There is a momentum gaining in promoting local produce. The agriculture and economic affairs ministries, through separate notifications, have asked the people to go local.
Taking the lead, the agriculture ministry decided that it would entertain only locally produced ingredients for official dinners or lunch and other official functions.
It is a good decision.
Notwithstanding the amount it would consume, even if official gatherings are aplenty, it will provide a market for farmers and those considering going back to farming. There is a huge potential if what we produce has a ready market.
The current problem with most farmers, especially in the interiors is not having market. In places like Lhuentse and Mongar, vegetables are fed to animals because there is no market. On the other hand, in places like Thimphu, locally grown fruits and vegetables are beyond the reach of many.
Whether you are health freak, rich or poor, there is some liking for our local produce. And with imported produce associated with contamination, many prefer local produce.
How we substitute menus at dinners, private or official, will also depend on the price too. And local grown fruits and vegetables are expensive. The same bundle of broccoli that vendors sell us at Nu 100 is bought from farmers for Nu 40. If that is too much, two bundles of green vegetables like spring onions, sag become three when it reaches the hands of middlemen.
Farmers have no time and sell in bulk to the middlemen waiting at the gates of the “Centenary Farmer’s Market” who then wait for days to make the most. Like a farmer said, in the vegetable business, it is the vendors who are the winners.
The government could do more. What about tying farmers’ groups with institutions that feed hundreds like dratshangs and schools, hotels, restaurants and eateries? What about a separate seven-day open exclusive farmer’s market where only farmers are allowed to sell? Farmers cannot wait until the weekend. Their trip to the market depends on what is ready in the garden and the next work cycle.
The ministry’s asking the Food Corporation of Bhutan outlets to target on procuring local produce is a good initiative. The SOE’s performance could be evaluated on how much they cater to the farmers and not how much profit they make from selling, for instance imported rice.
The irony of our food self-sufficiency dream is evident in the fields. More and more are left to fallow even as import bill increase every year.
There is a huge focus on cottage and small-scale industries. The products should replace imported goods on the shelves. How it can compete will need more than government directives.
With exposure and experience, locally grown fruits and vegetables are becoming competitive. Yet there is room for improvement starting from processing to packaging to marketing. Local produce should be a good choice, not bought out of sympathy.
From diary products to handcrafts and textiles, price is not competitive too. This is one area where those in the business needs intervention.
And then a little bit of integrity could also help develop the industry. When scarves imported from Nepal are sold as “Made in Bhutan” and made “from pure baby yak hair,” the business is not going to last.