Thinking that they would be able to contribute towards vegetable self sufficiency and reduce the import of chilies, people in Gelephu ventured towards commercial growth of the spice, which is akin to a vegetable in Bhutan. Few years down the lane and the farmers have given up growing chilies, with many saying that there is no market as they cannot compete with chilies that are imported.
People like Sonam Jamtsho, Bhimraj Thapa and Singay Tshering from Chuzagang were well aware of the difficulties and challenges that they would confront. However, they thought that the government would intervene and create favourable conditions for their products to be marketed. Nothing of the kind happened and today, all are reeling under stress, caused by their need to pay off loans that they had taken to start their ventures.
The owner of Tobkey Farm, Sonam Jamtsho invested about Nu 5 million to cultivate chilly and other vegetables commercially by procuring loan from the National CSI Development Bank Ltd.
He ventured into the business to cater to the needs of the country aiming to reduce import and supply organic vegetables. During the peak of the Covid 19 pandemic, as grocery store shelves became empty and the supply chain distorted, Sonam saw his prized vegetables rot in the gardens. “It was a situation that left farms struggling to stay afloat,” Sonam Jamtsho said.
He said that the farmers were ready to take farming but “the development of unfavorable circumstances discouraged them.”
He added that the large-scale vegetable growers had expected for some sort of government support, especially to market their products. “Instead the government lifted the ban on import of chilies and Bhutanese chilies couldn’t compete with imported chilly.” Sonam Jamtsho also underlined that the Bhutanese vegetables growers could not either keep their prices at par with Indian chilies or little lower as the production cost incurred in the country is high.
He further mentioned that the labour charges and expenses incurred for machineries are high in Bhutan.
Currently, Sonam is worried as he needs to repay the loan. He is also contemplating to switch over to paddy cultivation. Otherwise, he said, “there are no other options than to avail additional loans or go to Australia,” something that the owner of Tara Farm in Chuzagang gewog, Sarpang, Singye Tshering has done.
Singye began to grow chilies in a 30 acre plantation. The yield was good but he also could not find a market. “I was dedicated to achieve our goal of food sustainability in the country. But, I couldn’t do well at all,” Singye said, also adding that he could not compete with Indian prices “and the government’s measures to control the price.” Singay Tshering washed off his hands from agriculture and went to Australia to earn and pay his loan.
“To build a vibrant rural community and supply vegetables”, Dilip Pulan in Sarpang also began chilly plantation in a five acre of land, together with other vegetables. He procured about Nu 1 million loan.
However, he said that farms are gradually turning into “ghost land as products are corroded in farms failing to compete in marketing.”
The manager of Druk Integrated Farm, Chuzagang, Bhimraj Thapa also stopped chilly plantation last year. He has also availed Nu 5.7 million from CSI Bank and is today worried about repaying the loan.
Like others, Bhimraj said that with an uncertain market for Bhutaense chilies, the farmers of Chuzagang incurred huge losses. He reduced chilly plantation and stopped tomato plantation. “I could not sell tomatoes even at Nu 50 per kg. We thought the government will intervene to stop the black market and encourage local chilli. Instead, the ban was lifted,” Bhimraj Thapa said.
He shared that the import of chilly and other vegetables has destroyed their business.
The agriculture extension officer of Chuzergang gewog, Tashi Dawa said that farmers were discouraged with production and the associated pros and cons. He also said that chilly cannot be grown in the same field continuously. “The cultivation area should be changed and it would require new investment,” he added.
Sangay Rabten from Thimphu