Growing a sustainable future, one drop at a time

Yangyel Lhaden

Kuenselphodrang, Thimphu, March 1: An elderly couple takes a leisurely stroll, pausing to admire a greenhouse farm they come across. Intrigued, they decide to explore further. Kinley Wangmo, the proprietor of the farm, notices their interest and warmly welcomes them, offering to show them around. Surprised, the couple inquires about the farm’s owner, to which Kinley calmly reveals, “I am the owner of this farm.”

“We are truly impressed by your accomplishment in creating this thriving farm,” the elderly couple remarks, expressing their admiration. “This innovative method of growing crops using water is something we’ve never seen before. It reminds us of our days spent toiling on the land.”

Welcome to Kinley’s Bhutan Hydroponics Farm, where innovation meets agriculture. Here, Kinley employs the fascinating technique of hydroponics, a method within hydroculture that allows plants to thrive without soil. Instead, they’re nourished by a mineral nutrient solution dissolved in water.

Kinley’s vision for her farm is taking shape with the establishment of three expansive greenhouses, signaling a new chapter in sustainable farming practices in Bhutan. Despite facing the challenge of initially leasing land, Kinley’s determination drives her forward as she constructs these sizable structures.

Already, the hydroponic system is up and running, showcasing the future of farming in Bhutan. Currently focusing on cultivating lettuce, Kinley’s efforts represent a leap towards efficient, resource-conscious agriculture, promising fresh produce even in challenging environments.

Kinley’s journey into hydroponics

The elderly couple’s curiosity about Kinley’s journey to establishing the farm is met with a warm smile. Kinley begins to recount her story, detailing the steps she took to bring her vision to life.

Kinley’s journey into the world of hydroponics initially sparked during the challenging times of the pandemic, driven purely by her curiosity. However, what began as a simple interest soon blossomed into a profound passion.

Her foray into hydroponics started humbly, with just a small space in Changzamtog. In the midst of uncertainty, Kinley’s curiosity led her to explore this innovative farming technique as a means of self-sufficiency and sustainability.

“To come this far wasn’t easy,” Kinley reflects with a hint of emotion. “The product we see today is the culmination of my blood, sweat, and tears.”

Her dedication and perseverance have been the driving forces behind her accomplishments, turning obstacles into opportunities and dreams into reality.

Kinley attributes the challenges to hydroponics being a nascent technology. However, despite numerous obstacles, she persevered to realise her dream.

“Amidst hardships, I advocate for technology to inspire youth and women in agriculture, aiming to spark their interest due to its simplicity,” Kinley explains. “It’s particularly advantageous for women, as it’s less labour-intensive, and youth are drawn to clean agriculture, avoiding soil contact and the need for extensive digging.”

Women in agriculture

In the realm of employment in the country, agriculture stands out as a sector where women outnumber men, as indicated by labour force survey data. For example, in 2018, the agricultural workforce comprised 85,700 women compared to 76,400 men.

The trend in the agriculture sector, as revealed by the Labour Force Survey Reports over the years, shows that women are primarily engaged as “contributing family members”.

One facet of Kinley’s mission is to feminise the agriculture sector and attract youth to it. Additionally, she advocates for hydroponics as a response to challenges posed by climate change, human-wildlife conflicts, and food security concerns.

Advantages of hydroponics

“The primary advantage of hydroponics lies in its ability to accelerate plant and vegetable growth compared to traditional soil-based methods, all within a significantly smaller space,” Kinley explains. “Moreover, within the greenhouse environment, we maintain complete control, ensuring optimal conditions to achieve the desired yield.”

“In a traditional setting,” Kinley explains, “a greenhouse measuring five by ten metres can only accommodate the planting of 125 lettuces.”

This comparison highlights the remarkable efficiency of Kinley’s hydroponics system, which boasts an impressive 11,340 planters. Each of these planters can produce a bunch of lettuce, showcasing the substantial increase in yield made possible by hydroponic farming methods.

By maximising space and utilising advanced agricultural techniques, Kinley’s hydroponic farm represents a significant advancement in sustainable and high-yield food production.

Challenges and support

As of today, Bhutan possesses approximately 8 percent or 277,000 acres of arable land. Only a fraction of it, roughly 23 percent, is currently being cultivated.

“I agree that hydroponics presents a user-friendly farming method with numerous advantages. However, I must acknowledge the significant initial investment costs, which weigh heavily on my mind as I navigate borrowing and loans,” Kinley admits. “Pursuing such a substantial mission comes with its mental challenges. Yet, during moments of stress, I find solace in motivational speeches, envisioning eventual success with my project.”

Kinley’s endeavour to establish her new farm received a significant boost with support from agriculture ministry. With this vital support, she has been able to acquire the necessary resources to turn her vision into reality.

“I am currently in the process of receiving materials in kind from the grant through implementing government agencies,” Kinley says. “Gradually, I am building the new farm, laying the foundation for its success.”

With the support of the grant from the Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture Project, Kinley’s dream takes another significant step towards becoming a reality. Piece by piece, her vision for the new farm is coming to life.

Future prospects

Filled with optimism, Kinley looks towards the future with hope and determination. With each seed planted today in her hydroponic farm, she sees not just the potential for a bountiful harvest, but also the promise of a brighter tomorrow for Bhutan’s agriculture sector.

As she tends to her crops with care and dedication, Kinley envisions a future where innovative farming methods like hydroponics play a central role in transforming agriculture in Bhutan. “By embracing sustainable practices and harnessing the power of technology, we can achieve greater food security, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability.”

Kuensel partners with FAO Bhutan to spotlight women in agrifood systems, empowering their participation and transformation