Farmers in Dagana, who were provided seeds, subsidies and technical assistance to produce onion through the agriculture economic contingency plan (ECP) are now facing difficulty to sell it.

More than 200 farmers from the 12 gewogs in the dzongkhag ventured into onion cultivation in September last year after the agriculture ministry asked dzongkhags to grow onion and tomatoes as an immediate intervention to address the shortage of onion in the country following India’s ban on exports.

Dagana dzongkhag targeted to produce 146 metric tonnes (MT) on onion then. 

After working more than eight months, farmers are harvesting the produce, but without an assured market and with the imported onions available, they are struggling to sell onions today. 

A kilogramme of onion can fetch between Nu 35 to 40 in the market. 

Farmers said that consumers prefer imported onions to locals although the price is the same. Onion price hiked as high as Nu 150 a kilogram in Thimphu last year.

A farmer from lower Tshendagang, Dhan Bahadur Singdhal, said that he could sell only five kilogrames of onions from the 2,200kg he had harvested. “There isn’t demand for local onions, as imported commodities flood the market.” 

He said onion production was prioritised and farmers were encouraged to grow it when the country experienced the shortage last year. “While we have been supported with seeds, subsidies and technical assistance, we don’t have market nor price assurance from the domestic market. This is discourging.”

Dhan Bahadur cultivated onions on two acres of land investing at least Nu 50,000. Without demand for the commodity, he is worried that he might not be able to recover the investment.

Another farmer, who grew onions, Sanja Maya Ghalley, said she could sell only five kilogrammes of the 50kg of onions she took to the weekend market.

She has harvested around 2,500kg of onions recently and is currently carrying out post-harvest practices such as grading and curing.

“We might incur a huge loss unless concerned agencies intervene,” she said. “Onion cultivation is labour intensive.”

With 47 households involved in onion cultivation, the gewog produced 45MT of onions. 

Is there a solution?

To ensure market assurance, farmers said that implementing import regulation would help. 

A farmer and also commercial aggregator, Bhim Bahadur Moktan said that there is no demand for onions even from their regular vendors. “The vendors said that imported commodities are available when being asked why they do not buy from us.” 

He said import of such commodities, when produced abundantly at home, should be limited, regulated and monitored.

The gewog agriculture extension officer, Bikash Tamang, said while any targeted quantity of commodities could be produced at home, one of the biggest challenges facing farmers is market accessibility. 

“From selling ginger to turmeric, cauliflower and onion, our farmers have been facing market problems this time,” he said. “A kilogramme of cauliflower was sold at only Nu 25 without buyers.”

He said that unless there is serious intervention, regulation and change in agriculture policy that addresses more consolidated support and services at the ground level, it would remain as a challenge for local producers to capture the domestic market. 

He suggested linking growers with dzongkhags that do not grow onions to help address the issue. 

Some farmers said that they would resort to curing and storing of onions as an interim measure until they can find a market. Onions are usually cured for at least two to three weeks. 

Farmers who did not receive subsidies for curing sheds are drying down onions in cow barn and balcony today. 

Without proper curing, farmers said that onions sprout quickly, thus losing market value. 

Only nine farmers in Tsendagang and four in Tashiding received subsidies for curing barns. 

Tashidhing gewog agriculture extension officer, Prem Dan Limbu, said that implementing a buy-back policy by the government could also help address the problem. 

Foreseeing the market problem, agriculture officials said that details on expected production and number of growers were shared with the agriculture ministry two months ago. 

The assistant dzongkhag agriculture officer, Kinley Namgay, said the ministry is planning to address the issue. 

He said they would encourage local residents to consume local onions. “We could even supply to schools.” 

Farmers in Tshendagang are currently supplying onions to two schools of Dagapela Central School and Gangzor Primary School. 

They said the schools, however, need only 10kg in a week.

Meanwhile, Kinley Namgay said farmers are being reluctant to sell onions at wholesale rate. “There are wholesalers who want to buy at Nu 20 a kilogram but growers do not want to sell at lower rates.” 

By Chimi Dema | Dagana

Edited by Tashi Dema