Growing Mandarin becoming trickier

Growing Mandarin becoming trickier

Agriculture minister says the government would consider developing mandarin specific policies if there was public demand for it

Sonam Penjor

Mandarin growers across the country have gradually seen their produce decrease over the years and the once reliable source of cash income has started to trouble farmers with many moving to grow other more reliable crops.

Records with the agriculture ministry show that mandarin production in 2004 was 31,915 metric tons (MT) and it increased to 48,367MT the subsequent year and saw almost an impressive growth to 60,990MT by 2011. But the graph took a downturn since and the production decreased to 42,003 by 2016 and further fell to 28,017MT in 2017 and decreased yet again to 27,529MT in 2019.

The aggregateannual mandarin production over the past 10 years has been 41,077 MT and as of 2017, the fruit was cultivated in a total area of 13,992 acres.

Mandarin is grown in 15 districts in Bhutan. As of 2016, five districts of Dagana, Pemagatshel, Samdrup Jongkhar, Sarpang, and Tsirang registered the highest production of more than 6,000MT. Punakha had the lowest production of 150MT followed by 177MT in Trashiyangtse and 189MT in Lhuentse.

The best yield is from Tsirang where one tree gives an average of 85 kilos followed by Samdrup Jongkhar with 62 kilos and Trashigang with 56 kilos. The worst yield was recorded in Punakha where one tree only gave an average of 20 kilos followed by Chukha with 26 kilos and Trongsa with 32 kilos.

Official records show that there are 1,665,797 trees in the country of which 882,807 trees bear fruits.

The decreasing production is attributed mainly to minimal management of orchards and low adoption of new technologies. It is compounded by orchards being abandoned and the lack of care also adds to citrus greening which has a direct negative impact on production.

The Minister for Agriculture and Forests, Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor, said, “as of now, we cannot confirm the citrus greening is because of climate change. We have not yet done any research on it because of lack of research capacity.”

However, Lyonpo added that the ministry is creating awareness to burn down all old trees before planting new trees. If old trees are not destroyed and burnt, it will impact the growth of the new trees.

The minister identified abandoned orchards to be a major concern. “Even if one orchard is well taken care of, it is not enough because if there is an abandoned orchard nearby, it will have the same negative impact.”

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF), an increase in temperature and irregular rainfall patterns has led to decreasing crop yield due to reduced agricultural water availability and crop loss to extreme events like flash floods, windstorms, pests and diseases outbreaks.

With the majority of the population relying on agriculture, the sector is highly vulnerable to climate change. Also, characterized by remoteness and inaccessibility, marketing and large-scale commercialization are significant challenges for the country.

The only two policy papers directly governing mandarin are an executive order issued by the agriculture minister in 2009 and ordinance from the ministry issued in 2004. The executive order and the ordinance on citrus program were issued to encourage farmers to practice citrus farming.

Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor said that the government cannot force farmers to take proactive measures in growing mandarin and added that the government’s hands are tied when it comes to encourage farmers not to abandon the orchards.

On the need to have proper legislation to regulate plants, the Principal Agriculture Officer of the ministry, Jigme Tenzin, said, “we have strong and robust plant regulatory and quarantine system which is regulated by the National Seed Center (NSC) and Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority (BAFRA).” He added, “we are ensuring that when plants are moved between different places, it is free of diseases, especially huanglongbing (HLB), which is a global concern.”

Section 7 of the Plant Quarantine Act of Bhutan 1993 states: “If the imported plants are found to be free of plant pests then they may be delivered to the importer, provided a quarantine Inspector is satisfied that there is no danger of introducing a plant pest.”

Jigme Tenzin said that the need to have strict quarantine system before plants are imported or moved between places is strictly implemented in citrus growing countries around the world. He said that Australia is a good example of not having any HLP cases till date and he attributed it to the fact that Australia does not even import plants fearing import of diseases and all planting materials including seedlings are grown and developed locally.

An important measure that could prove to be crucial to help mandarin growers in Bhutan would be to develop local planting materials, Jigme Tenzin said and added that it could only be done by building high-standard nursery with quarantine and regulatory facilities to avoid diseases.

The government takes many precautions while building nursery for citrus fruits in Bhutan. For example, citrus nursery are built only above 1,400 meters above sea level to take extra precaution because it has been found that psyllid is abundant between 800 and 1,200 m of altitude. Psyllid are vectors which carry disease causing germs. It is also important to note that nurseries are not developed near the mandarin orchards.

In the past, mandarin growers raised their own seedlings. Under such a practice, there was no way to control quality or even to evaluate the existence of any disease. As such, the government stopped allowing private sector to build nurseries to supply seedlings. The government is doing it on its own and it is expected to eventually help quality of mandarin trees in the future.

To deal with issues of plant transportation and to ensure plant safety protocols, the government established the National Citrus Repository (NCR) in Tsirang and it sources high health bud wood, introduce Public Accession Varieties (PAVs) from ex-countries for diversification, and relocate citrus production nursery to higher elevation to safeguard planting materials from psyllids spreading citrus greening disease.

For the 12th Five Year Plan, the government received $25.3 million for climate-resilient agriculture in the country from the Green Climate Fund in support of Bhutan’s efforts to prepare and adapt to climate change and to ensure that Bhutan is heading towards low carbon and climate-resilient developments.

Asked if the government had any plans to develop standalone policy to regulate and facilitate mandarin growers in the country, Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor said that the government would definitely consider it if the mandarin growers and the public demanded for it and if it would value add to help mandarin production in the country.

The Executive order of 2004 noted that years of research outcome on suitable rootstock and appropriate propagation methods have not trickled down to the end-users, citrus growers. It noted that improper management practices coupled with poor nutrition and pest problems are the major factors limiting the yield and quality of mandarin in the country.

  • The article is written with financial support from Bhutan Media Foundation under Climate Change Reporting grant