For decades, Bhutanese farmers had been complaining of not finding markets to sell their produce. They are not complaining about hundreds of tonnes of farm produce, especially vegetables. The problem was with the surplus vegetables, fruits or kharang they want to sell for cash.
Cold storage is an old and simple technology, but not explored as a solution in the country. Many farmers are not even aware of such a simple technology. That’s why farmers dry vegetables and fruits for winter when fresh vegetables and fruits are scarce.
We had been talking about food self sufficiency for decades. We are still talking about it. Most Bhutanese farm produces are seasonal. We produce too much for a few months in a year that, for instance, chilli growing farmers from Punakha and Wangdue once had to give away chillies free of cost to prevent paying luggage fare to take it back home. The generosity could be because they made enough profit when the first harvest hit the market and price shot through the roof.
With the government emphasizing on agriculture in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a renewed interest in agriculture. Agriculture seems to have provided an alternative to youth groups, the unemployed, and more recently, those affected by the pandemic. Turning to agriculture is not a bad choice. Traditional wisdom has it that we will never go hungry if we can dare dirty our hands.
From the focus and the number of people and groups getting into agriculture, we will have no dearth of farm produce. Unfortunately, the issue of market will surface when the crops are ready for market. There will be too much for a few months and shortages during the rest.
There is a discussion on cold storage facility in the Parliament and there are differences. But if we can feel the pulse of those into agriculture or horticulture, cold storage has become an indispensable technology. This has become more relevant in the current situation where export and import are restricted. Soon, potatoes from Phobjikha and Bumthang will hit the market. Most of the potatoes are exported to India. Unless the two governments arrange something to ease the export, there will be too many potatoes in the market. Schools that provide an alternate market are also closed.
Apples from Paro and Thimphu will follow potatoes. Where will we store the produce if export is restricted? The technology is not only to solve the current problem arising from restrictions and lockdowns. It would be a long-term solution for farmers and encourage others to till the ever-growing fallow land.
We might not need the facility in every gewog, but it makes sense to have some to provide a solution to the market problem. Why do we crave for Yangtse chillies for almost four months? Why do we sell our apples for Nu 50 a kilogramme and buy it back for double the price? It is said that a Falakata, India businessman buys most of the apples in Hongtsho, Thimphu, cold-store it and sells it back to Bhutan in winter for double the price.
Cold storage technology is said to be electricity intensive. Cheaper and reliable electricity is what we are known for.