Counting Greens!

“We are not sure if we are making a profit or a loss when we sell our crops. We are earning some money, we know, but we never keep track. We are like people grappling in the dark when it comes to our accurate income.”

– members of Saunetham Farmer’s Group, Gudel (January 2015)

Saunthetham Farmer’s Group in Gudel

In rural Nepal, most families follow subsistence agriculture as their chief occupation. Employment opportunities are extremely limited. In recent years, this has driven a significant portion of the village youth to pursue risky jobs abroad specially in Gulf countries. Now, Nepal derives more than 30% of its annual GDP through remittance sent by these migrant workers. In our working areas in some of the most remote valleys of Eastern Nepal, outbound migration is lower than other parts of the country due to the seasonal employment provided by trekking jobs in the Everest region. However, both of these big income providers come with their own share of hardship, and challenges including family separation as well as dangerous working environments.

A porter in the Everest region resting briefly!

When we started an ambitious agriculture program in 2014 by popular and repeated demand from our partner communities, we set new income generation as one of our primary goals. Our first priority was improved nutrition, but additional income support to families by selling new cash crops would be a close second. To this end, we set a goal that at least 50% of our farmers will be earning more than USD $200 at the end of 5 years.

A simple goal of our evaluation efforts was to learn how much each farmer household was earning each year. But when we asked people how much they had made, we got answers like the ones provided by our members from Saunthem Farmer’s Group. It proved difficult for people to remember what they had sold and for how much and what volume in the past year. Stumped, we put together our head to devise a simple tool which will help farmers track their farming activities including income and expenses.

After piloting of a few tentative forms and sheets, we finally created the Farmer Record Sheet (FRS) – a small booklet like a bank passbook which is provided to each and every farmer so they can record their activities and earnings each month.

Second edition of our Farmer’s Record Sheet

There are separate columns to record which vegetables or crops were sold by the farmers, what amount and how much they earned from those sales. It also has columns to record expenses incurred for farming activities like purchase of farm tools or seeds. Farmers can also record what vegetables they have planted on that particular month as well as what they have harvested. This sheet also has a place to record any diseases or problems encountered in the kitchen garden every month.

Page 1 and 2 of the Farmer Record Sheet!
Page 3 and 4 of the Farmer Record Sheet!

These 4 pages shown above are repeated for 12 months so that farmers can enter their activities for the entire year in a single book. After a 12 month cycle, farmers can then consolidate all of their expenses, sales, crops planted and harvested – thus having a complete picture of what their household profit has been, which crops were more successful, and what their household consumed throughout the year.

Our evaluation team records their profit every three months – thus giving us the important data we need to measure the output of our agriculture program!

Distribution of Farmer Record Sheet for the second year in Sotang
Distribution of Farmer Record Sheet in Rakha.
Distribution of Farmer Record Sheet in Sungdel

 

Since more than 50% of our farmers cannot properly read or write, we have multiple approaches to make sure that the records are filled in regularly. In some farmer’s groups, we have involved the children of the household, making filling out the forms part of their daily homework. Our agriculture technicians also visit farmer’s groups during their monthly meetings and help the farmers who were unable to fill in their records. Within each farmer’s group, we also help form a sub-committee of literate farmers who checks the books of other members and help them fill these out.

Agriculture Technician Thamsari briefing farmer’s group about how to fill the records!
Farmer members discussing about Farmer record sheet during their monthly meeting in Sotang.
Members of a farmer’s group helping each other out in filling their record book.

Our agriculture income data has become more robust, reliable and organized since we replaced the household survey method with the record sheet system. This has been working well for almost 2 years now. Our latest records show that 82% of our farmers from 9 communities are earning an average income of Nrs. 18,941 (~USD 180) by selling vegetables and spice crops! There are currently 3,465 farmers within our agriculture program.

Buddi Kumari Kulung from Gudel shows us her Farmer Record Sheet and capsicum pepper that she is growing in a sack

Now, farmers like Buddi Kumari have a clear picture of what their yearly income is from farming. Based on the data that she has written down in her record book, she can make informed choices of which crops to invest in the coming years. A tool that we developed to help us understand how effective our program was, has become an important tool in helping our farmers evolve into entrepreneurs.

Chandramani Rai from Rokhola Farmer’s Group shows us her Farmer’s Record Sheet.
Farmer Record Sheet of Chandra Kumari Rai from Rokhola Farmer’s Group.
Chandramani Rai shows us an inside page of her FRS. According to the entry for this month,  she sold banana and hot pepper and earned Nrs. 1600 (USD16).

 

Eating Better, Earning More!

For the first time in my life I sold tomatoes and earned NRs 8,000 this year. From the money, I bought myself new clothes and a new shawl. I gave away so many tomatoes and cabbages to my friends and neighbors, there’s no keeping track.

Bhagwati Pariyar
Namuna Farmer’s Group, Dipsung

dipsung farmer small

Income generation is a crucial component to our Deep Development model. Supporting health, education, and culture makes a tremendous difference in people’s lives, but providing them with a means to earn money can be truly empowering. The approach to our agriculture program is simple – we listen to farmers and to nature, and we bring the markets to the farmers’ doorstep.

1. Listen to the farmers

Each year, we plan our agriculture strategy around what the farmers want to grow and want to learn. Farmers know their soils and their communities, and they are aware of market trends. We may suggest new varieties or techniques, but all of our activities start with local demand.

2. Listen to nature

We also look at which crops are feasible for which particular micro-climate and altitude. We encourage farmers to follow organic methods of controlling pests and diseases. For some of the crops whose geographical feasibility for that particular area is unknown, we introduce them as “trial crops” in limited quantity to test their viability.

3. Bringing the market home
Our partner communities and partner farmers live in some of Nepal’s most remote communities. Markets are a long ways away – often take many days of walking to reach. Our strategy is not to bring products to market, but instead to focus on products that have enough value to bring the markets into these remote areas.
This is where the farmers come in again. They know the traders, and they know what is in high demand locally. Accordingly, we have had great success with growing durable crops like onions, hot peppers, and other spices. Medicinal plants like the herb chirito and black cardamon can increase incomes for farmers in our project areas by thousands of dollars per year – without them ever having to leave their community.
Employing these three simple mantras, we have sat down with over 2,500 farmers to create a locally driven agriculture program since the mid of 2014.
Ag Program Slide 1
Impacts
We are glad to share that in a recent evaluation, we learned 98% of farmers in our agriculture programs are consuming more vegetables, and another 65% are earning new income. Over two dozen farmers have raised their incomes by more than $2,000 USD per year – nearly three times the average annual income for Nepal.
The crops that are the most popular among majority of farmers for income purpose are red onion, ginger, turmeric, green peppers, chiraito and cardamom. All of these crops can be stored for a longer time without the danger of spoiling, and local merchants often come to the farmer’s home to buy these off because they are so much in demand. Farmers here have always grown these crops but in a very limited quantity which was barely enough for their household. We gave the farmers incentive to grow these crops in large scale by giving them training on more efficient technology, be helping them select healthy and productive seed and introducing limited subsidy for the first year.
Earning Income
Nanda Kumari Rai has started making small income through selling of onions and other vegetables. She shares happily that this new income has helped her to support in the education of her children.
Bishnu Karki  had a very successful year from his “Akbare” hot peppers in 2015. He shares with us that he added some 20 plants of his own in the 30 that we supported him in the first year and earned about NRs. 8,000 from them. “Akabare” peppers are incredibly spicy, and a very lucrative cash crop in rural Nepal.
Similarly, Manmaya and Dhan Bahadur Rai sold their first ever cabbages last year worth around Nrs. 400(~USD4). Dhan Bahadur explains jovially that he distributed much cabbages freely to his friends, neighbors and relatives too. This year, the couple are earnestly waiting to harvest their turmeric which will fetch them a few thousand rupees.

ag collage
From L to R-Nanda Devi, Bishnu and the duo of Manmaya and Dhan Bahadur

Eating Better 

Another great benefit of our agricultural programs are that farmers are eating fresh vegetables when previously such were not available locally. The women members of our farmers’ groups share that it has been especially easy for them when guests come as they do not have to fret over what to cook anymore. They just have to get to their kitchen garden where a variety of herbs, spices and vegetables can be found year round.

Before our programs started, many farmers could only eat cauliflowers, broccoli, parsley, tomato, turnip, carrot and other green vegetables when they traveled to the large cities of the southern plains or Kathmandu. Thanks to our work, these delicious and healthy crops are available right there in their doorstep, growing in their yard.

Challenges

There are also many challenges and hurdles that come our way. They are what keeps us grounded, learning, and continuously on our toes. Some of the main challenges is lack of water sources for irrigation in many places. Then there are also the issues of bio-pesticides not being enough to control many harmful pests and diseases. This is a global problem with organic agriculture but we are patiently experimenting with our farmers to develop an optimal system for pest management that relies upon local techniques and ingredients. Our farmers are scattered throughout the difficult hilly terrain and it is also a challenge for our small team to regularly make house visits and monitor their vegetable plots.

Looking Forward

In response to community demand, we have set an ambitious goal – to more than double the scope of our income generation programs – thus bringing new sources of income and better nutrition to 4,000 families in some of the poorest communities in Nepal. We will be increasing the number of our farmers group, and also expand to several other neighboring communities throughout 2016 and 2017.

You can learn more about our agriculture program in detail including the challenges in our 2015 evaluation report.