Revitalising the ailing agriculture sector

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests’ (MoFA) Renewable Natural Resources (RNR) has been one of the priority sectors. It employs over 2,800 civil servants—policymakers, administrators and extension agents.  However, the sector today lacks vision and seems to be running out of ideas to stay relevant in the changing socioeconomic atmosphere of our country. With over 56 percent of Bhutanese employed in the sector, mainly in subsistence farming, it is worth sharing a few ideas to overhaul the sector.

The agriculture officers are one of the busiest civil servants. You can hardly spot them in office because they are perennially engaged in the ‘field’ work. Sometimes they become so busy that they even seem to forget what their actual mandate is.

Let us quickly look at the work routines of a District Agriculture Officer, in the following order:

Monitoring farm road constructions.

Forming farmer groups.

Training farmer groups in managing group.

Providing subsidies in the form of seed and seedlings to farmers.

Constructing market shed.

Attending endless training and workshops from MoAF and Department of Agricultural Marketing and Cooperatives (DAMC).

In this seemingly hectic list, the key thing missing is the actual work that a technical expert like an agriculture officer is trained for, which is doing agriculture. To a generalist like me working in rural areas, this is an obvious responsibility that must be at the top of the priority, followed by:

Providing technical expertise to farmers on how to get the best yield from a crop.

Providing mentorship and guidance to illiterate farmers on improved farming methods seen elsewhere in the world.

Increasing agricultural land usage through land development and rehabilitation initiatives.

Ensuring that infrastructure built through agricultural projects, especially market sheds, are functional.

Adopting indigenous knowledge and learning from farmers.

Such experts are in fact so habituated to their systemic routine that suggestions, which might actually help them meet their goals are not only met with resistance, but outright suspicion and antagonism. They will not be educated and advised on agricultural production by anyone other than their superiors. What they end up doing is fabricating statistics for their ministry rather than actually producing agricultural prosperity for our country.

So, what next?

Hand over farm roads to MoWHS

The simple answer is, let the agriculture officer do what they are trained for—grow crops and provide technical expertise to farmers. Gewog by gewog, chiwog by chiwog and village by village, the agricultural officers and agriculture extension agents should meet with the farmers and help them grow crops better and teach them improved methods of farming and of upscaling their production.

Overhaul DAMC and separate Farmer Group formations

DAMC has been in existence for almost a decade now. Its main job, in brief, is to explore agriculture markets and form farmer groups and cooperatives. In practice, however, it means attending endless workshops and going abroad to explore agriculture markets while making the farmers and agricultural officers do the actual group formation work. It will be interesting to see how many times DAMC has actually visited villages to talk to the farmers. It would be more interesting to see how many Bhutanese crops have they successfully sent to the international markets that they so often visit. Value chain booklets published by them are many, but did any of them actually materialise?

Farmer training and group formation: This is one asset they will not let go at any cost. In spite of RAA observation that farmer training funds are being misused year on year, they will not let go of this source of income. DAMC was once put out of existence, for reasons only inner circle in MoAF know. A relook and possible overhauling of this department is urgently needed. People who are actually involved in agri-entrepreneurship will be especially desirable in such an exercise.

Human touch and embracing indigenous knowledge in agricultural development

It is time we realised the past mistakes and embrace a new way of doing agriculture. And the new way is to get closer to the farmers and learn from them and provide skilled mentorship and resource support. The gap between what agriculture sector promotes and what farmers grow has been huge, especially in cash crop production and marketing. One case example is Ground Apple. It is an important cash crop for farmers. But who actually introduced it to Bhutan? Its introduction in the country remains a mystery. It is believed that a ‘farmer brought it illegally from Nepal and planted it in his kitchen garden. It was sold at Nu 500 per kg. The seedlings for the crop were sold at Nu 1,000 per kg. It spread like wildfire and everyone started growing this crop and customers munched on the tubers for the alleged anti-diabetic benefits. Now every farmer grows it and there is excess production. The price per kilo has now plummeted to just Nu 20.

Farmers are pleading with agriculture officers to do something about it like adding some value to the crop syrup and exporting to international markets. What has DAMC, guardians of exploring market opportunities, done for this? Nothing so far. It took more than a year for the RNR-RC just to legalise this crop in our country. Two lessons can be derived from this Ground Apple case:

Firstly, in this age of mass information and entrepreneurial pursuits, you can be caught off-guard. The champions of agricultural knowledge who have travelled hundreds of times to Nepal to learn about crops and cultivation have not found Ground Apple, but a small-time farmer brought this seedling on his maiden visit to this distant land. The quarantine and all crop phytosanitary aspects went out of the window, but the result was a small miracle. We can expect similar crops to come in future as well, unless our RNR-RC and DAMC remain proactive.

Secondly, when farmers take initiative and ownership, it invariably results in success. MoAF should ride on such new entrepreneurial spirit, and provide technical and resource support. Sometimes, our experts should eat humble pie and just follow the native wit of ours.

Contributed by Sangay Thinley, 

Sr. Economic Development Officer, Chhukha Dzongkhag

(Disclaimer: The views presented in this article are that of the Author and not that of Chhukha Dzongkhag)

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