Farmers in Haa venture into large-scale vegetable production

Attempts are on to revive an old initiative to reach fresh vegetable produce directly to the consumers

A community of marginal farmers in Sombaykha village, Haa Dzongkhag has ventured into commercial vegetable production to supplement their diet and earn extra income on the side.

Encouraged by a thriving vegetable market, farmers in the five gewogs of Haa – Bji, Uesu, Sombaykha, Samar and Gakiling have started growing cash crops including green vegetables. These gewogs are categorized as low-risk zone as they are located afar and have minimal contact with Haa town, which is considered as a high- risk zone.

In fact, an agriculture project has been initiated whereby lower Haa (Sombaykha Dungkhag) will cultivate and supply vegetables to upper Haa during winter. During the first lockdown, vegetables were supplied from upper Haa and earned the name -vegetable basket of Haa.

“By growing vegetables, the Sombaykha population is not only earning a handsome profit, lately they have also started regularly including the nutritious greens in their diet,” said a farmer, Tshomo, adding that growing vegetables have boosted the local economy.

Though there is the challenge of infrequent rainfall and prevailing agrarian crisis, most farmers have graduated to vegetable cultivation from subsistence farming as of now.

One farmer, Ap Lhapchu said his wife would not let him get a loan from the cottage and small industries bank initiated by the government for farmers. “We always had financial problems, though we had our own land,” says the 60-year-old marginal farmer from Sombaykha village.

However, over the years, Ap Lhapchu has realized the reason for his family’s sufferings. “Like other farmers in my village, I would grow potato, cabbage, chili and other vegetables mostly for our own consumption. I never realized I could do business out of growing vegetables.”

Recently, he has started growing vegetables on a commercial scale. Showing off a basketful of freshly plucked chilies from his farm and a bundle of notes, Ap Lhapchu says, “Now we are healthy and a bit wealthy.” This holds true for most families in Sombaykha village now.

Dismayed by erratic monsoon rain and uncertain returns from staple crops, marginal farmers across Haa have found salvation in vegetable farming. One of the most isolated and remote communities in the country, Haa is also dealing with lessons on food sufficiency culled from the lockdowns.

According to the Agriculture Extension Officer of Sombaykha, small and marginal farmers are increasingly using a major part of their land holdings for growing vegetables as the benefits are good. The cash return on vegetables is frequent, even more than on fruits, the other profitable crop.

He added that ecology and economics of vegetable cultivation support this transition. A farmer needs sufficient water to grow about 200-300 kg of vegetables. Small and marginal farmers can use their small land holdings to grow four to five crops of vegetables in winter.

Another farmer, Karma Wangmo said that unlike the price of cereal crops that is determined by market forces, they can put a price on the potatoes and tomatoes they grow. The farmers sell their vegetables in the local market every week.

According to Haa Dzongda Kinzang Dorji, Haa Dzongkhag is emphasizing on food self-sufficiency, and every household is encouraged to have a kitchen garden. Technical support and quality seeds are being provided to youth interested to take up farming. “There are plans to support the livestock sector as well through packaging, increasing shelf life of dairy products and production,” he said.

The Dzongda said farmers and Haa Throm consumers have a common concern amid the COVID-19 outbreak — food security. While farmers need money and resources to harvest their crops, consumers need to ensure the harvested crop reaches them for consumption.

“This is precisely what has brought about a partnership between farmers and consumers in Haa. The consumers support farmers to grow their produce; in return, farmers ensure consumers are able to access food in a hassle-free manner.”

The initiative kicked off in June, after the first lockdown in the country and has been endeavoring to bring farmers and consumers on a common platform for mutual benefit.

The initiative requires consumers to support farmers in the beginning of each farming season. Each consumer supports a group of farmers financially and with technical needs.

In return, at the time of harvest, consumers are given products according to the value they invested, leaving the middlemen out. They are provided with vegetables and other necessary items produced organically — either in bulk or on monthly basis.

For the farmers, it means that their produce does not gather mildew in warehouses. For the consumers, the initiative serves as an assurance for food security.

According to the Dzongda, the initiative could be implemented successfully with delivery by women farmers and young volunteers in HaaThrom.

Coordinators of the program said technology and cooperation of consumers helped facilitate easy transportation of food to consumers.

“Following lockdown imposition, suggestions to suspend the initiative temporarily started pouring in. However, it was eventually decided that the partnership held greater value in those difficult times; the team decided to move ahead despite supply chain issues,” said the Dzongda.

He added that farmers and consumers must come together to face such crises in the future as well.

“We are happy to know that our products reached people in Haa Throm during the lockdown. We will continue to support them in whatever way we can,” said a farmer in Sombaykha village.

Another farmer from Sombaykha said they do not face difficulties in dealing with their harvest. “We give to the local market whatever we cultivate while keeping some for our own consumption,” she said.

She added that sharing responsibilities has helped alleviate hunger and ensured that people’s nutritional needs are met. “The imposition of lockdowns in the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected the food security of many vulnerable Bhutanese,” she said, “But the people of Haa have overcome the challenge together.”

Additionally, farmers who are part of the initiative practice traditional ecological farming with an emphasis on bio-diverse cultivation. It facilitates dietary diversity in their food choices and control over their land and food production that are not dictated by the vagaries of the market.

The practice has also brought them closer to a group of consumers who are keen on trying an alternative route.

“When all of us are confined to our homes with restricted access to essentials, farmers offer solace. They ensure access to good food even during the crisis,” Ap Lhapchu said

Additionally, attempts are on to revive an old initiative to reach fresh vegetable produce directly to the consumers. The same is touted as a solution to overcome crowding of Haa while reducing consumers’ exposure to local markets during possible future lockdowns. The program attempts to encourage participation of farmers’ groups and farmer producer companies.

(The story is funded by the Department of Information and Media, MoIC).

Kinley Yonten from Thimphu