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There is something rotting in the citrus mandarin (orange) orchards. As farmers prepare to reap the harvest of a year-round hard work, the season is about disappointment and heartache.

From Pangbang to Nganglam to Tsirang, the story is the same. Trees are dying or fruits are falling off when they are about to harvest. Although there is no study to provide evidence, farmers claim that this year is the worst and fear that they will not earn the money they took in advance to mend their orchards.

Gewog officials have another worry, although not so important as that of the farmers. They have agreed to meet a target with the dzongkhag who had in turn agreed with the government to enhance production. What has been done to enhance production is not as clear as the dropping yield every year.

Citrus is the main export crop of Bhutan. It has changed the lives of farmers, contractors and exporters. It is also a source of hard currency as it is exported beyond India. What started initially as backyard fruit trees, growing oranges is a booming farm business. It has become the number one export food commodity.

It is therefore sad that farmers, who sit on the top of the chain, are left wondering why their trees are dying or fruits falling. They may not be scientists or experts, but they are quick to point out climate change and citrus greening, a disease that is killing trees in many orange producing dzongkhags, as the reasons.

Drop in yield has not been sudden. It has been the trend for the last many years. Some have abandoned it and moved to vegetable production as their livelihood is threatened. Now every new season is becoming the new worst year indicating that the situation is getting out of hand.

What have we done?

Research has been carried out, papers and manuals published on citrus mandarin. In fact, it is one crop, perhaps because of its importance that received good attention. But not much has translated to the orchards going by the concerns from the farmers. The problems have long been recognized. We know trees are dying because of poor orchard management or widespread diseases like citrus greening. We have technical guides and manuals, a citrus repository established, but that has not helped solve the problem.

Perhaps they are too much for an ordinary farmer to understand, but given the importance of the cash crop, it is time the government with their expertise, intervene. There are other benefits of citrus other than being a cash cow or a hard currency earner. It employs hundreds of students, if it is even for a few months. It is keeping farmers in the villages and has the potential to attract young people to the farms. It will also help fulfil the annual performance agreement.

As the economy becomes more export oriented, it is unfortunate that few goods that have a comparative advantage cannot be explored and taken advantage of. We are still gripped with the basic problem – keeping our trees alive.

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