Laya lies just meters below the tree-line and it’s no surprise that Layaps until recently have been relying on very expensive week old vegetables from Gasa and Punakha, a necessity enforced by the harsh conditions of the highlands across the country.
While Laya has grown prosperous (helicopter chartering is quite the Layap norm) over years of cordycep harvests and can afford the expense of the logistics, health officials say that such dependence on old vegetables is nutritionally not recommended. Besides, recent sharp declines in cordycep harvests have also roused more Layaps into considering the economic benefits of their own backyard production and have as a result started taking serious interests in the advice of agriculture officers’ to start their own vegetable production.
“Diets in the high climes revolve around meat and other dairy products and that is not a very healthy diet,” said Dr. Sonam Dema of Punakha District Hospital. “And while old vegetables are better than none, they are still not as healthy as fresh ones as they start losing nutrients the minute they are cut off from their food source.”
Agriculture Extension Offices around the country have been providing support in the form of greenhouse equipment, trainings, seeds and other technical support for high altitude settlements.
Gasa Dzongkhag Agriculture Officer Tshering N. Penjor said that the response from highland farmers have been steadily increasing. “One of the biggest problem is accessibility and the logistics of providing equipment but our aim is to help them reach self-sufficiency,” he said. Two agriculture officers have been dispatched to Lunana, over a week’s trek from the nearest road, for the same and are expected to arrive by early next week.
Tshering said that the plan was to increase production and then make agreements for schools and government offices in Laya and Lunana to buy from local producers.
Tshering pointed The Bhutanese to a success story of a Layap woman Aie (used instead of Aum in Laya) Thinley Dem who was one of the first to get into the program. Aie Thnley Dem owns the biggest garden in Laya, about Five into Six meters and grows cabbages the size of basketballs, carrots, and broccoli in the green house provided by the Agriculture Office she grew chillies.
“I supply His Majesty The King with vegetables from my garden on His Majesty’s visit,” the soft spoken 50 year old proudly said.
She said that most Layaps were well off due to the cordycep income and were uninterested in gardening for their own kitchens.
People from all the nearby Chiwogs come to Aie Thinley Dem for her fresh vegetables and last year her garden earned her over Nu.50,000; more than the average Nu.40,000 each household has made from the failing cordycep harvest in recent years.
Mr. BB Rai, agricultural coordinator who was also in Laya for the highland festival said it is just a question of whether people want to work or not. He added that the government has provided ample funds for agricultural activities and the only thing left is to motivate farmers.
“It is not just Laya or Lunana, this is crucial for all the highlands where harsh conditions prevent normal vegetable cultivation, from both health and economic perspectives as well as for the wellbeing of their children too.”
In Tashigang, Sakten Wildlife Sanctuary initiated cultivation in villages inside the park area and now it works in collaboration with the agriculture office in providing support and advice to more settlements. Villages have been introduced to Shitake mushrooms, cabbages and other cold crops. However, Merak is yet to join the initiative due to problems with logistics and they are still totally dependent on livestock.
In Haa, a non-profit organization Haa Organic Vegetable Farming Initiative is working with the agriculture office to make commercial growth of vegetables feasible for farmers in the higher altitude villages.
Started in 2013, the initiative,s upported with a Nu30 mn grant by an Austrian, Dr. Rudolf Joseph Kununz, the initiative focuses on starting commercial production to reduce import from across the border. Farmers will also receive aid with marketing and transport and addressing human wildlife conflicts.
So far, the initiative has provided 63 poly (green) houses, Nu 2 mn worth of seeds and put up over 19 km of electric fences in Haa. Green house equipment is sold at subsidized rates with farmers having to pay only 40% in yearly or monthly installments with Bhutan Development Bank (BDB). One poly house costs about Nu 100,000.
The initiative’s Project Coordinator Jambay Dorji said that once their objectives of commercial cultivation and marketing is complete they could expand into other remote areas around Bhutan as agriculture should be the primary concern of the country. The initiative’s project ends in 2018.
“These activities will not only reduce imports and ultimately lead to food sufficiency for the country but we are hoping that people will return to their farms once they realize the profitability.”