Bumthang’s Battle; A tale of resilience against rice blast

Bumthang’s Battle; A tale of resilience against rice blast

For over two decades now, Bumthang Deshi has been able to feed its people with rice that is exclusively grown locally. This dry winter climate zone has achieved a major miracle with a good yield of paddy since its introduction in 2004. Despite Bumthang’s success story, the region now is hanging by a thread as challenges loom.

Kuenga Wangmo, a 42-year-old seasoned paddy farmer from Chamkhar, sits underneath the protective canopy of her greenhouse, her weathered hands delicately cradling each seedling, her touch as gentle as the breeze that rustles through the fields. With meticulous care, she plucks weeds from her 1.5-acre paddy field.

As the sun climbs higher in the sky, casting its warm embrace upon the greenhouse, Kuenga, with her face grinning from ear to ear, says, “I am determined to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of our paddy cultivation,” her voice echoing with conviction.

In the last paddy season, farmers in the communities raised concern over the rice outbreak observed in several rice-growing regions of Bumthang. “Affected by plant disease, the rice yields were less,” Kuenga recalls her past bountiful harvest. “When the disease strikes the young plants, it decimates the entire field like a wildfire,” Kuenga said.

It has been almost four years since the rice blast, and I’m worried that if the disease persists, the yield of rice could go down the drain and dwindle, other farmers’ cries with a heavy heart as well.

Paddy cultivation, the lifeblood of communities, is now attacked with a rice blast in the two gewogs of Choekhor and Tang in Bumthang, with the majority in the former gewog and a minor impact in the Tang gewog.

Leki Yangden, a veteran paddy cultivator from Kuenzangdra village, Tang Gewog, has managed to keep the rice blast at bay in her fields for four years, blazing her own trail, although there is still a blast. “Paddy here has been relatively unaffected compared to other places; we have not felt the need to report the issue to agriculture authorities, given the minimal impact.”

However, Leki suspects that the plant disease could be due to water scarcity. Farmers have been discouraged from cultivating paddy. “Now with the new water resources, they are hoping for the best in the next paddy harvest.”

Choekhor Gewog Agriculture Extension Officer, Kencho Dem said that they had supplied fungicide spray to battle the plant blast. “The outbreak in rice is not major but only minor, and it mainly attacks local variety seedlings, especially the red rice variety locally known as ray naab.”

The extension officer said that the situation is not very serious as of now and advises preemptive fungicide spraying to contain plant disease. She warns, “Once a plant is infected, fungicide won’t help.” Urging swift action before it spreads, she reassures the public that early intervention is a key to combating the issue.

Rice cultivation in Bumthang has become a significant part of local agricultural practices. Farmers in two gewogs have shifted towards paddy cultivation, moving away from traditional cereal cultivation of wheat, barley, buckwheat, and millet.

The cultivation of rice in Bumthang has steadily grown since its inception. The increase in temperature and changing weather patterns due to climate change have been cited as contributing factors to the favorable growth of paddy in Bumthang’s highlands. However, these same conditions have also created a conducive environment for the spread of rice blast, posing a threat to the livelihoods of many farmers.

After nearly four years of tending to his paddy fields in Gaytsa, Tshewang Samdrup, a 42-year-old reflected on his journey with the Jakar Rey Nap rice variety, a leap of faith that has borne fruit. “It has been almost four years since cultivating paddy here in Gyatsa.”

Undeterred by challenges, he bravely doubled his cultivation, only to face the unexpected arrival of seed corn maggots in 2022. “With the positive outcome of the first harvest, I doubled the cultivation, but in 2022, I noticed some pests like seed corn maggots attacking some of the paddy plants.”

Fortunately, with the assistance of the Dzongkhag agriculture officer, we were able to quickly address the pest problem and protect the health of our remaining crops. “The changing weather patterns, characterized by mild winters and decreased snowfall, are clear indications of a shifting environment, potentially linked to climate change,” Tshewang emphasized.

The Gewog agriculture officers have been supporting the farmers with greenhouses to raise seedlings. The farmers in Bumthang mainly use greenhouses for raising paddy seedlings; they have been using the same old seed known as Jakar Rey Nap. The farmers of Bumthang mainly grow paddy for self-consumption, with only a few venturing into selling their produce.

A 41-year-old farmer from Chamkhar, Yeshey Wangmo, revealed that paddy cultivation is bread and butter for them. She proudly stated that paddy is not just a source of food but also brings in extra cash for income. “Since we started growing our own rice, we haven’t had to buy any from outside, and we have even earned a significant income from selling the surplus.”

However, Yeshey expressed concern about the ongoing rice blast disease that has been affecting their cereal for nearly four years, causing plant roots to rot and eventually killing them. Yeshey shared, “The reduced yield could directly impact our income and livelihoods as farmers who rely heavily on paddy cultivation.” In the past, they used to earn around Nu 50,000–60,000 from the rice business, raising concerns about the future of rice production in Bumthang.

Recognizing the possible risks of a rice blast in the country, the National Plant Protection Centre (NPPC) has alerted the farmers to an imminent rice blast due to weather conditions in August 2023. The notification states that rice blasts are a serious disease that results in substantial yield loss up to total destruction as well, especially when susceptible varieties are grown. “If susceptible varieties are grown, farmers are advised to shift to resistant varieties in the next season.”

The rice blast could occur if conditions are favorable, such as growing susceptible varieties, frequent and prolonged wet periods with cool temperatures, and high inputs of nitrogen fertilizer. The NPPC strongly advises that fungicide use is not recommended for the long term as the pathogen can develop resistance. “Fungicide use is only an interim measure.”

Moreover, the center has also discouraged the application of nitrogen fertilizer in splits, as nitrogen fertilizer promotes excessive vegetable growth, leading to high humidity that favors disease development.

The first major rice blast in the country was recorded in 1996; since then, farmers have begun to grow more resistant varieties and there have been no outbreaks.

The Dzongkhag Agriculture Officer of Bumthang, Jambay Ugyen, shared that the rice blast will persist as long as there is water scarcity and improper irrigation channels.

According to statistics from the Bumthang Dzongkhag Agriculture Officer, in 2023, Choekor Gewog cultivated 109.75 acres of paddy, resulting in a total production of 177.82 MT. Similarly, Tang Gewog used. Similarly, Tang Gewog used 149.83 acres for paddy cultivation and yielded 233.72 MT of rice this year.

By Nidup Lhamo, Bumthang