Cardamom growers shift to commercial vegetable cultivation

They are disappointed with the price the crop fetches including FCB offers

Farmers across the country are disappointed with the prices offered by the government in the cardamom buyback scheme.

The government had directed the Food Corporation Limited (FCBL) to buy cardamom from the farmers because farmers had not been able to sell the produce due to several factors. The government had approved Nu 50mn to FCBL to facilitate this scheme.

Cardamom is the one of the main cash crops in southern Bhutan. Over 20% of farmers in Mendralgang gewog in Tsirang have taken up commercial cardamom farming. Besides mandarin, cardamom is one of the main cash crops for farmers of the gewog.

Sitting on a bamboo chair at his corridor, Jai Bahadur Gurung, 74 years old from Reseboo village under Mendralgang gewog, points to his cardamom field. He has uprooted 25 acres of cardamom from his lot. Now he cultivates only around three acres of cardamom. Earlier he used to be one of the highest producers of the crop in the village.

In 2016, he earned more than Nu 200,000 from the sale of cardamom.

“I paid income tax of around Nu 8,000 to the government from the income I made from the cash crop,” said JB Gurung.

Those days, a kilogram of cardamom used to fetch Nu 700.

Gradually the prices and production of cardamom decreased. Jai Bahadur attributes the trend to less demand and more supply.

Last year, he produced around 280kg of cardamom but he could manage to sell it at only Nu 500 per kilogram to local venders. This year he produced 120kg of cardamom.

“I did not auction in the FCBL. The prices that they offer were very low,” said Jai Bahadur, adding that he wants to sell next time if the price is good.

He is uprooting the crop because it is drying up and every year, the price for cardamom is decreasing.

“Now I want to grow vegetables on large scale,” said Jai Bahadur.

Similarly, Bharat Gurung, a 31-year-old from the same village, has already started growing vegetables on the land where he used to cultivate cardamom.

He has also uprooted the cardamom since the past five months and has started selling vegetables to the local vendors.

“Growing vegetables is more profitable than cardamom. In a year we can sell vegetables three times,” said Bharat Gurung.

This year he produced around 80kg of cardamom but had to sell it to FCBL at low rates, he added. Initially, he sold cardamom at Nu 1,800/kg, but these days prices have plummeted.

Many people in other villages too are shifting to commercial vegetable cultivation in place of cardamom.

Gup Yeshi of Mendral gewogsaid the poor prices have discouraged farmers who are seeking alternatives. “Farmers are not willing to sell to FCB at low price.”

The Dzongkhag Agriculture Officer of Tsirang Dzongkhag, Dorji Gyeltshen said it is always wise to have resilient and smart ways of farming.  “Shifting crops has advantages-it helps the soil to regain fertility and cope up with nutrient mining by sole cropping.”

He advises farmers to grow cardamom in the right place with good management practices and monitor for pests and diseases for early detection so that the produce is good.

Roughly, Tsirang produces 70MT of cardamom annually.

“We need to have a systematic marketing system to encourage our farmers,” said Dorji Gyeltshen.

FCBL purchased 49.77MT of cardamom worth Nu 20.63mn from the farmers as of April 25.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of FCBL, Naiten Wangchuk said they have deputed four teams to purchase cardamom from nine Dzongkhags.

So far FCBL has purchased cardamom from eight Dzongkhags namely Chhukha, Samtse, Sarpang, Samdrup Jongkhar, Trongsa, Zhemgang, Tsirang and Dagana. The team will be travelling to Haa Dzongkhag in the following days.

FCBL purchased the highest amount from Dagana (20.77MT).

The CEO said FCBL has categorized the cardamom into five grades and fixed rates accordingly as per the market demand. It was observed that the farmers were not aware of the grade categorization and was expecting at least Nu 390-470 regardless of the quality and grade of the cardamom.

“The main issue faced by our team in the field was to meet the expectation of growers. Some of the farmers were expecting higher rates than the offered price,” he explained, “Some expect to sell at Nu 470 which is the export rate for their product, but the quality needs to be taken into account.”

According to the CEO, some of the growers expected FCB to buy their crop despite being infested (fungus) and wet.  “In this regard, FCBL in collaboration with MoAF should create awareness on the quality and grade of the cardamom in the coming years.”

FCBL have been exploring markets in India, Sir Lanka, the Middle East, Norway and the USA.

“We will export as soon as we get reliable market and the rate will be negotiated between the buyer and FCBL,” said the CEO.

Director General of the Department of Agriculture and Marketing Cooperative, Ugyen Penjore said the buy-back scheme was introduced by the government not to create an alternative market but only as a last-ditch market, if other market fails; so that farmers do not suffer huge losses and go into debt and also to keep farmers interested in farming. The buy-back price is revised annually and is kept as close to the actual cost of production; and at any given time, it is expected to be always lower than the open market prices. Unless the market price falls substantially, farmers will continue to prefer selling in the other markets.

He said the purpose of buy-back is only to help farmers in times of distress and support the agriculture industry. Nonetheless, the produces that are procured from the farmers through the buy-back scheme are either exported or sold locally to recoup the costs incurred.

However, India remains the main market for Bhutanese cardamom. With the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax in India from July 2017, cardamom exports to India were disrupted.

“This issue has since been resolved fully and cardamom exports to India have begun in earnest,” said the DG.

In Bhutan, there are only two varieties of large cardamom which are officially released: Barlangay and Golsey. The major cardamom growing Dzongkhags as per the Agriculture Statistical data are Samtse, Chukha, Dagana, Tsirang and Sarpang.

As per the Agriculture Statistics 2017, Samtse Dzongkhag produced the highest amount with 1,008 MT followed by Dagana (235 MT), Chukha (205 MT), Sarpang (130 MT) and Tsirang (70 MT)

In 2015 it was reported in the value chain analysis of large cardamom that the cultivation started in the 1970s by the farmers of Samtse with seedlings brought from nearby and bordering villages of Sikkim, India. In the 1990s large cardamom in Bhutan suffered devastation and was almost on the verge of being wiped off due to cardamom blight aggravated by other fungal disease and viral diseases like Chirkey and Furkey.

This story was funded by JAB rural reporting grant

Dechen Dolkar from Thimphu