Families that farm together stay together

Households take to small-scale sustainable agriculture to adapt to climate change and improve income

Khemraj and Pabitra Sapkota

Like many Nepalis, Surendra Dhami left his home village in Darchula for Malaysia in the hope of improving his family’s quality of life. 

He returned in a few months because the work and pay were not what he had been promised by the recruiter. But there were no jobs in Darchula, and farming in the rugged arid mountains would not feed his family.

So, like many other mountain farmers Dhami, 36, migrated with his family down to the Tarai to settle in the village of Gharkheda in Kailali’s Chure Rural Municipality.

It was a good move. He sold 10,000kg of oranges last year, and Surendra and his wife Bhaka have diversified into vegetables. 

“So far, we can make a living with our farming. At least, it is better than in Darchula,” says 30-year-old Bhaka Dhami.

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Surendra and Bhaka Dhami

Neighbour Krishna Devi Kandel and her husband Devendra have involved all five of their children in their farm. The orange trees are not doing well because of infestation, and the failure of winter rains affected crops. 

“We do not have irrigation and do not get as much rain as we used to,” says Devendra.

Chure village is full of families who have moved down from Darchula, Baitadi and other mountain districts to the north. But even here, erratic rains due to the climate crisis have impacted farming. 

Diversifying crops is the best way to cope, which is what Pabitra Sapkota has also done. After her orange trees died, she has moved to vegetables. 

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Pabitra Sapkota

“The tomatoes that my son planted in this greenhouse are nearly ripe,” she says, clutching a lush bunch of mustard greens.  

The Chure range in western Nepal rises to elevations of 2,500m, unlike in the east where it is less than 500m. It is the youngest, lowest and weakest of the folds that form the Himalayan range, and the first ridges to rise up from the plains.

The Chure covers nearly 13% of Nepal’s area, and runs through 37 of the 77 districts from Jhapa in the east to Kanchanpur in the west. It is a fragile range, where deforestation has led to frequent landslides and floods. 

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Aftermath of a flood

“The Chure watershed is deteriorating and there are frequent droughts, further declining farm productivity,” explains Sushmita Dhakal of the President Chure Terai-Madhes Conservation Development Board set up in 2014. 

One way recent migrants from the mountains to Chure are adapting to the crisis is through family farming, without hired labour for better food security, nutrition and to protect the environment.

The United Nations declared 2019-2028 a Decade of Family Farming to preserve traditional agriculture, increase the involvement of youth, recognise women’s leadership, promote sustainable agriculture and improve livelihoods.

In doing so, family farming also protects households from the climate crisis by  diversifying crops. It is also an antidote to water-intensive commercial farming with its use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.   

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Devendra and Krishna Devi Kandel

At one point, more than 80% of Nepal’s population depended on agriculture, and most were family farms. But the figure has come down to 62%. Agriculture now contributes only 25% to the GDP.
Agronomists say that family farming can reverse the decline by making agriculture profitable again. Vegetable farmers of Lisbeli village prove that: their products have a ready market in the towns of western Nepal. 

Dammari Bhatta works on her vegetable patch with her family and does not hire anyone else. The cabbages, cauliflowers and tomatoes are enough to feed her family all year around, and she sells the surplus to pay for the education of her children. 

Her husband Madanraj Bhatta leads the Lisbeli Farmers’ Group which sold 1,700kgs of cabbage and 700kgs of tomato this winter.

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Dammari and Madanraj Bhatta

None of the 30 families here in Lisbeli use chemical fertilisers, and apply organic manure instead. This in turn has reduced pest infestation and diseases in the crops all the while restoring soil quality.  

“Home fertiliser has increased harvest, and made the soil more fertile,” says Manju Jagriti, an ex-teacher, now a full time farmer. “The whole family farms, and we do everything together,” says Manju proudly.

Family farming is nothing new in Nepal, it has been the traditional method of agriculture. But many families moved away as commercial farming using agrochemicals took over. Now, families are moving back to the old method of growing food. 

Says agriculture scientist Binayak Bhandari: “We need to go back to our old sustainable farming ways, protect the environment and find the fine balance between nature and livelihood, especially to adapt to the climate crisis.”