Hazel­nut project yet to bear fruit?

Famers in many parts of hazel­nut plan­ta­tion ar­eas have lost hope of reap­ing the ben­e­fits as hazel­nut trees refuse to fruit even af­ter a decade or so. How­ever, Bhutan Moun­tain Hazel­nut says farm­ers are im­pa­tient and hazel­nuts have been har­vested in older o

Business Bhutan - - Front Page - Chen­cho Dema from Thim­phu

A decade back, farm­ers in the east es­pe­cially in Mon­gar and Pema­gat­shel were cap­ti­vated by the com­mer­cial prospects of hazel­nut plan­ta­tion. To­day, lit­tle of that ini­tial gusto, if any, re­mains.

As­sured of a buyer in Bhutan Moun­tain Hazel­nut (BMH) - the first 100% For­eign Di­rect In­vest­ment Com­pany in Bhutan – farm­ers took the plunge, plant­ing hazel­nut over large swathes of land.

Farm­ers were also told that they would reap the fruits of their la­bor af­ter three years from the in­cep­tion of the hazel­nut project. Farm­ers now say the hazel­nut trees are yet to bear fruits, even af­ter more than ten years of wait­ing. Some farm­ers feel that they have been taken for a ride by the hazel­nut project.

A farmer in Dram­etse in Mon­gar said he planted hazel­nut trees with a hope to earn ex­tra in­come for his

fam­ily but even af­ter more than five years of plan­ta­tion, the trees have not started fruit­ing. “I feel like I have wasted my time in plant­ing the wrong crop. I would have earned some­thing had I in­vested in some other crops,” he added.

Many farm­ers, who are in­volved in the hazel­nut plan­ta­tion, share sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments.

Norbu, a farmer and Tshogpa of Tokari Chi­wog in Nanong Ge­wog, Pema­gat­shel, who planted hazel­nut saplings over one acre of his land, said many years have passed and the plants have grown into trees but there are no fruits.

“A few trees though had fruits but the fruits con­tained no seeds. Peo­ple are upset about the har­vest and have given up plant­ing hazel­nut trees now,” he said.

He said that he had to pay la­bor charges to clear the land only to re­ceive noth­ing in re­turn. “To en­cour­age peo­ple to grow hazel­nuts, the hazel­nut com­pany bought and paid for the fruits con­tain­ing no seeds,” Norbu said.

The Gup of Dung­min Ge­wog in Pema­gat­shel, Ugyen Tsh­er­ing said peo­ple have now stopped plant­ing hazel­nut saplings and tak­ing care of the hazel­nut plants which they had planted ear­lier. “The is­sue on hazel­nut was raised a few years back dur­ing the Dzongkhag Tshogdu and the case was in­ves­ti­gated but still there is no sign of fruit­ing,” he added.

Ac­cord­ing to the Gup of Zo­bel Ge­wog in Pema­gat­shel, Pema Dorji, al­most ev­ery house­hold in the ge­wog had planted hazel­nut trees. Ini­tially when the hazel­nut plants were dis­trib­uted to the peo­ple, they were told that the plants would grow fruits af­ter three years of plan­ta­tion. How­ever, there has been so sign of fruit­ing.

Out of 400 house­holds in Zo­bel Ge­wog, 150 house­holds had planted hazel­nut plants. “They had taken care of the plants well but they are yet to reap the re­turns,” said the Gup.

Sim­i­larly, the Gup of Nanong Ge­wog, Sonam Jamt­sho said, “There is no sign of fruit­ing from the hazel­nuts plants even af­ter al­most seven years now.”

Talk­ing to Busi­ness Bhutan, the Manag­ing Di­rec­tor of BMH, Dr. Sean Philip Wat­son, said the moun­tain hazel­nut busi­ness is a long term part­ner­ship in which the for­eign in­vestor will re­ceive no in­come for more than a decade de­spite hav­ing in­vest­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars.

“Like­wise, the farm­ers in­vest their la­bor and in­puts for a num­ber of years prior to mak­ing a fi­nan­cial re­turn. The wait­ing time is gen­er­ally less than with ap­ples and or­anges. Also hazel­nuts risk from un­cer­tain mar­ket de­mand and plant health is min­i­mal com­pared to other crops,” he said.

Dr. Wat­son also said that the com­pany was not ap­proved 10 years ago and the com­pany did not dis­trib­ute any hazel­nut plants to or­chards un­til 2012, which re­mained a small num­ber for sev­eral years.

From the out­set, ac­cord­ing to him, the plan was to plant a to­tal of 10mn hazel­nut trees across Bhutan, start­ing in eastern and cen­tral part of the coun­try, and then ex­pand to ap­pro­pri­ate plant­ing ar­eas else­where in the coun­try. All the or­chards are in de­graded and fal­low land be­tween 1,800 and 3,000 me­ters above sea level.

“The ma­jor­ity of the trees is younger than three years and is not old enough to pro­duce nuts. In many of the or­chards, the pol­l­enizer trees were planted a year or more later than the pro­duc­tion va­ri­eties,” said Dr. Wat­son.

Some pa­tience and ad­just­ments are al­ways re­quired as plants ac­cli­ma­tize but fun­da­men­tals are sound, he said. “High qual­ity nuts have been har­vested in older or­chards where pol­l­eniz­ers are ma­ture enough.”

When asked why the prob­lem was al­lowed to fes­ter for so long and took the project a decade to act on the non-pol­li­na­tion is­sue, Dr. Wat­son said while the MoU was signed nine and half years ago, the first years were fo­cused on build­ing nurs­ery in­fra­struc­ture, train­ing staff, and plant­ing a small num­ber or demon­stra­tion or­chards.

“Sub­se­quently, plants were grown in the nurs­eries and larger scale dis­tri­bu­tion of hazel­nut plants only be­gan six years ago,” he added.

Be­sides, he also said that pol­l­eniz­ers were later in de­liv­ery and fewer in num­ber due to pro­duc­tion dif­fi­cul­ties, which have now been solved.

“High qual­ity nuts are com­ing where pol­l­eniz­ers are now ma­ture enough. Graft­ing pro­gram un­der­way is the fastest method to fill the gap in more ma­ture or­chards and 2021 will see a very large com­mer­cial har­vest,” said Dr. Wat­son.

This pol­li­na­tion ad­just­ment has been ex­pe­ri­enced in other new hazel­nut plant­ings in Aus­tralia, Chile, and Ge­or­gia, he said. “They suc­ceeded us­ing sim­i­lar meth­ods.”

Talk­ing on the draw­backs of grow­ing hazel­nut, Dr. Wat­son said it is a long term in­vest­ment project and farm­ers are learn­ing to man­age the crops and cli­matic is­sue which comes with in­ter­ven­tion.

“An­other is­sue is hu­man wildlife con­flict. Farm­ers are new to the crop and they are im­pa­tient. They do not pri­or­i­tize the nuts,” he said, adding that a hazel­nut tree has a life span of 54 years and some more than 100 years. “There seem to be mis­in­for­ma­tion among the farm­ers. Hazel­nut trees do grow nat­u­rally but they need a bit of at­ten­tion, how­ever, af­ter the fruit­ing not much of at­ten­tion is needed,” he added. “More ad­vo­ca­cies are needed for the farm­ers to un­der­stand on grow­ing moun­tain hazel­nuts.”

If suc­cess­ful, ac­cord­ing to Dr. Wat­son, the project would not only gen­er­ate a fi­nan­cial re­turn for in­vestors but also greatly in­crease the cash in­come of par­tic­i­pat­ing farm­ers.

He said al­ready BMH has had a con­sid­er­able pos­i­tive so­cial im­pact by di­rectly em­ploy­ing more than 800 peo­ple, many of whom are ru­ral women with­out for­mal ed­u­ca­tion or em­ploy­ment, and more than 1,200 peo­ple de­rive their liveli­hoods by pro­vid­ing sup­port goods and ser­vices to the moun­tain hazel­nut.

“In eight months time, more than 4,000 farm­ers will be taken to visit the best prac­ticed farm­ing site of moun­tain hazel­nut so that they can prac­tice back in their farms. Last year 1,000 farm­ers were trained through such ex­change pro­grams,” Dr. Wat­son said.

Mean­while, the floor price of moun­tain hazel­nut is Nu 30-33 a kilo when sold to the com­pany. The pro­cess­ing will be done in Bhutan and later ex­ported to Eu­rope and Asia.

Last year 13 tons of moun­tain hazel­nut were pro­duced and they ex­pect more har­vest this year.

Ly­onch­hen Dr Lo­tay Tsh­er­ing held dis­cus­sion on ed­u­ca­tion, health­care, agri­cul­ture, gen­der and other ar­eas of pri­or­i­ties with Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s Di­rec­tor Gen­eral for In­ter­na­tional Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment (DEVCO) Ste­fano Manservisi at the Gya­ly­ong Tshogkhang yes­ter­day af­ter­noon.

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