Something rotten in the orange estate

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.

1 reply
  1. irfan
    irfan says:

    Even the news posts on the business section today are nothing worth brightening up the businessman minds. On top of that we are reading the news of poor farmers looking at drastically dropping yields at their orange orchards. We all are only partly producers and partly consumers; but that doesn’t necessarily help in maintaining the right balance between product driven and monetary or currency controlled inflation. The orange farmers now can only hope that prices will go up with drop in quantity and quality so that the taxable assets can be sustained. The difficult situation is that with changing climate even the land beneath is not springing up any new saplings for better fruits and yields.

    Considering the fact that the oranges, apart from local consumption, mainly gets exported to neighbouring markets of India and Bangladesh keeps the trade optimised for distance between production and consumption. A trade deficit or surplus with oranges alone will not even influence much the valuations involved on both sides in terms of invested currencies. But when our farmers are failing to meet the economies of scales, consumers always look for scopes. And when even production demands scopes to spread across markets, are we looking at a match or mismatch between scales and scopes?

    That’s a difficult question to answer even though it’s well understood by the farmers. Hope that they are not looking at the trees for oranges when the land is turning infertile for anything else. The business will still attract investments at different levels of ‘cost of capital’; but farmers may face difficult times with inflation extracting more juices out of the orchards. And then on the nearby paddy fields, another set of farmers are protecting their fields from animals they have never studied before, with or without any entrepreneurial expertise.

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