When it comes to innovations in technology and agriculture, Bhutanese farmers are generally slow to adopt them. “Most farmers are happy to sit on their plot and do the same thing they’ve been doing for generations,” says Ap Naku, a 64-year-old farmer.
There are several reasons for farmers to be risk-averse: small land holdings, rugged topography, and limited mechanization make farming labor intensive. Farmers have little time to contemplate the costs and benefits of the introduction of new practices or investments. “And, most people in the East [of Bhutan] are usually laid back – too laid back. They’re content with whatever situation they have.”
But for those that do take risks, like Ap Naku, the rewards can be substantial. Since retiring from his post as drimpon (“a high officer”) in the army after 33 years of service, he has been blazing trails for farmers in his village of Rangshikhar. “I always look to try out different practices. If we don’t take risks, how else can we improve?”
When he returned to his village in 1998, he found that his 10-acre land holding had been left barren and underutilized. “At the time, the land was only being used for maize and rice. But I saw more opportunities.”
Having leased the land to other villages while he was in service, Ap Naku wanted to take over the land full time. He was anxious to operationalize the many ideas he had swimming in his head. He began by introducing the practice of raising Jersey cows for milk and cheese production. He quickly followed this by setting up a small poultry farm for eggs. Within years, these businesses were collectively generating Nu 7,000 - 14,000 per month ($150 - $250). Alongside these ventures, he began commercial farming with peach trees and mushrooms.
The surrounding community started to take notice. “Time after time when I started each of these, people were saying, ‘Oh, that won’t work here.’ But then after a year, everyone is trying to set one up!”
Not all farmers were prospering, though. Many experienced regular crop failures and difficulty in bringing their produce to market. Rather than fence off his profits, Ap Naku led the way towards the establishment of farmer producer groups. These groups were designed to share knowledge of best practices, coordinate the transport of produce to local markets and auction yards, and distribute profits equally between member farmers. “Forming groups is important. It’s a great way to ensure that the community prospers together.”
“Every week, it seems, farmers come on tours to see my fields. They know that everything I’ve done in the past has been a success. So they all are ready to plant hazelnuts as well.”
With the additional income from the hazelnuts, he plans to set up a “hazelnut fund” - savings that would ensure his family continues to prosper. “Being a farmer is always risky but we need some form of security for the future. I want my children and their children to have that.”