Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Managing mandarins in Bhutan

To a foreign visitor on a sunny day in springtime, a mandarin farm in Bhutan’s mountains looks pretty close to heaven. The loudest sound is birdsong, and the only man-made noises are the chime of turning prayer wheels and the quiet snapping of hundreds of prayer flags, flapping in the breeze. However, this is no easy life. “Maintaining the farm was just too hard for me by myself,” recalls Mrs Mackum, a citrus farmer in Dagana district; “three years ago, I was ready to give up”.

Close to heaven, Mrs Mackum's citrus farm. [Source: Richard Markham, ACIAR]

Perhaps some of the prayers from all those flags and wheels were answered because, in 2013, Mackum’s farm was chosen as a demonstration site for ACIAR’s citrus project. “We were looking for farms with a permanent spring nearby, so that we could set up drip irrigation and evaluate its benefits” explains Project Leader Graeme Sanderson of the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (NSW-DPI). This farm was ideal because it was also close to a road junction where people gather to load their produce onto trucks, catch a bus into town or just pass the time of day. “They could look over the fence and see the improvements that our integrated approach to orchard management could offer.”  In addition to installing storage tanks, pipes and drippers, the project team have encouraged Mackum to prune her trees, form and maintain weed-free ‘basins’ around each tree to catch water and nutrients, apply manure and other organic matter, and collect up and bury any fallen fruits, to reduce populations of the highly destructive Chinese citrus fruitfly, which can otherwise take 70-80% of the production.
Phuntsho turns the prayer wheel. [Source: Richard Markham, ACIAR]

Initially this intensive management involved even harder work for hard-pressed Mackum. However, her efforts paid off. “We reckon that, in the first year, she more than doubled the income from her 300 trees, from around Ngultrum 70,000 to Ngultrum 150,000” (equivalent to about Aus$ 3,000), reports  Bhutanese project leader Mr Lakey. “Once the trader recognizes the quality of her fruit, she should be able to get Ngultrum 200,000 or more” adds his tireless and ever-enthusiastic field supervisor, Mr Phuntsho Wangdi.

Demonstration of the irrigation with Sonam Dechen (extension officer), Mrs Mackum and Phuntsho (L-R). [Source: Richard Markham, ACIAR]

But Mackum herself does not emphasize the increased income. Speaking through Ms. Sonam Dechen, the extension agent who supports and encourages all the farmers in this area and now serves as my interpreter, she tells me forcefully: “The best thing is that my daughter has returned from town, with her husband, to help me with all the work on the farm”. In addition to the mandarins, they keep a couple of cows (for milk, butter and cheese) and grow potatoes, maize, chillies and bananas. Now, with the irrigation, they are planting an even wider range of vegetables, for home consumption and sale. At the end of our visit they prepare a delicious meal for us: red rice, with chilli-and-cheese, and locally collected fungi and fern-leaves.

All has not been as harmonious in the community of Drujegang as Buddhist ideals would perhaps prescribe: neighbours were initially jealous of the irrigation equipment provided by the project and so challenged Mackum’s access to water, which is regarded here as a precious communal resource. However, this issue now seems to have been amicably resolved and the neighbours are now signing up for their own irrigation kits to be supplied, on a cost-sharing basis, by the engineering division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests.

Extension officer Sonam Dechen, standing with Bhutanese mural of the 'Four Harmonious Friends'. [Source: Richard Markham, ACIAR]

Over the table where Mackum’s daughter and son-in-law served us our lunch was a classic Bhutanese mural of the Four Harmonious Friends: an elephant, a monkey, a rabbit and a bird, who cooperate to harvest fruits from a tall tree. It looked to me like a good metaphor for an ACIAR project team, where researchers and extensionists from different countries and different disciplines work together to achieve a goal that would otherwise have been beyond their reach.

For further information about this project, please visit: HORT/2010/089 - Adapting integrated crop management technologies to commercial citrus enterprises in Bhutan and Australia

By Richard Markham, RPM Horticulture, ACIAR


  1. I want to visit bhutan and i am from India.Pictures are really beautiful.

  2. What an absolutely beautiful place. A slice of heaven on earth. So glad Mackum didn't throw in the towel three years ago!

    It looks like the ACIAR’s citrus project is truly helping people who really need it.


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