Farmers seek government assistance

YK Poudel

Tandingang, Bumthang—Some 23 villagers were gathered at the Tshokpa’s house in Tandingang village to chant baza guru, the quintessential mantra of Guru Rinpoche. It was the 15th day of the fourth lunar month, the holiest day of the holy month of saga dawa.

The villagers looked prayerful and were intent on making the most of the spiritually potent day. Yet, occasional conversations punctuated the devotional chanting. As Sangay Dawa, one of the farmers, stopped chanting to partake in the conversation, she could not help but bring up the biggest issue on her mind – the declining potato production, growers, and market. It seemed like the most mundane topic for discussion on the holiest of days, but for Sangay Dawa, it was the most sacred.

Tandingang and Khangrab villages in Tang are among the highest potato-growing villages in Bumthang. Potato is their primary cash crop. However, in recent years, potato production has not been good. For the farmers, the issue is worth sacrificing precious time dedicated to baza guru.

“The number of potato growers is declining annually due to poor market price,” Sangay Dawa said. “Most of the farmers are senior citizens.”

Technological challenges, production costs, and the adaptability of technologies worsened the issue.

This year, a late spring frost in May damaged over 120 acres of potatoes in Khangrab and Tandingang.

Harvest season has come, but the potato growth has not been favourable. Altogether, 80 farmers in Khangrab and Tandingang are affected.

Sangay Dawa is worried about the price she will fetch this year. “I grow potatoes on 1.5 acres of land compared to over two acres in the past,” she said, adding that losing her crop this year to frost was the worst experience in her 25 years of potato farming.

She had paid Nu 1,000 an hour for a tractor and Nu 300 for a power tiller. She hired over 100 workers to plant potatoes. All that could go to waste.

Sangay Dema, another farmer, stopped growing potatoes mainly because of the decrease in price. “We have been unable to get a good price for potatoes for more than three years now,” she said.

She said that before the pandemic, a kilogram of potato fetched Nu 30. A truckload would be sold between Nu 200,000 and Nu 300,000 at the Phuentsholing depot. Now, she said, a kilogram hardly fetches Nu 15. Taking the harvest to Phuentsholing would incur a huge loss. A few dealers collect potatoes from the village.

The farmers request the government to invest in the distribution of high-variety seeds, market price management, and internal markets. “We are interested in agriculture if the government assists us in marketing,” they say.

Khangrab Tshogpa Sonam Dorji said that the government’s compensation scheme for crop damage needs to be re-considered.

“The potato plants look green but the roots are smaller due to the frost damage,” he said. The farmers did not get any assistance from the gewog for the frost damage.

Tandingang Tshokpa Tashi Lhendup said that most of the farmers in the village are senior citizens, indicating the shortage of young farm hands. “Operating heavy machinery is cumbersome for old-bones.”

In 2018, a seven-kilometre-long electric fencing was erected. It became ineffective against wild animals after a year.

The biggest wildlife depredation is caused by wild boars. A herd of over 30 boars is enough to damage the entire field.

Tashi Lhendup said the farmers have to guard their crops and vegetables against wild animals throughout the year. “Finally, when the produce reaches the market, we do not get a good price, which demotivates the farmers,” he said.

He said the government should seriously discuss and plan to build a favourable market for potatoes. He added that programmes to connect farmers with domestic entrepreneurs would be beneficial.

Last year, the farmers from Tandingang lost over a truckload of potatoes due to poor market demand and price.

The potato programme officer at the National Centre for Organic Agriculture (NCOA), Lobzang, emphasised the crucial role of potatoes in the livelihoods of farmers in various dzongkhags, including Bumthang, Chukha, Mongar, Trashigang, and Haa.

According to the RNR census, 22 percent of Bhutanese households rely on potatoes for their livelihood, benefiting around 34,100 households engaged in potato cultivation.

Decline in production

Bhutan is generally experiencing a decline in potato production. This is attributed to the ageing of potato seeds and their declining quality.

Research shows that only 24 percent of the agricultural land is mechanised.

The NCOA report 2023 states that the country produced 31,146 metric tonnes (MT) of potatoes in 2022, a decrease of 7,427 MT compared to the previous years. It was a 19 percent decline.

In 2022, several major potato-growing regions in Bhutan reported lower harvests. Wangdue, the highest potato-producing dzongkhag, harvested 10,323 MT, down by 583 MT from 2021.

Bumthang is the third-biggest potato-producing dzongkhag, with an annual production of 2,860.17 MT, sown across 564.01 acres by 1,054 growers.

The Food and Nutrition Security Policy of Bhutan 2023 underscores the absence of a comprehensive human resource plan, including development and deployment, leading to the decline in public investment and its evaluation.

New varieties being introduced

Among root and tuber crops, potato is one of the cash crops with biggest exports to India, contributing to the income of farming communities.

Bhutan harvested 44,278 MT of potatoes in 2022. However, the number of growers has declined to 33,096.

Through potato export of 24,439 MT, a revenue of about Nu 511.40 million was generated.

Lobzang said that new potato varieties known as Yusi Maap-2 and biofortified (tetraploid) clones have been introduced in multiple locations in Yusipang and Bumthang.

Moreover, climate-resilient potato clones from the International Potato Centre (IPC) in Peru and potato varieties from Nepal have been introduced.

The NCOA report highlights that Bhutan exceeded its target for new potato seed supply, providing 3,150 kilograms. This has resulted in better seed production of 20,250 kilograms of potato seeds.

Potatoes grow well within the altitude range of 2,000 to 3,500 metres above sea level. Currently, the assessment of four climate-resilient and seven biofortified potato clones is underway in Yusipang, Khangma, and Bumthang.

To ensure the quality of produce, a total of 111.77 acres of land and 25 households have been audited and certified under the local organic assurance system. Between 2022 and 2023, about 35 irrigation schemes were completed, covering 164 kms.

In the 13th Plan, the government has planned to prioritise high-tech farming.

The minister of agriculture and livestock, Lyonpo Younten Phuntsho, shared the ministry’s plans to introduce hi-tech Chirub farms. “These advanced farms will leverage cutting-edge technology to optimise efficiency and productivity,” he said.

The ministry will strengthen the use of resources, expertise, and proven technology to enhance capacity building among farmers.

Bhutan aims to increase the agriculture sector’s contribution to GDP from USD 365 million in 2022 to USD 625 million by 2029, and USD 854 million by 2034.