Empowering farmers against adversity: the struggle for sustainable paddy cultivation in Bumthang

Empowering farmers against adversity: the struggle for sustainable paddy cultivation in Bumthang

In the serene valleys of Bumthang, Aum Chimi, a 46-year-old from Chumey, embodies the resilience and determination of a true farmer. Despite facing a plethora of challenges, she fought on with unwavering determination.

Aum Chimi shared that it has been almost two years since her paddy has been attacked by pests, which wreak havoc on her paddy plants. Despite the challenges, Aum Chimi remains unwavering in her commitment to paddy cultivation. She and her husband continue to toil in the fields, determined to provide for their family and contribute to the agricultural industry in Bumthang.

Another farmer, Dendup Tshering, 42, from Chamkhar expressed his concerns about the challenges faced in the paddy cultivation.  He said once the paddy plant is attacked by disease, it affects the rice plants during grain formations. “As a ripple effect of pests, most of the grain formations are affected, and we could get only empty husks.”

Similarly, most of the rice growers from Dzongkhag claimed that the rising temperature with the warmer weather is attributed to the new disease’s ability to survive in the highland paddy. A similar case of rice blast was recorded in other parts of the Bumthang, but its occurrence was sporadic and the incidence was low.

Dendup Tshering said that while multiple factors are causing the declining yield, one specific reason was the whitehead infestation, which was seen in the rice fields in recent years. “Whitehead affects the grain formation, leading to empty husks,” he said.

Meanwhile, to combat the declining yields and pest attacks, the then-Renewable Resources and Development Center (RRDC) in Bumthang issued JRN white following reports of a decline in the yield from the only variety grown, Jakar Ray Naap, 2015. Later in 2016, six rice varieties, such as JRN White, Chandanath I, Chandanath III, JRN Awn, and Khangma Maap were grown in paddy cultivation.

JRN White is considered climate resistant because of its resistance to climate change-induced pests, diseases, and changing weather conditions. However, the JRN is still the preferred variety among many farmers in Tang and Choekhor. Later, Dzongkhag agriculture also introduced JRN in Chamkhar, and this year farmers are cultivating the rice variety.

Various farmers have adopted the JRN White variety to combat pest attacks and diseases in their fields. Tashi Dema, 36, from Chamkhar, said that this year she has changed the varieties to JRN after old varieties attacked with pests and disease.

Dr Michael A. Marletta, a Professor of the Departments of Chemistry and Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, highlighted the impact of climate change on food security and crop diseases. “The pathogen will move to new growth areas and, with that, new hosts and climate change will have a significant impact on food crops and, thus, food security.” He emphasized the need for implementing sustainable agricultural practices to mitigate the effects of changing climate on food production.

The National Plant Protection Centre (NPPC) has provided valuable information on how to combat the rice blast disease, highlighting the importance of proper irrigation and water source management.

The Dzongkhag Agriculture is working closely with farmers to implement strategies to combat pest attacks and diseases, including promoting climate-resilient irrigation systems and providing guidance on disease management. The 13th five-year plan prioritizes paddy cultivation and encourages farmers to adopt new technologies and varieties to enhance their yields.

The Bumthang Dzongkhag Agriculture officer (DAO), Jambay Ugyen said that in the 13th five-year plan, one of the major priorities in cereals is paddy, and expanding paddy cultivation areas and promoting mechanization to improve agricultural processes.

DAO said that to combat the pests and diseases, there are plenty of water sources in Bumthang, but there is a lack of infrastructure. “We are also working on building a proper irrigation channel and planning to maintain the damaged irrigation channel.”

The buildings of climate-resilience irrigation system and water source management are also in the pipeline to be promoted in the 13th Five Year Plan.

The DAO said that as of now, no major issues have been reported from the farmers, but with the increased area of cultivation, most farmers have opted for farm mechanization in agricultural processes, but “we usually do not encourage farmers about shifting to farm mechanization.”

The Dzongkhag agriculture officer has advised locating nurseries where blasts are less likely to occur, i.e., in open, well-aerated areas away from streams. The dzongkhag also includes proper disposal of rice straw and the stubble and training of extension agents and farmers in the identification of blast symptoms.

Similarly, the department of agriculture is also on efforts to help and develop agriculture sector in country by exploring alternate solution. The chief agriculture officer, Rinzin Wangchuk said that numerous plans and strategies to boost agriculture are in pipeline. “Development of agro-met alerts to warn farmers about potential risks of pests and diseases and the implementation of crop insurance and the introduction of resistant crop varieties are being considered to protect farmers from losses due to disasters are in line.”

The Chief Agriculture Officer said, “The rice blast is regular; it is expected as and when the climate becomes suitable, but it is not like it will come every time. Even climate change will not remain same; pests and diseases come up as and when external environments are suitable for them to grow or spread.”

The chief agriculture officer, Rinzin Wangchuk, from the Department of Agriculture, said that the imposition of pests and diseases may or may not be an effect of climate change, but “we need concrete data to claim.”

Despite the challenges posed by diseases like rice blast, Bumthang Dzongkhag Agriculture is expanding paddy cultivation areas and promoting mechanization to improve agricultural processes. Changing rice management practices and early detection of diseases are crucial in controlling pests and ensuring successful harvests.

With Bhutan facing an annual rice import of 70,000 to 80,000 metric tons and a domestic production of 27,000 to 30,000 metric tons, there is a need to enhance local production to meet the country’s rice consumption needs. The country’s paddy cultivation area, as reported by the National Statistics Bureau, has shown a slight decrease in recent years, highlighting the importance of addressing challenges faced by farmers to sustain rice production.

Overall, the collaborative efforts of farmers, agricultural officers, and policymakers are crucial in overcoming challenges in paddy cultivation and ensuring food security in Bhutan. By adopting sustainable practices, introducing disease-resistant varieties, and enhancing irrigation systems, the agricultural sector can thrive and contribute to the country’s self-sufficiency in rice production in the face of climate change and pest pressures.

By Nidup Lhamo, Bumthang