Farmers are still finding commercial winter chilli production difficult

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ARDC evaluates cold-tolerant chilli variety; expected publication next July

Nima | Gelephu

Despite increased efforts to produce commercial chilies in winter, farmers in Sarpang are still struggling to meet demand for Bhutan’s most sought-after spice.

Sarpang is one of the most important chili-producing dzongkhags in the country.

The chilli acreage in Sarpang has almost doubled from 102 hectares in 2018 to 227 hectares in 2020. After the import ban on green chillies in 2016, farmers rushed into the commercial cultivation of chillies.

Sarpang received some of the highest budget aid to increase winter vegetable production, including chilies during the lean season, as part of the emergency economic plan last year.

However, the rising prices of green chillies, sparked by a drastic decline in chilli supply, have become a widespread phenomenon every winter. A kilogram (kg) of chillies cost Nu 700 in Gelephu last week.

There is currently limited or no supply of green chilies on the market. Those available in the market are sold at an exorbitant price.

In November, December and January there was a major shortage of supplies, according to officials at the Agricultural Research and Development Center (ARDC) in Samtenling, Sarpang.

Why limited offer in winter?

The farmers in Sarpang should start cultivating Chile from the end of September in order to have a stable supply of chilli in winter (November to February). The earliest variety of chilli takes at least two months to bear fruit.

ARDC’s chief horticultural officer GS Rai (Ph.D) said chilies are produced in winter but not enough for all.

“We have to grow nursery plants by mid-summer, July and August, but they fail. There was a total failure of the nurseries due to high temperatures and high humidity. Seedlings become infected with a serious disease called dampening, ”he said.

The official added that farmers should finish transplanting the seedlings by September in order to have stable chili supplies over the winter. This news was passed on to officials and farmers after thorough research and study.

“But the transplant season coincides with the monsoon retreat season. We are seeing high mortality in seedlings, 80 percent of them from disease. The soil becomes damp, which leads to rampant pest infection, ”said GS Rai.

Over 15 percent of the seedlings die from root damage and most from sucking pest infections such as mites, aphids and thrips.

ARDC officials said the chilies grow well in warm temperatures. The night temperature should not fall below 15 degrees to allow the plants to grow well.

“In southern Bhutan, night temperatures drop to over 15 degrees in winter and sometimes reach six degrees. That will stop the growth. The harvest runs after the winter season, ”said GS Rai.

Sarpang produced over 119 tons of chillies in 2018 and 2019, more than 103 tons in 2019 and 2020 and 227 tons in 2020 and 2021. Most of the chillies came onto the market after March.

Dzongkhag Agriculture Commissioner Deki Lhamo said Sarpang introduced winter chili cultivation in 2016, but cultivation has only increased significantly in the past two years.

“Only seven Dzongkhags: Sarpang, Samtse, Dagana, Chhukha, Mongar, Pemagatshel and Samdrupjongkhar are suitable for winter chilli cultivation. Given the agro-ecological zone, meeting demand is always at stake in winter, ”she said.

She added that the Dzongkhag managed to deliver chilies despite the price factor that many mourned.

“Chilies are not free from pests and diseases. And due to the environmental policy, we do not use highly toxic pesticides. Research into a suitable variety is crucial for production. ARDC is working on it, ”said Deki Lhamo.

ARDC officials said pest and disease infection cases increased as more farmers grow the crops on a commercial scale. The control measures recommended by the center were not properly followed.

For the past three years, the ARDC has been researching methods of biological control of pests and diseases using neem oil and garlic extract sprays. Some farmers also use the control measures evaluated at the center.

ARDC research officials say the center has yet to review the effectiveness of the control measures as the control measures are still in the study phase.

For the first year, officials focused on mites, aphids and thrips as they are the main sucking pests. There were no promising results while only organic control measures were tried, and inorganic control measures have been in place since this year.

Effective control measures were resumed for farmers after the assessment.

Kamana Gurung said it was not convenient to start growing chillies by September because of the heat and rain. “We could grow them in a greenhouse. But the structures were the same size and were mainly used for growing nursery seedlings, ”she said.

Winter chilli hopes for a cold-tolerant variety

ARDC research officials are evaluating a new variety and have also started a field trial in Chuzergang for a cold-tolerant variety in order to increase chilli production in winter.

The new variety was brought in from India and the Asian Vegetables and Research Center in Taiwan. Ten different varieties of cold-tolerant chilli are evaluated in the ARDC.

This variety of chili is expected to work well in colder temperatures. When growing in winter, however, a 50 percent lower yield is expected.

The new variety is expected to be launched or available in July next year. However, the emergence of new pests and diseases such as leaf yellowing reported last year presents a challenge for the new variety.

“The production area needs to be expanded. The main growing areas for chillies in winter are in Samtse and Sarpang. It is a challenge to feed all 20 Dzongkhags. Farmers are not practicing the control measures properly because of the lack of land, ”said GS Rai.

Winter chilli cultivation is only suitable in areas below 800 meters above sea level.

Lift the import ban in the lean season?

Phurpa Zangmo, a vegetable seller from Gelephu, said lifting the import ban during the lean season would solve the chilli shortage problem and make it available at an affordable price.

“There has been no replenishment of chillies since Sunday. Dagana farmers used to take care of winter supplies, but this time they couldn’t. The price would not exceed Nu 100 per kilo if we were allowed to import chillies in winter, ”she said.

Gewog and Dzongkhag agricultural officials say suspending imports during the lean season would hurt farmers as many began growing chilli commercially and drawing millions in loans.

Tashi Dawa, an agricultural advisory consultant at Chuzergang Weighed, said almost all farmers in the Gewog took out loans to grow chilies on a commercial scale.

“We shouldn’t have encouraged farmers to grow chillies. You have invested so much. The financial institution supported them. Farmers will suffer losses, and so will financial institutions. The government’s support will be in vain, ”he said.

Deki Lhamo said that a temporary lifting of the ban would work against the farmers who have so far continued to produce chilies. “Such an interruption during the main growing season would discourage farmers and make consumers dependent on imported chilies instead of producing them themselves,” she said.

A seedling farmer, Deepak Chhetri, said there would be plenty of chillies by the end of February. “More and more farmers started growing chillies on commercial land. The early batch of seedlings failed because of pests, ”he said.

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