Hazelnut project yet to bear fruit?

Famers in many parts of hazelnut plantation areas have lost hope of reaping the benefits as hazelnut trees refuse to fruit even after a decade or so. However, Bhutan Mountain Hazelnut says farmers are impatient and hazelnuts have been harvested in older orchards

A decade back, farmers in the east especially in Mongar and Pemagatshel were captivated by the commercial prospects of hazelnut plantation. Today, little of that initial gusto, if any, remains. 

Assured of a buyer in Bhutan Mountain Hazelnut (BMH) – the first 100% Foreign Direct Investment Company in Bhutan – farmers took the plunge, planting hazelnut over large swathes of land.

Farmers were also told that they would reap the fruits of their labor after three years from the inception of the hazelnut project. Farmers now say the hazelnut trees are yet to bear fruits, even after more than ten years of waiting. Some farmers feel that they have been taken for a ride by the hazelnut project.

A farmer in Drametse in Mongar said he planted hazelnut trees with a hope to earn extra income for his family but even after more than five years of plantation, the trees have not started fruiting. “I feel like I have wasted my time in planting the wrong crop. I would have earned something had I invested in some other crops,” he added.

Many farmers, who are involved in the hazelnut plantation, share similar sentiments.

Norbu, a farmer and Tshogpa of Tokari Chiwog in Nanong Gewog, Pemagatshel, who planted hazelnut saplings over one acre of his land, said many years have passed and the plants have grown into trees but there are no fruits.

“A few trees though had fruits but the fruits contained no seeds. People are upset about the harvest and have given up planting hazelnut trees now,” he said.

He said that he had to pay labor charges to clear the land only to receive nothing in return. “To encourage people to grow hazelnuts, the hazelnut company bought and paid for the fruits containing no seeds,” Norbu said.

The Gup of Dungmin Gewog in Pemagatshel, Ugyen Tshering said people have now stopped planting hazelnut saplings and taking care of the hazelnut plants which they had planted earlier. “The issue on hazelnut was raised a few years back during the DzongkhagTshogdu and the case was investigated but still there is no sign of fruiting,” he added.

According to the Gup of Zobel Gewog in Pemagatshel, Pema Dorji, almost every household in the gewog had planted hazelnut trees. Initially when the hazelnut plants were distributed to the people, they were told that the plants would grow fruits after three years of plantation. However, there has been so sign of fruiting.

Out of 400 households in Zobel Gewog, 150 households had planted hazelnut plants. “They had taken care of the plants well but they are yet to reap the returns,” said the Gup.

Similarly, the Gup of Nanong Gewog, Sonam Jamtsho said, “There is no sign of fruiting from the hazelnuts plants even after almost seven years now.” 

Talking to Business Bhutan, the Managing Director of BMH, Dr. Sean Philip Watson, said the mountain hazelnut business is a long term partnership in which the foreign investor will receive no income for more than a decade despite having investing tens of millions of dollars.

“Likewise, the farmers invest their labor and inputs for a number of years prior to making a financial return. The waiting time is generally less than with apples and oranges. Also hazelnuts risk from uncertain market demand and plant health is minimal compared to other crops,” he said.

Dr. Watson also said that the company was not approved 10 years ago and the company did not distribute any hazelnut plants to orchards until 2012, which remained a small number for several years.

From the outset, according to him, the plan was to plant a total of 10mn hazelnut trees across Bhutan, starting in eastern and central part of the country, and then expand to appropriate planting areas elsewhere in the country. All the orchards are in degraded and fallow land between 1,800 and 3,000 meters above sea level.

“The majority of the trees is younger than three years and is not old enough to produce nuts. In many of the orchards, the pollenizer trees were planted a year or more later than the production varieties,” said Dr. Watson.

 Some patience and adjustments are always required as plants acclimatize but fundamentals are sound, he said. “High quality nuts have been harvested in older orchards where pollenizers are mature enough.”

When asked why the problem was allowed to fester for so long and took the project a decade to act on the non-pollination issue, Dr. Watson said while the MoU was signed nine and half years ago, the first years were focused on building nursery infrastructure, training staff, and planting a small number or demonstration orchards.

“Subsequently, plants were grown in the nurseries and larger scale distribution of hazelnut plants only began six years ago,” he added.

Besides, he also said that pollenizers were later in delivery and fewer in number due to production difficulties, which have now been solved.

“High quality nuts are coming where pollenizers are now mature enough. Grafting program underway is the fastest method to fill the gap in more mature orchards and 2021 will see a very large commercial harvest,” said Dr. Watson.

This pollination adjustment has been experienced in other new hazelnut plantings in Australia, Chile, and Georgia, he said. “They succeeded using similar methods.”

Talking on the drawbacks of growing hazelnut, Dr. Watson said it is a long term investment project and farmers are learning to manage the crops and climatic issue which comes with intervention.

“Another issue is human wildlife conflict. Farmers are new to the crop and they are impatient. They do not prioritize the nuts,” he said, adding that a hazelnut tree has a life span of 54 years and some more than 100 years.

“There seem to be misinformation among the farmers. Hazelnut trees do grow naturally but they need a bit of attention, however, after the fruiting not much of attention is needed,” he added. “More advocacies are needed for the farmers to understand on growing mountain hazelnuts.”

If successful, according to Dr. Watson, the project would not only generate a financial return for investors but also greatly increase the cash income of participating farmers.

He said already BMH has had a considerable positive social impact by directly employing more than 800 people, many of whom are rural women without formal education or employment, and more than 1,200 people derive their livelihoods by providing support goods and services to the mountain hazelnut.

“In eight months time, more than 4,000 farmers will be taken to visit the best practiced farming site of mountain hazelnut so that they can practice back in their farms. Last year 1,000 farmers were trained through such exchange programs,” Dr. Watson said.

Meanwhile, the floor price of mountain hazelnut is Nu 30-33 a kilo when sold to the company. The processing will be done in Bhutan and later exported to Europe and Asia. Last year 13 tons of mountain hazelnut were produced and they expect more harvest this year.

Chencho Dema from Thimphu