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The country is well on track to meet its annual vegetable export target of 7500MT

Agriculture: Bhutan is halfway to meeting its annual vegetable export target of 7,500 metric tonnes (MT) by 2018.

Agriculture department records show, vegetable exports have almost doubled in the past three years from 2,088MT in 2012, to 3,710MT in 2014.

The earnings from vegetables exports, mainly to India, have more than doubled, from Nu 36M in 2012 to Nu 86.8M last year.  In 2011, Bhutan sold 973MT that fetched Nu 16M.

Chief horticulture officer, Kinlay Tshering, said the production trend, in the past three years, has been positive, and that the department is confident of meeting the target.

In the 11th Plan, the agriculture department requested the government for special intervention, and the ministry received about Nu 23M in the first financial year, in addition to its normal budget.

“Despite making this progress we still have to make bigger accomplishments,” she said. “We wanted to capitalise on summer production potential to enhance the exports of our vegetables.”

The production target is 65,200MT by the end of 2018.

She said that meeting these two targets of export and production would make the country self-reliant.

“While we’d have increased our winter productions, we’ll still be importing from India,” she said.

The strategy is to reduce imports in winter, while increasing exports in summer, and keep enough vegetables for domestic consumption.

“This means, we want to ensure each Bhutanese has access to 200g of vegetable a day,” she said.

The agriculture marketing and cooperatives department explores domestic and export markets for the produce, and has brought about improvements in the communication of prices to stakeholders during auctions.

“Without these market facilitations, the production wouldn’t have become successful,” she said.

Most of the vegetable production areas in the country are at high altitude with irrigation, which is why Bhutan can’t produce adequate vegetables during winter.

“We may be able to become self sufficient in vegetables by solving all the irrigation problems in the mid and low-lying areas,” she said, but that might take a decade. “We’ve lots of land to bring under vegetable cultivation.”

For the time being, the ministry will continue to improve production in areas with enough water, invest in irrigation and, at the same time, continue to import.

Of the 30 commercial vegetables in the country, the department is promoting 17, following the vegetable production and marketing plan.

Irrigation has remained an impediment in expanding vegetable cultivation, while labour shortage in the farms with feminisation, and human-wildlife conflict constrain the production.

The ministry is investing in efficient water use technologies and addressing human-wildlife conflicts with electric fencing.

“One important measure is farm mechanisation wherever possible,” she said.

Some critics including agriculture officials said that another measure to boost production would be subsidising agriculture, such as for growing vegetables.

“Only then the programme would be sustainable, because at present agriculture, including vegetable growing, thrives on the efforts of the farmers,” another official said.  If it’s subsidised, private sector would also be interested to participate, officials said.

Farmers have been complaining about the rising cost of production and poor prices of agriculture produce.

But officiating director general of agriculture department, Ganesh Chhetri, said vegetable production was among the ministry’s most successful programmes.

“At one time, farmers even fed their cattle with cabbage, because they’d grown too many, but it’s unlikely to recur as lots of work is ongoing to help them access markets both local and abroad,” he said.

In 2013, the country imported vegetables worth Nu 468M from India, according to trade statistics.

The National Vegetable Programme launched an aggressive promotion strategy to reduce the huge trade deficit gap in vegetables after the rupee shortage issue cropped up in mid-2012.

The horticulture department provided free seeds and seedlings to encourage large scale cultivation, free irrigation equipment, such as pipes, tanks, sprinklers, watering cans to improve water use efficiency and taking farmers on a study tour and trainings to enhance vegetable cultivation skills and knowledge.

More than 90 percent of the vegetables produced in the country are exported to India; a slight portion is also exported to Bangladesh.

Potatoes, cabbage, carrot, peas, beans, cauliflower and radish are the most common vegetables exported.

By Tshering Palden

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