Breaking barriers in agricultureImplementing and scaling innovations in mixed farming systems is possible only with inclusive policies.
The mid-hills of Nepal—known for terraced fields, fertile valleys and a traditional farming system integrated with livestock components—have contributed to food security and the national economy since time immemorial. However, this sector lacks adequate infrastructure, investment, agro-advisory tools and developed markets. Additionally, labour shortage, climate-induced risks to crop production, and weak agriculture governance have turned farmers away from agriculture while attracting them towards non-agricultural sectors.
Moreover, with men increasingly migrating to cities and foreign countries, the current agricultural practices primarily designed for men have become arduous for women and the elderly. Numerous patriarchal, socio-cultural and religious practices perpetuate gender- and caste-based discrimination, affecting women and Dalit farmers. For instance, women are forced to take on specific responsibilities, like milling and grinding, even during pregnancy. Additionally, caste and gender dynamics hinder women and Dalit farmers’ access to social networks, training and leadership positions, limiting their participation and opportunities.
On the one hand, the difficulties surrounding the agriculture sector have declined the labour force, leaving arable land fallow and impacting food security. On the other, there is a shift in the interest of farmers towards less labour-intensive, higher profit potential modern agricultural practices that utilise new technologies. This calls for urgently redesigning agriculture practices and addressing the challenges.
In Nepal, the International Water Management Institute and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, in collaboration with local governments in Gurbakot Municipality of Surkhet and Haleshi Tuwachung Municipality of Khotang, conducted research on Sustainable Intensification of Mixed Farming System (SI-MFS). The research found a noticeable shift in farmers’ interests in farming practices. Although many farmers practised conventional farming, they wanted innovations in six potential areas, including water technologies, alternative crops, high-value fruits and vegetables, livestock improvement, and fodder management to improve agriculture productivity.
The farmers also prioritised innovation around improving water availability through water conservation practices, such as multiple water use systems and drip and sprinkle irrigation. The farmers believed water availability could help them produce more vegetables, fruits and fodder, ultimately helping them to earn more. Likewise, the second preference of most of the farmers in both areas was innovation in livestock and fodder and forage improvement. They favoured goat farming due to its profitability and ease of selling to local traders.
Meanwhile, women farmers especially prioritised agro-mechanisation. They chose tools like grinding mills, mini-tillers and chaff cutters to reduce their workload based on infrastructure, cultural context and needs. In Khahare of Gurbakot Municipality, women preferred grinding mills to alleviate their workload. They had to walk up to four hours even during their pregnancy to grind grains, which is considered women’s responsibility. Men, youth, elderly and some returnee migrants were keen on growing high-value fruits like avocado, dragon fruits and litchis, depending on the area’s suitability. They think selling fruits together is more profitable and is a solution to reduce fallow lands.
Revamping the subsistence and mixed farming practices dominating the mid-hills of Nepal could be a solution to address some of the challenges. Integrating crop-tree-livestock systems to meet food requirements, utilising resources efficiently and diversifying risks might allow farmers to earn additional income. Research indicates that women, smallholders and landless farmers are more attracted to mixed farming to meet their family’s diverse food requirements. Sustainable intensification of mixed farming systems has the potential to produce diverse food on the same piece of land, benefitting current and future generations with reduced environmental impact.
Implementing and scaling innovations in mixed farming systems is only possible with inclusive government policies and regulations. A participatory and bottom-up approach is needed to create an enabling environment for innovation scaling. The concerned authorities should involve farmers in the selection, implementation and post-implementation stages of technical and social-institutional innovations. For successful implementation of innovation and scaling, it’s crucial to have farmers’ interests and ownership in interventions.
Similarly, it is also essential to address regressive social norms and practices. Further, the views and needs of women, the elderly and marginalised farmers are often overlooked in male-dominated policies and programme designs, so recognising heterogeneity among farmers is essential for successful interventions. Piloting and scaling plans should be designed with consideration for diverse groups. Women’s free time, workload and safe participation space should be prioritised to ensure that interventions improve physical and mental health rather than just financial considerations.
Farmers, including women and Dalit farmers, lack awareness about subsidies, input-related information and skills to apply for municipal benefits. Therefore, soft skill training should be conducted in addition to technical training. Empowering them with information on consumer preferences, market trends, and value chain opportunities will enable informed decisions on crop selection, production planning and post-harvest management. Agriculture-related subsidies are primarily provided to groups by the municipality and co-operatives. Strengthening these groups enables connections with governmental and non-governmental institutions, including co-operatives, banks, non-governmental organisations and international organisations, to obtain funds for agro-mechanisation and inputs.
Linking farmers and the market
Additionally, it is vital to enhance irrigated agricultural value chains, including agro-infrastructure, market and value chain. Despite having access to earthen roads, farmers travel long distances to sell their produce, often leading to unsold vegetables being fed to livestock. Establishing market linkages with potential buyers and creating storage facilities enable efficient production usage. Involving farmer groups in value-added activities such as grading, packaging, and processing improves the local market and creates diverse income streams. Moreover, enhancing agricultural value chains, establishing market linkages and boosting infrastructure are crucial steps toward a prosperous future for mid-hill agriculture.
To reiterate, Nepal’s mid-hill agriculture faces multifaceted challenges at a critical juncture. Hence, with inclusive policy, programmes, socio-technological interventions and scaling, sustainable intensification of mixed farming systems could play an essential role in improving the livelihood of farmers along with the establishment of women and elderly-friendly farming practices. This can break barriers and secure food security and economic prosperity in Nepal’s mid-hills.