Chhimi Dema

Under the urban agriculture initiative, the Department of Agriculture plans to hand over underutilised land to new beneficiaries.

In May 2020, the Department of Agriculture identified 13.54 acres of private fallow land in Begana, Changtagang, and Kabesa in Thimphu, and involved 139 laid-off workers, especially from the tourism sector, for the urban agriculture initiative.

Today, 32 acres of land have 77 beneficiaries.

The initiative, funded by the Food and Agriculture Organisation as a part of Covid-19 contingency plan, is aimed at addressing current unemployment challenges and to achieve food security goals.

At Bebena, most of the land is underutilised. Undergrowth has taken over in the Changtagang urban agriculture garden.

The overall group leader, Tashi Chedup, said that many potential participants were not interested because they were not engaged in farming before and faced difficulties adjusting to the work. “The government has shown support to us in these times, but there is a lack of interest in the work.”

Dorji Gyem, 34, a former tour operator, said that many people dropped out because of high transportation costs.

“I continue to work because it keeps me engaged,” she said.

Lack of a market, Dorji Gyem said, was a challenge. This year, she harvested 400kg of pumpkins but there was no market. She sold them to the wholesalers at Nu 10 per kg.

The coordinator of the urban agriculture initiative from the Department of Agriculture, BB Rai, said that the beneficiaries were asked to return land that was not used.

He said that during the coordination meeting, which is due in November, they will look into how to hand the underutilised land over to other groups.

He said that about 20 percent of the beneficiaries think that agriculture is a lot of work. “Some of the members got jobs or went to their villages, so the areas allotted are not fully utilised.”

At the Thimphu urban agriculture places, 33 metric tonnes (MT) of vegetables were produced this year. Potatoes constituted 60 percent of the production.

In total, 95.8MT of vegetables were produced from urban agriculture farms in Thimphu, Bumthang, Punakha, and Sarpang.

This year, before the start of the cultivating season, the department consulted the beneficiaries and decided to grow crops that do not require frequent care, considering the absence of care during lockdowns.

Some vegetables require frequent care and watering. “We suggested they grow about 30 to 50 percent potatoes,” BB Rai said.

A new variety of potato, Yusi Marp, which has dense nutrients, has been grown along with chilies, tomatoes, and onions.

Those who have stayed with the initiative were able to meet the vegetable demands for their households.

“Since April, I have not bought vegetables from the market. My household’s demands are being met by the garden,” said Sangay Dendup, a beneficiary.

Jinpa Phuntsho, another beneficiary, said that some people withdrew from the project because it was not profitable.

“They expected to earn more and the work is challenging for some,” he said.

He said that the production decreased by about 90 percent this year. “I want to continue working there even if tourism resumes, because it helps to meet the food demands of the household.”

Last year, each of his team members earned Nu 90,000 from selling chilies.