckwheat, cabbage, radish, and local garlic. In the nearby village of Tandingang, all apple trees have withered. The lone surviving tree is almost 30 years old. The apple variety is golden delicious, but the fruit is sour.

Tang does not have a weather station. The nearest one is in Chamkhar, 23 kilometres away. Due to the dissimilar topography, distance, and elevation between Tang and Chamkhar, the technical team took information from WorldClim data. 

Based on the study on minimum temperature, maximum temperature, precipitation, and solar radiation of the WOW compared to other apple-growing areas, existing apple varieties are not advised.

According to the report, the soil of Wobthang is very acidic to slightly acidic and has limited nutrients. Apples prefer soil with a pH between 5.8 and 6.5.

Based on data, the elevation for the existing commercial apple varieties, such as red delicious, royal delicious, and golden delicious, is between 1,900 and 2,700 masl. Wobthang stands at 3,021 metres.

Tandingang Tshokpa Tashi Lhendup said that other fruits that grow in the area are peaches, pears, plums, and walnuts, but their yields are low.

The study team recommended high altitude apple varieties for commercial production at Wobthang, considering the altitude, soil, and climate variables.

“To make its growth better, in the initial year of the cultivation, apples can be intercropped with cole crops or potatoes to not only suppress weed growth in the orchard but also to generate income,” the report stated.

At the national level, Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay has called upon interested youth co-operatives to take up the project. “The government will support these groups with the required technology and farm machinery,” he said.

This story is supported by Bhutan Media Foundation and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization