‘We have a long way to go’

Sangay Rinchen, who is commonly known as ‘Farmer ​S​angay’, talks to Business Bhutan’s  reporter Dechen Dolkar about his venture into commercial farming, the business from the farm and other future plans.  

Sangay Rinchen is today the Founder of Happy Hill Organic Farm. He worked in the agriculture and forests ministry for four years. He resigned and became an entrepreneur in 2011.

Q. What is your business all about?

A. My ongoing business enterprise is called the Happy Hill Organic Farm. It’s an attempt to set up as an emerging new generational Start Up farm that aspires to embody values of the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) through the art of farming and innovating alternative modern lifestyles in harmony with nature.  

Our farm setup is that of a typical smallholding family farm with 8+ acres land size which has many traditional practices in use. About 50% of our land is IMO-EU organic certified and it may take the next few years to fully convert into a dynamic self-sustaining organic farm. As of now most of our seasonal crops are grown for self-consumption and a portion of it is grown for cash income for family essentials. With the aspirations and need for a transformation, the farm had undergone many changes in the last decade. 

This initial phase of our project is reorganizing our self-sufficiency traditional family farm to a new generation smart family farm with modern means and methods of farming to attain a circular farming model. This includes components such as family food processing and Blair addition unit, high tech mushroom farm, the addition of high value low volume crops and agro-tourism components to the overall farm to diversify income generations and build economic resilience. 

Q. Why did you intend to start commercial farming?

A. I started hands-on farming in around 2011 after I resigned from my government job in 2010. I was a part of a group of highly motivated educated youths who wished to champion some social cause and make livelihood​​​ ​out of it. But my personal journey of farming begins much earlier in life. Having been born and brought up on a farm, as a child farming is my kind of TV or video game or means to explore and discover my life. I understand my world through farming and working with soil. So it was obvious that I​became a farmer. 

My first experience of commercial farming was growing potato​es. The choice of a commodity was based on our project prototype. However,​ it took us about four years to finally develop the potential product and test our thesis of value chain project for potato crop.

Q. Where are the places you have started commercial farming and in how many areas?

A. We grew potatoes on 21 acres of leased land in Patabari, Sarpang in the south as winter harvests and 12 acres in Paro for the main summer harvests. We have also worked with other farmers in sourcing potatoes from the ​​east and central region. As a part of rotation cropping we grew maize, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and beans on this land and exported them across the border.

We also worked with other communities in sourcing spices and herbs for seasoning of our snack product. One of the early communities that we worked in partnership with is my own village where I am now settled. 

The markets for about 80% of these crops are secure at our own value addition cent​er​ and rest are sold to hig​h​​-​end consumers and open fresh markets. This project took us until around 2017. 

Q. Where do you market your agriculture products?

A. Currently about 60% of our farm produce is marketed through a local collector who sells to the wholesalers or vendors in Thimphu. About 10% of the crops are grown on contract farming where entrepreneurs come to collect at the farm. The rest about 30% are sold at the Khuruthang weekend market. 

Q. What are the agriculture products that you grow in your commercial farm?

A. We produce organic rice, and varieties of vegetables and fruits.

Q. What are your future plans?

A. As a part of this important transitioning process, our upcoming plans are mostly organi​z​ed​​ farming system and to introduce more high​-​value low volume crops into the farming system. We have a long way to go and instituting an organic farming system is an entire game in itself. It requires external resources and expertise to gain ground research data for proper application, including setting up our own seed bank. The other important activities include developing infrastructure components to make farmers more live-able and foster economic self​-​sufficiency at the family level.  

Current trial farming projects include year​-​round high tech mushro​o​m farm (Ganodrema mushroom farm), strawberry trial, free range local poultry egg farm, local Food Processing unit and Agro-tourism products (farm camps & experiential learning journey).  

Far future projects are Farmers School (a cent​er​ for farmers’ learning and capacity building) and Throm-Bhutan (digital marketplace for farmers).

Q. What are the challenges in commercial farming?

A. Considering our situation of rural setup, there are a series of challenges we face on the farm. They include lack of innovative investment for​ a​ pilot project, lack of good source of quality organic seeds and organic crop protection products, blanket policy restrictions / narrow land use policy bottlenecks for out of box ideas and innovative projects for rural areas, lack of innovative crop insurance, wild-life predation and wild pests crop damage, and slow or non-responsive service provider systems at the rural level. 

Another important challenge is also the lack of innovative products and services options to help improve the quality of existing harsh rural lifestyles such as field work / food culture / recreation and self-growth.  

Q. Approximately, how much revenue is earned from commercial farming in a year?  

A. I am still in the process of developing a proper inventory system and farm accounts in the current setting. But in our past experience about 60% of our family cash income needs come from farming works, while about 40% come from non-farming sources such as out of farm activities like contract works/day labor works.