Organic dreams from Alpine Austria

Farming: Two sprightly young men from Bumthang have brought home from the northern Alps new dreams of organic farming. They recently returned from a two-month sojourn in a country where the combination of chilli and cheese doesn’t become ema datshi, but chilli cheese, a particular kind of cheese.

Twenty-five-year-old Sonam Chophel from Chumay and 18-year-old Dechen Dorji from Tang think that they have come back from Salzburg in western Austria more knowledgeable and more critical of Bhutan’s organic farming.

Sonam, a BSc graduate and aspiring organic farmer, and Dechen, a Class X graduate and farmer, went to Austria last August as part of The Bhutan-Network’s Organic Farmers Exchange Programme (OFEP). The Bhutan-Network is an Austria-based, non-profit organisation seeking to connect the Bhutanese and Austrian people with varied skills at different levels to strengthen intangible and tangible cultural heritage in Bhutan and Europe.

For two months, Sonam and Dechen lived and worked on different farms in a number of places learning to make goat cheese, mud oven, herbal medicines, compost, ice cream, hay cheese, and chilli cheese, among others. They went from the alpine region of Bhutan to the Austrian Alps as curious students of organic farming and came back with knowledge and observations that could take them hours to talk about, and a lingering love for Austrian bread.

“In Austria, a cow and its products are considered organic only if its feed is organic,” Sonam, much more talkative of the two, says. “But in Bhutan, we don’t know how vegetables are grown but call them organic. In Austria, if cattle feed is not organic, so isn’t any cattle product.”

Bubbling with enthusiasm to share his experience in Austria, Sonam says it is not easy to be a farmer – a real organic farmer – but it is a “nice”, proud job to do. He says Austrian farmers are famous people, well-educated and professional. Some of them go to a university and come back to their farms. Sonam is inspired and eager to become an educated, organic farmer, but his parents have told him to leave the “hard work” for them for some time.

Dechen talks little and seems less ambitious. In a deep voice and measured tone that belies his youth, he says that like every baby in Bhutan, every Austrian calf gets a health card at birth which keeps track of its health status. The farmer makes sure that the calf grows up healthy and organic because he has to present his “organic records” to his clients, if they so demand, when he sells his products. Farmers in Austria, Dechen says, keep meticulous records of their animals, agriculture produce, and soil nutrients.

Since Sonam and Dechen lived and worked on different farms, they picked up different skills. While Sonam is confident that he can build a bread baking Austrian oven with some guidance from an Austrian expert, Dechen sees himself making Austrian ice cream one day in Pralang, his village in Tang. They talk fondly of their training sessions with Austrian professionals.

Sonam and Dechen in a milking parlour

Sonam and Dechen in a milking parlour

Sonam says making goat cheese was the most memorable part of his stay in Austria although the breathtaking view of the Alps enthralled him like the sparkling mountains of Bumthang. Dechen is relishing the memory of learning ice cream making and tasting all kinds of ice cream.

They also learnt butter making, cheese making, cooking, and table manners at the local agriculture school, Winklhof, which, they say, is manned by professional farmers. Sonam says that the curriculum of that school could be helpful for Bhutan. That school and its farmer teachers convinced Sonam and Dechen that farming does not necessarily have to be done by the least educated and teaching, by teachers. Sonam no longer associates his BSc degree with a desk-bound job.

Sonam says in his sufficiently understandable English that, in Bhutan, a good organic farming system should start from the grassroots. He says that besides education, farmers need a lot of subsidies. “In Austria, ones who get a lot of subsidies are farmers,” he says, adding that many of Austria’s farming practices are applicable to Bhutan.

Sonam and Dechen want to apply the knowledge and experience they gained from Austria in their own villages. While Sonam dreams of reproducing some practices of an Austrian farm in Chumay, Dechen – a more reserved person – says it might take some time to wish anything into practice in Bhutan. But he adds that “people can look at my farm later to learn”.

One Austrian practice that both of them do not want to see in Bhutan is separating a calf from its mother at birth. They see it as inhuman despite a generous quota of milk the calf is entitled to in a bucket. Their exposure to European farming practices does not make them less Bhutanese.

The Bhutan-Network’s OFEP has so far sent three batches of Bhutanese farmers to Austria since 2013. The Bhutan-Network was founded by Kristel Josel and Ulrike Čokl who share a great interest in the Himalayan region, especially in Bhutan. Kristel, an international music manager, is based in Austria and Spain. Ulrike has been on and off in Bhutan since 2000, and since 2012, she has been conducting ethnographic research for her PhD.

OFEP has so far planted Austrian organic dreams in six Bhutanese farmers and prospective farmers who hope to nurture them into reality one day, soon. Meanwhile, Dechen is back to his village tilling land for potato plantation. As the next crop of potatoes is ready for harvest in Tang, two farmers from there, both women, will prepare to head to Austria.

Contributed by Needrup Zangpo

Editor, Druk Lotēr

drukloter@gmail.com 

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