Gardening the Bhutanese Way

Monday, January 30, 2017

Sanam Drubdrey-Agriculture Progress Report 2016

In accordance to the request letter (TAPT/Gen/15/3) forwarded by the President of the Tensung Amsu Phendey Tshogpa (TAPT), a team from Research & Development Center for Organic Agriculture (RDC-OA) set off from Yuispang to Royal Bhutan Army Camp, Damthang on 2nd March, 2016.  The RDC team embarked on the journey with the main mandate of providing technical backstopping in line with the center's mandate of providing the same in the  Western region of the country.

The TAPT is an association of the wives of the army personnel, existent at every army base. With the sole motive of engaging women in high income generating activities like the cultivation of high altitude vegetables, and medicinal & aromatic plants, the group geared onto the initial phase of the mini-pilot Project with technical assistance provided by RDC-OA (previously RNR-RDC).

The project in its initial phase intended to extend its wing of beneficiary to around 270 families; majority consisting of women and over a thousand children and dependents. It was also initiated to address social issues like domestic violence, absence of enabling home environment for children, and financial-constraint-driven social divide for both adult and children, and the dilution of family values that are caused by financial pressures on income earners in conjunction with the main motive.

The serene place is situated at an elevation of 3035 m.a.s.l. Yaks grazing over the patchy dry pastures in the vicinity were of common sight. The peaks enclosing the valley remained clad in blankets of snow even in March. The place embraced us with a welcoming note of chillness and serenity.

A  theoretical presentation on the basics of vegetable cultivation was done, which was attended by around 130 women & a few of their male counterparts. It encompassed of nursery raising (under poly-tunnels which would enable early nursery raising under extreme cold conditions and  the ensuing crop hitting the market much earlier as well as under normal conditions); the critical operations required by specific vegetable crops; apt management practices of tomato cultivation emphasizing on pruning and staking requirements supported by pictorial presentation as well as videos.

A presentation was also made on the simple post harvest management of vegetables. This included the simple technique of drying and preserving the surplus produce, if any, to be consumed during the lean season. They were made to understand a simple technique required prior to drying called Blanching. This simply involves immersing the sliced vegetables in hot boiling water added with a pinch of salt for a minute or two. This technique is known to have desirable influence in bringing an abrupt seizure to the enzymatic activity which would otherwise deteriorate the quality of produce as well as help in colour retention.  The subsequent discussion and question answer session was made even more livelier and practical with the presence of representative from the Dzongkhag Agriculture Sector.

With financial support from the Department of Agriculture , Ministry of Agriculture & Forest, the Dzongkhag also rendered their service in installing four green houses at the camp. With quite a huge expense having been incurred on the procurement of such protective structures, our next attempt was on the practical demonstration with major impetus on the proper usage of Greenhouses. We also advocated them on the additional advantage that they will reap provided such structures were put to optimum use.

To augment their level of understanding & then enhance the practical applicability, the team demonstrated and guided the nursery sowing of many varieties of vegetables. The four groups (Dekhas) which they have had been divided into were given training individually in view of higher level of comprehension and greater participation. The groups owned a green house each and for a greater degree of performance, they were made to compete among themselves in production and subsequent sale of the produce.

Except for tomatoes, which didn't yield fruits of optimum size, all other vegetables performed extremely well. However, the centre will be looking into some of the drawbacks in the coming year. Their hard work was also counteracted by trespassing of cattle and wild boars which reaped quite a considerable portion of their vegetables planted outside, though in wooden fence enclosures. So we suggested them to request for the installation of electric fencing through the district agriculture office.
The colony housing more than 1000 inhabitants now have more and easy access to fresh and varieties of healthy and organic vegetables produced by themselves. Despite their first attempt in large scale vegetable cultivation as well as damage inflicted by animals, the groups in unison were able to produce and supply vegetables worth Nu. 40,100/-  to their mess. The details of each group's income are as enlisted in the table below;

Sl. No.
Total Income (Nu.)
Group 1 (Headquarter Company)
Group 2 (Company 1)
Group 3 (Company 2)
Group 4 (Company 3)
Grand Total

However meager the income generated and trivial the tale of success may seem, there is still a string of encouragement to hold upon. The entangled note of challenges and setbacks to be slackened off with the gradual flow of time. The figure would have assumed linear ascend had it not been for the damage inflicted by cattle trespassing and wild boar attack and the slightly elevated price margin in par to market price.

This is gratifying since it is in a way engaging the Tensung Womens' Group in a healthy practice. This also means the dwellers there can get quick and easy access to varieties of vegetables as well as enhance the per-capita consumption of vegetables which is far below the global recommended intake of 250-300g vegetable/person per day.

The camp having been situated far from the town as well as having quite a huge number of inhabitants, it is likely that  the dwellers thereof might lag far behind in the intake of nutrition-loaded vegetables. Therefore, our aim in achieving self-sufficiency in vegetable production at such isolated and clustered settlements was found to be on the positive side in the very first attempt. Though not a tale of grand success, it is the first step leaped for thousands more to ascend with the gradual flow of time.
The activity wasn't in the list of our planned activities, which would have imposed a crippling effect on its implementation for the activity wasn't budgeted. Nevertheless, with a little bit of adjustment and the limited available resources, and the provision of vegetable seeds from the district in addition to ours, we were in a position to impact the group in a positive way.

We wish that similar approach and interventions could be replicated in other such places, especially Army, Police camps or colonies, and monastic schools. One such place could be the Police Camp in Thimphu. There is a need to lend a helping hand in vegetable cultivation. There are many small patches of kitchen gardens, which were not optimally managed. In addition, the place seems to be crowded with many infants and children in their critical growing stage for whom diet with proper nutrition is crucial. However, the cultivable area is very limited and an effort in identifying and allotting a separate area is deemed to be necessary if cultivation should ascend to the higher level.

If something like Thrimsung (Police)/Gaagdhey Aumsu Phendhey Tshogpa could be formed to take on board the same idea and practice, this would provide a huge leap in their nutritional requirement. In addition, the armed forces get free supply of all other items, except vegetables. So the lower income group might not be in a position to afford all varieties of nutritious vegetables. Thinking big and working on vegetable export is one thing but it is equally crucial for us to work on making healthy, antioxidant crammed vegetables available in sufficient quantity to each and every one with major impetus on the vulnerable section of the society.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Interested to develop a Mini-Vertical Garden?

Vertical Arrangement of Ornamental Plants, dated 8/11/16.

Vertical Gardens is a new concept of gardening originated in Switzerland. It is to be built with wooden frames enclosed with wire netting. The nets are then studded with sphagnum moss, which serves as a growing medium for the ornamental plants. Nutrient & water should be supplemented at frequent intervals.

Those gardening enthusiast dwelling in cities may try this. This has the advantage of occupying minimal space. It can be shifted from a place to another with ease. It can even be used as an ornamental partition in the drawing-room.

The adage, 'Necessity is the Mother of all Inventions' reigns here. The harsh frosty winter has driven me to create my own Vertical Garden of the sort; a protective armor for my plants & a means of using space efficiently.  Mine is a little deviation from the aforementioned points. I have used pots & hung them by means of fastening a thread on a nail. I have also stacked the pots on one another, however, by ensuring the plants beneath are not trampled by the pot resting nearby.

Vertical Stacking of pots (dated 29/01/17)

 All of them would have succumbed to frost bites, chilling injury and then ultimate extinction if they were left to fight the battle with weather themselves.
However, it is lucky of them to be under the care & supervision of someone who is passionate about them. Every night, when the white encrustation of frost descends, ready to gnaw every succulent being with their jaw of chillness, they (my group of indoor plants) rather enjoy the warmth of the bukhari.

Today, it was their outing time. I had to literally carry them one by one for them to bask under the radiance of Sunday Sun & stretch a bit in the fresh breeze. I augmented their bowl with feed of leaf mold, waste coffee beans & a little bit of manure. I bet some of them; the ones with dust accumulation on their leaves, might have enjoyed the fresh water bath. I watered them copiously so that they remain contented for about a week.

Plants have become my everyday companion & gardening has become my experimental field; an oasis of never-ending learning. I am of the feeling that it will be so for the rest of my life. Tending to garden plants & watching them distend their stems, spread their leaves, open their buds, & the series of phonological event makes me grow too. The kind of relaxing & contending feeling it ushers us the moment we cast our glance is undeniable.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Inception of A Model Organic Village

Our Team...

Langpa-Nobgang is a village constituting of 63 households at Haa. The village has found its place on the East facing slope; merrily basking under the radiance of the easterly sun. A pair of mountain on Northwest seems to be guarding the village; the further Nyabji rii studded with silhouette of trees while the Gangbana rii on the frontier remains crested with whitish cladding of snow.

My quest to explore new places sort of acted as an alarm clock. I uncoiled the blankets firmly enclosing myself and set my feet out.  I clutched a bottle of hot water in Louis Prince Stainless steel in my fingers rendered rather stout by the flabby hand gloves; pulled up my long boots augmenting the already existing pair of socks within; zipped the chain of my overcoat up until my chin; slid over the jet black cap adorned with fluffy white fur; and took a jovial stroll in the severe cold. I was greeted with so pleasant a feeling to be outside.   
Everything on earth was glazed with whitish encrustation of snow. The withered grey grasses appeared severely strained by pressure from above. The crystal clear river meandered with its gentle soothing tune- along its self-defined course. Fumes of smoke spiraled from chimney here and there. The majestic mountains and spurs casted their motherly overlooking glance.  
Our holistic team, consisting of members from the National Organic Program, Research & Development Centre for Organic Agriculture, National Soil Service Centre, the Dzongkhag agriculture & Livestock sector were greeted by a set of keen looking people.

Our consultation meeting took ground on one of the farmland. Perhaps the dwellers therein didn't build a house that could accommodate around 70 people. All of us sat around the fire place and we battled quite a hard time running away from smoke making forced entry to our eyes. While our faces and foreheads enjoyed burning sensation, we were gnawed by chillness from behind. The reverse happened when we turned our backs to fire.

Meeting with farmers around the smoky fumes.

Just before our meeting commenced, a boy seemingly in his 5th or 6th year, buried in a red hood, nested atop a nearby fence, bellowed at the top of his voice the song, 'Gawala...Kyiba dhula...Gawala...Kyiba dhula'. His song was fortified by the occasional drum beats over the steel bowl clasped firmly in one of his hands while the other gave quite a hard bang. I couldn't help myself but manifest my uncontrolled laughter within in the form of a placid grin.

The Program Director of national organic program, ma'am Kezang Tshomo explained on the objectives of our visit, made a brief statement on the health hazards associated with the consumption of chemical residue-loaded imported agricultural commodities and our sole motive of setting up of model organic village. The farmers were made to understand that the very reason why their village was chosen was based on the fact that the village already has a functional Organic Buckwheat Group, operated by a member of 27.

Our team went with an open mind. We didn't want to impose on the farmers that they take up organic farming. They were given time for discussion and give their final stance. Given the fact that the farmers are still largely organic by default, their idea of going organic did align with ours. Except for the use of suphala in potatoes, which of course is their main cash crop, the farming community remained almost sealed from the entry of other agro-chemicals. They expressed their instant willingness to forego the use if they were being provided with other alternatives like effective bio-fertilizers.

The set up of the model organic village will be financially backed up by ANSOFT ( Asia-Pacific Network for Sustainable Organic Farming Technology), which is a sub-activity under the broader head of AFACI ( Asian Food and Agriculture Cooperative Initiative). The small Project will be extending over a period of 3 years.

While the meeting stretched through smoke-triggered teary eyes and flimsy descend of snow flakes, I took the liberty to scan each and every faces. What did I notice or discover as a matter of fact? Only 4 or 5 out of the mass of 50 farmers had their mouth sedentary and unstained. The majority of the rest were ardently engaged in masticating betel nut; staining their mouth and teeth tinted red. I at a glance detested their behavior of being a voracious betel nut feeder.  

The narration of trivial incidences aside, the preliminary visit; consultation meeting with farmers; identification of their production constraints and potentialities or opportunities; development of cropping calendar and streamlining our interventions according to the needs and opportunities of the village has been through. I am already envisioning the Langpa Nobgang Model Organic Farm being fully operational, it being the model village for the temperate agro-ecological zone of our country.