From WOW to Woe: The Saga of Bumthang’s Organic Venture

The Wobthang Organic Wonders (WOW) project, once hailed as the largest farming initiative in the nation, is now grappling with sustainability challenges, as it operates without adequate oversight.

Former Opposition Leader (OL) Pema Gyamtsho, along with two former agriculture officials, kickstarted this ambitious project amid the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020, with the aim of bolstering vegetable production.

Recognizing its significance, multiple agencies affiliated with the agriculture and livestock ministry extended their support, both in terms of machinery and technical expertise, during its initial phase.

The project, as revealed by the former OL, commenced with the backing of the Prime Minister’s Office, which committed a pre-financing package of Nu 4 million. To date, a total investment of more than Nu 10 million has been funneled into the project. The former OL and his associates contributed Nu 6 million, while the government’s funds were allocated for labor expenses and machinery rental.

However, today, the WOW project seems to have lost its initial allure. The farm in Wobthang is not yielding vegetables as initially anticipated. Several factors are held accountable for this downturn, including a lack of market demand, scarcity and cost of farm labor, wildlife raids on crops, and a struggle to integrate with other agricultural enterprises.

It has come to light that the project’s sustainability is in jeopardy due to a lack of ownership and supervision.

Local residents assert that the project has failed to benefit their community despite substantial government investments. Confusion looms over its ownership, and there is no one actively overseeing its operations at present.

Regrettably, the farm no longer employs any staff. In its inaugural year, there was a farm manager and a driver in place.

In the current year, a member of a community dairy farm took up buckwheat cultivation on a limited scale. The community dairy farm has also dabbled in greenhouse vegetable cultivation, primarily for self-consumption.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pema Gyamtsho, the former OL now serving as the Director of ICIMOD in Nepal, claims that he is remotely monitoring the project. However, he acknowledges that he has been unable to dedicate much time to it this year due to other commitments.

Dr. Pema Gyamtsho recounts that in the project’s early years, approximately 50 acres of land were developed, including the clearing of vegetation, field preparation, installation of electric fencing, and improvements to roads and drainage systems, with support from the National Organic Programme, dzongkhag, and gewog administrations.

The project also erected ten greenhouses with assistance from the Food and Agriculture Organization. Dr. Pema Gyamtsho emphasized that the project contributed to the restoration of degraded pastures used by the community dairy farm, involving clearing, drainage construction, and reseeding, with support from the Department of Livestock.

He added that the project provided employment opportunities to local youth and farmers from nearby villages, helping them earn income during the pandemic. The farm also engaged local tractors and power tillers for its operations.

In its initial year, the farm cultivated a variety of crops, including beans, peas, radishes, turnips, carrots, buckwheat, and mustard. However, due to high transportation costs and the absence of a local market, they distributed their produce for free to local monasteries and schools.

In the following year, the farm shifted its focus to potato cultivation, managing to sell only around 10 metric tons. Within the greenhouses, they grew chili peppers, tomatoes, zucchinis, and other vegetables, but faced a dearth of local demand, preventing sales.

In 2022, the farm encountered a significant setback as wild boars devoured a substantial portion of the potato crop.

The former OL disclosed that the farm had envisioned incorporating eco and agro-tourism initiatives in collaboration with local communities. However, this vision failed to materialize as tourist numbers dwindled over the past few years.

Nevertheless, based on lessons learned from previous years, the project has devised a business plan slated for implementation next year.

“The proposal is to invest in additional farm machinery to mitigate labor shortages, reinforce electric fencing with wire mesh fencing and repellents, and concentrate on the production of cereals such as buckwheat, wheat, and rye,” he explained.

Additionally, the project intends to hire a trained farm manager to spearhead operations later this year.

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