The repercussions for families solely dependent on the cash crop is expected to be severe
Exports: A tragedy has struck the citrus industry this season. Farmers in the orange-growing regions wrapped up the year in desperation with production dropping by tens of thousands of tonnes.
The country exported only 4,959 metric tonnes (MT) to Bangladesh and India this season against the bumper harvest of 34,569MT in the 2014-2015 season.
With almost non-existent production in the orchards, some orange export depots were compelled to close more than a week before the usual time this year. A few however remained collecting every orange fruit available. Usually the three month-long export season, which begins in November, lasts up to February 15.
The otherwise busy and thriving orange depots in Phuentsholing closed their camp early with the final consignments leaving for Bangladesh on January 28.
The country’s orange exports spiked to Nu 850 million (M) last year from Nu 519M in 2013, Nu 452M in 2012, and Nu 327M in 2011.
One of the worst hit areas was Yangmalashing chiwog in Pemagatshel. Some villagers earned up to Nu 1M in the 2014-2015 season. Farmers earned only about Nu 6,000, half of which was spent on collecting and selling the produce.
Local leaders are worried about their annual performance agreements (APA) with the dzongkhag.
Dechenling gewog last year produced more than 5,583MT against an APA target of 600MT.
They fear not even reaching a fraction of that this year.
Dechenling gup Sonam Rinchen said many families are suffering because of the slump in production.
“Some families have struggled to send their children to school because the income that usually meets their education expenses has dried up,” the gup said.
Farmers are blaming the bumper harvest the previous season.
“We don’t know but it may be because of the good harvest we had the season before,” a farmer, Sonam Dorji, said.
In most parts of the country, income from the sale of oranges help families to meet their children’s education expenses and support their families through the year.
With most of the orange orchards across the country being affected with diseases like Citrus Greening and plagued by the Citrus Fruit Fly, among others, agriculture department’s Director General Nim Dorji proposed to reduce the annual citrus production target for the 11th Plan to 50,672MT.
Efforts are in place to rehabilitate and replace affected orchards through support of disease free seedlings and encouraging proper orchard management. However, impact will be visible only in the next plan period.
Officials reported a productivity increase from 35kg a bearing tree to 43kg in the past two and a half years.
Agriculture records show that about 500 acres across the citrus growing areas are left abandoned with their owners living in other districts. Most orchards only have elderly people looking after them.
Orchards not managed scientifically pose a serious challenge to the ministry’s 11th Plan targets to expand the citrus growing area by about 1,242 acres.
The research and development centre in Wengkhar, Mongar established 245 citrus orchards in the eastern dzongkhags with 11,000 trees.
In the past two years, the ministry rehabilitated 400 acres of mandarin plantations in Samtse, Chukha, Dagana, Trongsa, and the eastern dzongkhags. It aims to rehabilitate 26 percent of the orange growing area by 2018.
While the orange has become a prominent commercial crop, it has no resemblance of a commercial undertaking in terms of the efforts and investments put in by growers, officials say.
Agriculture officials said almost 70 percent of orchards in the country have trees with an average age of more than 25 years.
The industry is wrought with other challenges – poor adoption of new technologies developed by research agencies, existence of private nurseries, which could spread diseases and pests, and mild response from the local governments.
Despite having a master plan, strategy and targets, the national citrus programme is short-staffed, lacks budget and has yet to receive the impetus from stakeholders.