Neten Dorji

BARTSHAM — Once considered a lucrative trade, the lemongrass oil business is experiencing a decline in Bartsham, a region known for its lemongrass cultivation. 

Local residents suggest that waning interest in lemongrass oil production is due to the labour-intensive nature of the process, leading to the abandonment of traditional practices that have been passed down through generations.

Cheki Phuntsho, a farmer from Muktangkhar, explained the arduous and time-consuming process involved in extracting the oil. 

“We have to work tirelessly in the scorching heat, harvesting the grasses,” he said. “The grass is then stuffed into a container and heated for several hours, after which the oil is extracted.”


According to him, the allure of better income in the construction industry has enticed locals away from the lemongrass extraction business. 

Dorji, a former lemongrass oil producer from Bartsham, abandoned the trade two years ago due to rising labour costs and a decrease in oil yield.

“When we started the business, the wage was Nu 10 per day. After I set up a machine of my own, I got paid Nu 35 per litre,” Dorji said. “People are no longer willing to work for less than Nu 1,000 per day.”

Dorji also noted a decline in oil yield compared to the year 2000, stating, “We hardly get a bottle of oil heating a container, which used to yield two bottles of oil. Moreover, we do not get the price that we expect.”

Previously, more than 20 households were involved in lemongrass oil extraction in Bartsham. However, villagers cited factors such as falling market prices, declining yield, high-wage rates, and inadequate firewood and water as reasons for the widespread abandonment of the age-old practice.

A villager expressed suspicion, that many farmers may be lacking interest in the trade. However, Samten Wangchuk from Udzorong has successfully sustained his lemongrass business for over a decade.

Wangchuk credited the increase in the price of lemongrass oil for his ability to revive the extraction business in Baypam. “A kilogram of lemongrass oil now fetches Nu 1,400, which is higher by about Nu 300 from the earlier price,” he said. However, he acknowledged that water shortages and other factors led five extractors in Baypam to give up the trade.

Sangay Tenzin, another local resident, stated that the unattractive returns were the primary reason for people abandoning the business. 

Tenzin believed that an increase in prices by Bio Bhutan, the main buyer of lemongrass oil, would encourage farmers to revive the trade.

During the pandemic, many people in Udzorong halted their activities after Bio Bhutan temporarily stopped purchasing lemongrass oil. However, work has resumed in Baypam, indicating a possible resurgence.

The extraction process for lemongrass oil involves carefully harvesting the leaves using sharp tools to avoid splitting, as they contain valuable oil. The oil is then derived through steam distillation, and the aromatic chemicals are combined with carrier oil to create a finished product. 

Local farmers in Udzorong have found success in distilling lemongrass oil and producing lemon grass air spray, which are used for home purification and refreshing.

Bio Bhutan, an enterprise specialising in natural and organic certified products sourced from farmers, currently purchases all lemongrass oil produced by Udzorong farmers. However, in other dzongkhags such as Lhuentse and Trashiyangtse, where returns are deemed unattractive and  wages are increasing, the lemongrass oil business has been abandoned.

Rinzin Wangchuk, in-charge of Bio Bhutan’s collection centre at Sherichhu, said that farmers in Baypam have agreed to continue the business, and a farmers’ group has been established to supply the oil. He further disclosed plans to commence extraction work at Sherichhu, given the number of farmers who have recently left the trade.

He said better earning opportunities in the construction sector and religious sentiments as key factors contributing to the decreased interest in the lemongrass oil business.