A journey of joy: warm temperatures enable maize cultivation at higher altitudes

A journey of joy: warm temperatures enable maize cultivation at higher altitudes

Amidst the ever-changing tapestry of climate change, a heartwarming tale of resilience and delight has been unfolding in the higher altitude regions. Against the backdrop of shifting weather patterns and uncertain agricultural futures, a group of dedicated farmers has discovered a secret to both adapting to changing climate and finding pure joy: cultivating maize at higher altitudes. With every sun-kissed field and every radiant smile, they have transformed the challenges of climate change into flourishing opportunities, fostering a remarkable journey of passion and abundance.

It has been more than six years since the people of Toktogom began reaping corn harvest. Customarily, Toktogom was a summer residence, and Toktowom was a winter residence of this present community. Toktogom is a small village under Bongo Gewog, Chukha located about 2,700 meters above sea level. They dwelled permanently at Toktogom, a few years back abandoning the winter-summer migratory practice.  

In the small village nestled in the embrace of towering peaks, a community of sixteen households once believed maize cultivation to be an elusive dream. Only wheat was cultivated in their summer residence.

However, since 2011, a group of visionary farmers, led by the indomitable Ap Changchala, 65, dared to sow the seeds of maize as a trial. Their pioneering efforts bore fruit, as the maize crops thrived and ripened. “Encouraged by this success, the farmers expanded their cultivation to larger fields, paving the way for a maize revolution in the village,” 68-year-old Karma shared.

About two acres of land were used by the farmers of Togtogom for growing maize, along with other cash crops such as potatoes and peas. They mostly practice mixed cropping.

However, they can harvest corn only once a year. Karma said, “It is gratifying to see the production of maize increase year by year, and we are set to trial if we could grow it twice a year.” He added that they are willing to cultivate maize even twice a year.

The maize grown there is an indigenous variety. The seeds have been used for a long period of time. Tashi, 33, said, the hybrid seeds provided by the government are not adaptable to the higher altitude. Therefore, the farmers prefer to use their own ancient maize species.

The farmers usually sow maize in March and harvest it in October. Tashi said, “Though we can only grow it once a year, all the farmers genuinely take an interest in growing maize and most of the households cultivate maize along with other cash crops.”

According to the villagers, maize production in their village has been increasing every year. Today, the communities cultivate maize primarily for self-consumption, mainly as staples and snacks, and some of it is used as seed and fodder for livestock.

Tashi shared, “It was a blessing in disguise, as in the olden days, we had to go to other villages to collect maize grains, but now we can grow it ourselves, and it’s great for us.”

According to the annual statistical yearbook of Bhutan 2022, Bongo gewog produces 42,713 kilograms of maize.

Another young farmer, Sonam Dawa, a 25-year-old high school graduate, shared the joy of growing maize in his village. He said, “For generations, wheat had been the lifeline of the village, and most people would usually use this village as a summer residence. But after maize offered a promising alternative to their once wheat-dominated fields, many villagers showed interest, and now we are fully engaged in maize cultivation.”  

Moreover, the absence of pests and diseases in high-altitude regions provides a natural advantage to farmers. Sonam shared, “The maize we grow here is never infested by pests. Even if we keep it in open areas for two or three years, it hardly gets attacked by any pests.”

Phub Dem, a 32-year-old farmer, exudes excitement for maize cultivation. She says, “The annual growth of maize, a once-a-year event, brings me immense pleasure and fuels my dedication to work harder.”  She added that with improved transportation, they can also sell maize and reap profits, igniting the passion for agriculture.

The community of Toktokgom has claimed that they believe the establishment of the Chukha Hydropower project has led to a noticeable increase in temperature. However, they are not thankless; the people of Toktogom have electricity, new farm roads, and mobile network in their senile rural life otherwise.

Though no major climate change-related issues have arisen, Karma shared his observations. “Earlier, we used to receive rainfall lightly, but now it comes suddenly and intensely, sometimes even more heavily.” Furthermore, the villagers shared that they haven’t received a snowfall last year, marking a significant change in their weather patterns. 

However, the managing director (MD) of DGPC, Chewang Rinzin denied the claim and said it would be a result of global warming.

The Chief District Agriculture Officer (DAO), Dhodo said that a region like Toktogom is favorable for dryland farming. Their main crops are potato, wheat, barley, and buckwheat. Despite maize farming is not insisted on, the community cultivates maize too according to the Chief DAO.

This is very clear from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 6th assessment, and their studies too found that temperature is gradually rising in the Hindu- Kusk-Himalyan region. This rise in mountains is comparatively higher than in other regions. “We call it altitude-dependent temperature rise,” Dr Abid Hussain said.

“Due to this altitude-dependent rise, low-altitude crops are gradually moving up. And very high altitude pasture lands are getting favorable for some selected crops like potato, peas, buckwheat etc,” Dr Abid Hussain added.

Nonetheless, where dreams have taken root from the legacy of wheat to the golden maize fields, it paints a picture of climate change. Climate change necessarily may not bring negative impact. The people of Toktogom now bask in the beauty of their journey; their eyes alight with the promise of a future where hope and abundance flourish.

Production of maize in Togtogom village is not serendipitous. Though the people in this village may not understand much about global climate change, they are not so mundane to observe uncommon weather patterns of today. Drilling activities of Chukha hydropower had vibrated till Toktogom and the older people there say “The power plant is the factor of temperature rise.”

A journey of joy: warm temperatures enable maize cultivation at higher altitudes

Nidup Lhamo from Thimphu