Sarpang: The vegetable capital in the making

The products are mainly marketed to Thimphu, Paro, Wangdue, and Tsirang apart from the local domestic markets in Gelephu. 

In 2016, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests banned the import of vegetables such as chillies, cauliflowers, and beans as high levels of pesticides were detected in the items. Ever since then, the demand for locally grown vegetables, especially those that were banned, have been on the rise.

Prior to the ban, Bhutanese people heavily relied on Indian vegetables. People in Gelephu, in particular, visited the nearby market in Dadgari (Assam, India) for their vegetable supply every week.

Amidst the shortage and growing demand for vegetables in the country, a farmer in Chokhorling village under Samtenling Gewog, Sarpang, rose to the occasion. Realising the potential of growing vegetables, Sonam Lekzom became one of the first women farmers to take up vegetable cultivation in her village. Along with the banned vegetable, Sonam started growing broccoli, cabbage, radish, and tomatoes.

However, growing vegetables in a hot and humid location was easier said than done. Chokhorling village is located at an altitude of 200-400 meters above sea level in southern Bhutan. The heavy rainfall and humid condition of the sub-tropical zone impedes crop production. This is why farmers in this region mostly engage in paddy and maize cultivation.  

Like many other farmers in the village, Sonam was reluctant to venture into vegetable cultivation in the beginning. Lack of irrigation facilities including labour shortages worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic posed another challenge.  

Despite all challenges, Sonam decided to take up vegetable cultivation in 2018 as she received assistance from the agriculture extension office in the gewog. However, just when she thought things were beginning to come together, she faced another major hurdle in her new venture.

The mortality rate of early nursery seedlings was high given the extreme humidity and temperature. Incessant rainfall also obstructed the transplanting of vegetable seedlings.

The intervention

Nevertheless, Sonam did not lose hope. She installed a polyhouse and raised a nursery inside. This proved to be helpful. “Inside the polyhouse, I managed to raise mature and healthy seedlings in a well prepared soil medium which enabled better transplantation,” she said, adding that the drip-irrigation set which she installed, helped in addressing the irrigation and labour challenges.

The inputs including the polyhouse, mulching plastics, fencing net, watering can, and vegetable seeds were provided by the Food Security and Agriculture Productivity Project (FSAPP) to help her in her new venture. The Project also provided capacity building training to Sonam and other farmers in the village.

Funded by the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), the FSAP project is implemented by the Department of Agriculture under the supervision of the World Bank, and with technical assistance from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 

Today, Sonam earns around Nu 100,000 annually from the vegetables she grows. She makes over Nu 70,000 through sale of chillies alone. She is one of the most commercially successful farmers in the gewog currently.  

“Initially when I began vegetable cultivation, I did not think it would be this successful and satisfying,” said Sonam, adding that she could now afford a luxury sofa at her place from the earnings made from chillies. “I believe that every woman has the strength and power to make change in the community if we have the determination.”

Following Sonam’s footsteps, farmers in Chokhorling village have now started to explore opportunities in mass vegetable cultivation, with many achieving success. 

Dolungang – A commercial vegetable hub

Until 2016, there was only one family in Dolungang village under Dekiling Gewog in Sarpang growing vegetables. The family grew vegetables in their backyard, mostly for self-consumption.

Rest of the 28 households in the village depended on imported vegetables that were readily available in Gelephu, mostly imported from the Indian markets across the border. As the government imposed a ban on certain vegetables six years ago, besides the increase in demand, an opportunity was presented to the farmers.

Despite the initial skeptics of growing vegetables in a hot and humid climatic condition, more farmers slowly began to take interest in the vegetable cultivation. Many opted to take up large-scale cultivation with support from the FSAP project.

The project provided farmers with materials such as fabricated and low-cost polyhouse, drip irrigation set, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) water storage tanks, plastic mulch, and varieties of hybrid vegetable seeds. Farmers also received several capacity-building training on how to use these technologies.

Over the years, with inputs from the gewog agriculture office and the Project, households in Dolungang began fetching good income from the vegetables. To help farmers market their produce, a farmers group was also formed, which helped them connect with a school feeding programme within the gewog. Through this programme, farmers today earn a minimum income of Nu 30,000 every season.

The area of vegetable cultivation has also drastically increased over the years from around 0.20 acre in 2016-2017 to over 29 acres in 2020-2021. Simultaneously, the production capacity of the village has also increased from 0.519MT in 2016 to 109.52 MT in 2020-2021. In the last five years farmers in the village have produced over 273.6MT of vegetables. Farmers expect to increase their production by at least 50 percent within three years. 

The bean cultivation hub

Following the ban and the growing demand of vegetables among local consumers, many farmers in Sarpang Dzongkhag took up various vegetable cultivation. However, one farmer from Samtenling village specialised in bean cultivation.

Purna Maya Rai has marked herself as a pioneer grower of beans in the village today. While other farmers in the locality were keen on growing chilli, which fetched them a good price, Purna Maya Rai invested in growing beans year-round.

She recalls bringing just a handful of Kanchi Bori seed (a variety of climber beans) from one of her acquaintances in Luckytar, Gelephu in 1999. That is when her journey as a bean farmer started although it was not until after 2016 that she began to earnestly take up large-scale and commercial cultivation.

While the prospects of mass bean farming were promising, the venture was not without challenges. To start with, the labour shortage and high wage rate were major hurdles, said Purna Maya. Obtaining staking sticks for climber beans and guarding crops against wild pests posed additional challenges to the farmers.

The farmers however, did not let challenges undermine their determination. They started by hiring and using relevant farm machinery from the Farm Machinery Corporation Limited (FMCL), which enabled them to save time and cost, and plough the land efficiently. They also fenced their entire fields using nets to protect beans from adverse weather and pests.

The FSAP project also supported farmers with inputs such as polyhouse, fencing net, watering can, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) water storage tanks, and improved seeds to encourage bean cultivation. Additionally, to strengthen their capacity, the project supported farmers by providing training sessions on commercial vegetable cultivation and organic pest management.

Before they knew it, their fields were seeing bountiful yields — a result of their hard work as well as the timely intervention by the FSAPP.

Of many varieties, Kanchi Bori is the preferred variety cultivated in the area followed by the Japanese pole beans introduced by the Agriculture Research and Development Centre, Samtenling for its high yielding traits compared to other varieties. 

“I am extremely happy and wasn’t expecting the results to be this encouraging,” Purna Maya Rai said. “I earned a little over Nu 500,000 through the sale of beans. The maximum price I fetched was Nu 120 per kg and the minimum was Nu 50 per kg. I sold 7MT of beans this season alone and I don’t think I will divert my investment to any other items for now.” 

Farmers in Samtenthang village produced over 30MT of beans from some 10 acres of land in the last cropping season, making Samtenthang a hub for bean cultivation in Sarpang. The village now stands proud with 25 commercial bean growers, over half of whom being women.  

The products are mainly marketed to Thimphu, Paro, Wangdue, and Tsirang apart from the local domestic markets in Gelephu. 

Encouraged by their achievement, farmers are now planning to scale up their production and extend cultivation areas from the coming season. This, farmers say, would be possible with the continued input and capacity-building support from FSAPP. 

Contributed by: Jambay Lhamo, Agriculture Extension officer, Samtenling, Sarpang, and Sarita Rai, Sr. Extension supervisor, Dekiling Gewog, Sarpang.