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A farmer harvests spinach from his poly-house

A quiet revolution with big results

From an unknown village not too long ago, Barshong gewog in Tsirang is one of the biggest producers of organic vegetables in the country today

At this time of the year, Barshong gewog in Tsirang is a very hot place. The steep foothills of the five chiwogs end at the banks of the swollen Sunkosh River. The intermittent monsoon showers in the recent weeks have come as a big relief for busy farmers.

These are exciting times for farmers in Barshong. There are numerous farming experiments going on in all the chiwogs. A pilot project, funded by the European Union and managed by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture, has introduced new farming technologies and energised the farmers.

Tandin Dorji is perhaps the youngest progressive farmer in Barshong. A Class-12 graduate from the Dzongkha Development Training Institute, the 21-year-old took up farming in 2015 when he didn’t qualify for higher studies. Today, he is looked upon as a role model in the locality.

Similarly, the elderly man Rabilal Mishra is another hardworking farmer who has taken advantage of the new farming technologies. Perhaps it is farmers like Tandin Dorji and Rabilal Mishra who are quietly contributing to the government’s aspiration of going 100 percent organic in the near future.

These trailblazing farmers say vegetable production has picked up in Barshong with many farmers producing both seasonal and off-season vegetables. And their farms stand a solid testimony to Barshong’s growing contribution to Brand Tsirang, a brand now known nationwide for organic vegetables.

Farmers, including those with limited cultivable land because of sloppy mountain terrain, grow numerous varieties of crops. Apart from the four major vegetables (cabbage, beans, ginger, and onion) promoted by the pilot, farmers also grow chili, potato, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, pumpkin, cucumber, radish, and tomato. They grow fruits like banana, orange, mango, peach, guava, pear, plum, and passion fruit.

Farmers attribute the rise in vegetable production to the many simple but proven technologies introduced through the pilot. These include poly-houses, improved hybrid seeds, water conservation ponds, and the use of organic manure. For example, as of March 2017, the pilot had established 18 improved water-harvesting ponds, 45 walk-in poly-houses, and 14 bio-digesters.

“We haven’t seen chemical fertilizers for a long time now,” says Krishna Tamang, 31, of Chunikhang chiwog. “People have realised why using organic manure not only produces more succulent vegetables but is also important for long-term safety of our own health.”

The Programme Director of Agriculture Research and Development Centre in Bajo, Pema Chofil, who coordinated the pilot activities for three years as the chief district agriculture officer of Tsirang, says much of the success in vegetable production is attributed to the creation of the enabling environment for farming communities in Barshong.

What the pilot interventions did was introduce improved technologies for soil management, crop mix and rotation, soil fertility management and irrigation technologies through a community-based approach to sustain and promote hill agriculture.

“We’ve delivered the necessary hardware like poly-houses, bio-digesters, improved goat variety, etc. and now we are prepared to give priority to other aspects of the value chain like market linkages,” says Pema Chofil.

Quality seeds and seedlings were provided to the farmers. For example, in 2016, about 1,500 sachets of onion seeds (Nasik Red), 2,500 packets of bean seeds (Borlotto), 1,000 sachets of cabbage seeds (Golden Acre), and another 1000 sachets of chili seeds (Sha Ema) were provided to the farmers. Further, farmers were trained to use poly-houses to produce quality seedlings, particularly during off-season, to grow offseason vegetables. In 2017, another 78 improved water harvesting ponds, 76 poly-houses, 33 bio-digesters, and 20 improved goat huts will be established.

A major offshoot of the rise in vegetable production has been new village-based vendors and entrepreneurs. There are five active vendors in Barshong of which four are women. One such up-and-coming vendor is a 26-year-old woman known for her energy and enterprise. Neten Zangmo, a Class-12 graduate of Damphu Higher Secondary School, has become a household name for linking the gewog to Thimphu’s Centenary Farmer’s Market.

Neten Zangmo is an unassuming woman. She is soft-spoken and almost shy. But she is an empowered entrepreneur. She drives to Thimphu every Thursday in a Bolero pick-up full of seasonal vegetables and fruits. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, she goes from house to house collecting vegetables, fruits, and cereals, and on Thursdays comes to Thimphu. Every week she sells produce worth about Nu 15,000.

“The major challenge is the short shelf span. We must sell everything as soon as possible,” she says. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it.”

This rise in production has created a unique organic brand that is much sought after by consumers. With a high demand for locally produced organic agricultural products within the country, dzongkhags like Tsirang have been identified as priority areas for vegetable production.

The buzz in Barshong is clear. There is a lot of optimism as more and more farmers take up vegetable production on scale.

“The future is promising,” says Tandin Dorji. “It’s a new turf for young farmers like me, but there is no looking back.”

Contributed by Gopilal Acharya

Gopilal Acharya is an independent consultant and a freelance journalist. He can be contacted at gopibhutanese@gmail.com or  at 17666222.

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