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Flash in the Pan

On the trail of organic food in Bhutan



Chef Boy Rice Paddy here, e-mailing another Flash in the Pan from Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between the plains of India and the Tibetan plateau. I’m here with a group of University of Montana students, studying the agriculture (and of course, the food!) of Bhutan.

At the heart of the Bhutanese agricultural paradigm is the belief that human agricultural systems and natural ecosystems can and must live in harmony. This belief manifests itself in an amazing integration of top-down and ground-up management plans. Villagers are consulted about their needs, observations, and knowledge, and this information is used by government policymakers in drafting and implementing national agriculture policy.

The intermediaries in this dialectic are the extension agents, who are spread all over the country (a tall order when 70 percent of the population lives more than a mile—and many vertical feet—from any road). Extension agents stay in touch with the ebb and flow of farming life, passing out technical advice and material supplies, while gathering information for the ministers and policy makers about such issues as marketing difficulties, pest control, livestock depredation by wild animals, and so on. From time to time, the Ministry of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Training Institute offers training sessions on such skills as bee keeping and shiitake mushroom cultivation, activities which provide supplemental cash to the farmers’ income.

In the lush valley of Punakha, our group stops for lunch at the home of Kencho Tshering, a farmer so on top of the ball that Chef Boy Rice Paddy (CBRP) will hereafter call him “guru,” which means “teacher.” Guru Kencho’s farm is teeming with more shades of green than I can count, and most of the teeming life can be eaten, smelled, pressed, or otherwise utilized. The flowers are filled with bees. Clay terraces on the hillside above the blue-green river are filled with rice, eggplant, tomato, chilies, and many more crops than can be named here. The edges and bottoms of the terraces are sculpted from clay soil, while the planting beds are tilled in with leaves gathered from the forest and then used as animal bedding before being composted into a rich soil additive. The clay boundaries of the terraces hold the water in a moat around the raised beds, keeping them moist. Grass growing around the edges of the terrace is harvested and fed to the animals. The farm has the feeling of being a complete ecosystem.

Guru Kencho recently built a vegetable cooler of his own design, in which the inner and outer walls of brick are separated by a three-inch layer of sand through which spring water circulates en route to the river below. The design for the cooler, which works like a charm, was recently picked up by the local extension agent and incorporated into a poster being circulated around Bhutan.

On the second floor of guru Kencho’s house, we squeeze around a low table and press handfuls of Bhutanese red rice into balls, which are then dipped into bowls of potato and bean curry. Everything we eat that day, including the home-pressed mustard oil and spices for the cucumber salad, was home grown. It was a spectacular meal. This visit was the epicenter of our trip, and Guru Kencho was my hero.

Somewhere between the theoretical poles of farming and policymaking is the National Farmers’ Market in the capitol city of Thimphu. Like the Missoula Farmers’ Market, it happens on Saturdays, and they offer potatoes, onions, garlic, and pretty much everything else we do. Unlike the Missoula Farmers’ Market, however, you can also buy ginger, bananas, mangos, lemongrass, coconuts, dried fish, okra, fiddlehead ferns, lime, cubes of yak cheese, wild eggplant, sugarcane, banana flower, pineapple, jackfruit, and litchi fruit, to name a few. Spanning an elevation range between 300 and 25,000 feet above sea level, practically anything can be grown in Bhutan.

Meanwhile, monks in maroon robes test hand cymbals while vendors hawk singing bowls, inlaid conch shells, bows and arrows, incense, yak horn drinking vessels, and decorated human skulls. I watch a tourist buy an amulet from a beautiful Tibetan woman. She tells him the price: “200.” He obliviously hands her $200. “No sir,” she says, “200 Nyltrum [about $4]. You need to separate your money, so you don’t make that mistake again.”

One night our group is thrown a party by the Minister of Agriculture, one of six ministers directly below the King in the political hierarchy. I sit next to the minister and gush about how amazing Bhutan is, and how we all hope that this visit is the first step in building a long relationship between Missoula and Bhutan. The minister agrees. We discuss ways to solidify an institutional relationship of exchange between the University of Montana and the Bhutanese Ministry of Agriculture. The minister is especially interested in UM’s Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS). “Organic agriculture is something that we are encouraging as much as possible,” the Minister of Agriculture of Bhutan tells me. Meanwhile, the food we ate that night, and the ara that we drank, were not a problem.

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