Ap Wangchuk is not aware of the agri-food, trade and investment forum being held in the capital. There are several issues being discussed that could help him. Yesterday evening, walking from office to office in Thimphu trying to sell the zaw (roasted rice) that his sister in Lobesa prepared, he is complaining of the hardship in his village.

It is not the drudgery, but the lack of hands to till the land. A proud owner of more than three acres of fertile paddy land in Lobesa, irrigated with the Toebi Rongchhu (stream originating above Toebisa village), there is the potential to become a rich farmer – earning more than his civil servant relatives. Ironically, Wangchuk is mulling to stop cultivation.

Cultivating paddy, the staple diet and the pride of the family is dependent on many factors that are out of their hands. There are no hands to till land in the village. Everybody is working for the government or left for Australia to seek better opportunities. His sister is too old to tend to the fields and hiring workers is expensive, costlier than growing the favourite Tan Tsheri rice variety.

Mechanisation could be the solution. If the process of growing paddy – from ploughing to transplanting, weeding, harvesting and threshing could be mechanized and at subsidized rates, agriculture, as we know today could thrive. Left to the farmers, we can be rest assured that the acreage of fallowing fertile agriculture land could double in the next few years.

There is hope, however. At the forum in the capital city, policy and decision makers are talking about leveraging technology for a complete agricultural overhaul. If taken seriously, this could be the decision of the century, a change from the lip service or rhetoric for decades, even after recognising that agriculture is important and will remain Bhutan’s potential.

Even as agriculture caught the attention of politicians and decision makers, the size of fallow land increased. Officially it is 65,000 acres – too much for Bhutan where topography limits opportunities. If our aim is to increase the agriculture sector’s contribution to GDP from USD 365 million in 2022 to USD 625 million by 2029, we have to change the way we farm our lands.

Mechanisation or modern farming methods could not only provide solutions to the shortage of labour or reduce farm drudgery, but improve production, self-sufficiency and contribute to the GDP. To begin with, we need not think of AI in agriculture. Catering to basics like land tillers, irrigation facility, transplanters, weeders could encourage farmers to return back to the land.

Agriculture today is associated with drudgery and therefore, not many are interested in the field. If the sector can be a big source of foreign exchange, creator of jobs or substitute cheap imports, many would be interested in agriculture.

There is a hype created by the ongoing forum in the capital city. If we can transform even a portion of what is discussed and debated into policy decisions, we would see changes happening on the ground. Afterall, agriculture is important for agrarian Bhutan.