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Extension strives for dizzying heights

If extension is about out-reach then the agricultural advisory service in Bhutan has one of the furthest reaches in the world. High in the Himalayas, the Renewable Natural Resources Extension Service has to scale great heights to get to its target farmers. Bordered by China to the north and India to the south, almost all of Bhutan's 600,000 people depend on the land for their livelihoods and they depend on their extension advisors for advice on getting the most from their crops and animals.

Farmers and extension officers in Bhutan (Susie Emmett)
Farmers and extension officers in Bhutan
Susie Emmett

The concertina of Bhutan's closely folded mountain valleys encompass an amazing diversity of agro-ecological zones. These range from sub-tropical mixed farming in the lower lands to valleys at heights of more than 3500 metres where, in the short growing season before the heavy snow closes in, only barley can grow and yaks graze. Travel is tough: east to west there is only one road, which snakes along steep sided valleys and over high passes. It can take more than five days drive followed by as many days walk to reach the remotest farmsteads.

Getting to the farm families is only half the challenge; providing timely and appropriate advice is essential. Agriculture Minister, Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup, has made it his personal goal to invigorate the extension service to both meet farmers' needs and to improve the profitability of their agriculture. "Walking the extra mile" has become the motto for the Bhutanese Rural and Natural Resources extension staff, and the Minister himself is putting this into practice by leading groups of extension staff on field visits to remote areas, where they work alongside farming communities with their seasonal tasks. One such exercise earlier this year saw the Minister and extension staff hard at work harvesting in the rice fields of Trongsa district in the east of Bhutan. "The idea is to give staff a taste of village life and to feel for real the difficulties of producing the food we all need in life," explained the Minister to this visiting journalist.

Has extension done enough?

Re-connecting extension staff with the reality of farming is only part of the Minister's vision: he is also asking his staff to question their own professionalism. "Food self-sufficiency, preservation of natural biodiversity and increasing the cash income of rural families are some of our development priorities," he said at a recent meeting of farm advisors, "But the question that remains is how much has the extension service achieved in the past? Have we done enough?"

But, what do farmers most want help with? In 2003, the Planning Policy Division of the Ministry of Agriculture conducted a survey of farming households throughout Bhutan to determine farmers' own perceptions of the greatest constraints to their production. Surprisingly, perhaps, pest and disease problems were rated the least problematic (4%), followed by land shortage (8%), limited access to markets (9%), shortage of labour (10%) and damage from heavy rainfall (11%). Lack of irrigation was the second greatest problem (21%), but the greatest perceived constraint was wild animals (41%).

Bhutanese farmstead (Susie Emmett)
Bhutanese farmstead
Susie Emmett

This is where agriculture, and the extension service in Bhutan, has to be seen in its spiritual context. Devoutly Buddhist, Bhutanese farmers believe that all creatures - even monkeys and wild pigs - are worthy of respect and conservation. So, an extension officer has to help farmers deter rather than destroy the mammals and other crop-eating life that share the same mountain range. Many farmers have resisted the idea of using artificial fertilizers or pest control products because they fear killing soil or surface life, and subsequently causing an imbalance. And it has been known for spiritual leaders or lamas to be asked to perform blessings on inputs in order to allay farmers' fears and absolve them from committing 'crimes against nature'.

To aspire to become a farmer was long the most natural thing in the world for a Bhutanese child. However, nationwide provision of education has meant many youngsters now seek a life working in government service rather than on the land. So, extension staff are being asked to extend their reach to future farmers, and the Ministry of Agriculture has a School Agriculture Programme, under which regional extension agents run residential courses for agriculture teachers in focal schools. The most recent course drew 18 teachers, and gave them practical training and field visits to understand organic vegetable production, mushroom farming, as well as pig and poultry production.

Extension workers may soon be seen on the 'silver screen' as well. Bhutan's Minister of Agriculture has set his sights on making a feature movie about the challenges and charms of agricultural life; Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup has seen the way youngsters are influenced by the lifestyles depicted in the fictional world of films, and so he is commissioning screenwriters to come up with a story that will inspire young people to study and practise agriculture. It might also inspire some to become extension workers, the vital interface between research and policy makers, and practitioners - the farmers!

Written by: Susie Emmett

Date published: May 2004


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