They did twice in the past, but it didn’t work because of market

Phurpa Lhamo | Punakha

Farmers in north Punakha are well aware of the onion business. They tried their hands, not once but twice. Both times it didn’t succeed.

Farmers will try it again with the government making it mandatory for all dzongkhag to cultivate onions and tomatoes. However, given the risk, it will be tried on a small scale.

The dzongkhag has the potential to grow both the leafy spring and the storage onions. It didn’t pick up in the past because of the poor price, lack of market and the competition from imported onions.

Nearly two decades ago in 1996, about 30 of the 50 households in the Sirigang-Wakoo-Damchi chiwog took up onion cultivation. However, mass production ceased four years after cultivation began because of lack of market, price and lack of expertise.

Onion cultivation was once again introduced in the chiwog in 2013. This time, around seven households took up cultivation. However, the crop didn’t gain much popularity. Today, a household cultivates onions on less than 10 decimals land for self-consumption. The chiwog’s former agriculture extension officer, Kinley Dorji said that research officials were also involved to ensure that the plantation process was correct in 2013. “I am not sure but it was part of a vegetable promotion programme after the country faced the Indian Rupee crisis.”   

Perhaps farmers would be lucky this time with the Indian government banning the export of onions and the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic drawing the attention of the government on import substitution.

There is a ready market and the dzongkhag agriculture office will provide technical support.

One of the first farmers who tried onions, Tshewang Dema said that onion cultivation thrived for four years when cultivation was introduced in 1996. “The price we got was also good. I cultivated onions on around 50 decimal of my land. Some had acres of onion fields.” The onion from Punakha was different. The bulb was bigger and flavour not as strong as the Indian onions.

As it flooded the market, farmers couldn’t sell it. They shifted to chilies, cabbages and beans.

Another hurdle was the difficulty in curing the bulbs. Curing is a process of drying onions to prepare it for storage for a longer duration. The weather of Punakha and lack of curing shelter proved inconvenient for the farmers.

Kinley Dorji said that harvest time fell around June and July at the peak of monsoon and the rains damaged the onions.

Chiwog Tshogpa Kinley said that it was easier and more profitable to grow chilies. “We once produced onions in huge quantities from Punakha,” he said on the potential of the dzongkhag taking up onion cultivation.

This year, onion cultivation will begin in January in seven gewogs.

Dzongkhag Agriculture Officer Gaylong said that because cultivating onions on a commercial level would be risky, farmers would take up cultivation on small scale.

This is on trial-basis. “It is risky if we do it at commercial and it would be a loss for farmers if it doesn’t go well. There are farmers who are interested in increasing onion cultivation. So if production goes well, we will increase it next time.”

Gaylong said that the other four gewogs in the dzongkhag would focus on cultivating other crops. Winter crop plantation has begun in Punakha.