Imported potatoes appear in highlands as winter drought decreases yieldsTaplejung district, long known as a heartland of potato cultivation, now imports the vegetable.
Tenzing Walung of Olangchung Gola village had to buy potatoes from Phungling, the district headquarters of Taplejung district, long known as a heartland of potato growing, due to a shortage this year.
The mountain district in eastern Nepal which borders Tibet in the north, suffered a winter drought which decreased yield. Farmers said that soil health was another problem they had been facing for a few years.
Potatoes are cultivated here on a commercial level, but production has been falling short of demand.
Walung was surprised to find out that the potatoes he had bought were grown in India's Bihar state, which lies at an elevation of 52 metres above sea level, and transported all the way to 3,000-metre-high Taplejung in the Himalayan mountains.
From Bihar, the cargo is carried by truck to Lelep, and from there by mule and donkey caravan to the highlands.
“The potatoes come in 30-kg bags,” said Walung. The vegetables arrive in Birtamod, Jhapa in the southern Tarai plains, and reach the villages in the mountain region. "I heard these potatoes were from Ilam, but they are actually imported from India."
Locals said that they had never heard of Indian potatoes being sent to Olangchung Gola as Taplejung district is itself a potato zone.
Dandu Sherpa from Lelep Ghunsa of Phaktanglung rural municipality-6 also imported Indian potatoes this year.
Rice, pulses, salt, oil and other food items from India besides potatoes have also reached Ghunsa.
There are a large number of hotels serving tourists at the base camp of 8,586-metre-tall Kanchenjunga, the second highest mountain in Nepal and the third highest in the world. Nowadays they all depend on imported goods, mostly from India, for their requirements.
Potatoes grown in Olangchung Gola were being sold not only locally but also in the lower settlements of Phaktanglung rural municipality.
Walung said that potato production dropped sharply in Yangma, the key producing area. "Yangma used to produce 5.76 tonnes of potatoes annually, but this year output plunged to 1.44 tonnes," said Walung.
“As a large portion of the potato harvest is kept to be used as seeds, farmers are buying Indian potatoes," he said.
According to Sherpa, they had to buy Indian potatoes for the first time this year, even though the quality is not good as the local variety.
Cheten Sherpa Bhote, chairman of ward number 7 of Phaktanglung rural municipality, said that some villages in Taplejung had to depend on imported potatoes as production declined significantly due to the winter drought.
"We are also very concerned about the drop in production," Bhote said. "We are trying to import new varieties of potato seeds by testing the soil," he added.
Cheten Walung, spokesperson for Phaktanglung rural municipality, said that discussions were underway to bring a team of experts to test the soil as potato yields had been declining for the past few years. "The drop in production has not only worried farmers but also local authorities.”
Locals said that production declined as a result of poor soil health. They said that the seed replacement rate was also poor as farmers were planting the same varieties for years. According to them, the key challenge is climate change.
Potatoes are cultivated commercially in Olangchung Gola, Yangma, Ghunsa, Khambachen, Phale and Gyabla villages.
Residents of Ghunsa used to make seasonal migration to Phale to escape the snow in winter and also to cultivate potatoes. They also used to go to Khambachen for farming purposes. But due to the decline in potato production, farmers have left the field barren.
Local farmers claimed that they had not been able to continue potato farming because soil testing was not being done. They said agricultural experts were not doing studies, and they were not getting any assistance from them.
The then District Agriculture Development Office and rural municipality ignored the problems of farmers despite knowing about them, they said.
Sherpa said the problem could be solved by simply doing a soil test. “The Agriculture Knowledge Centre should send a team of experts to each village to conduct studies.”
Potato production in the district covers 61 wards. According to the Agriculture Knowledge Centre, up to 50,000 tonnes of potatoes are produced in the district annually.
The market price of potato ranges from Rs25 per kg in the off season to as high as Rs95 per kg. Potatoes become dear from mid-October to mid-November.
“Computed on the basis of the average price of Rs40 per kg, the district trades potatoes worth Rs1.93 billion annually,” said Harish Chandra Silwal, an agriculture expert. The district produces two potato crops a year—summer and winter. The yield is less in winter.