“My children shouldn't be farmers”

Is it any surprise that farmers in Chitwan are agitating?

She wakes up before dawn, throws away the blanket and heads quickly down to the cowshed, and promptly starts preparing the feed for her four cows. 

Already by 5AM the cows have been milked, the shed is cleaned, and the dung removed to the compost pit. Then by 7AM the milk is delivered to a collection centre 3km away.

This has been Durga Karki’s morning routine for the past 13 years. In the afternoons, she tends to her leased vegetable patch where tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower and radish are growing. 

farmers in Nepal

“If I do not work, my family has nothing to eat,” says Karki, 59, who lives in Bharatpur of Chitwan. “I have to feed my children, send them to school and buy them new clothes.”

Read also: Down on Bishnu's farm, Sahina Shrestha

Karki took up farming after her alcoholic husband, who regularly beat her, disappeared for good one day. “I didn’t waste my time worrying over him, and put my efforts into raising my children all on my own,” she says.

nepali farmer
CASHLESS CROP: Durga Karki spends over 12 hours a day tending to her cows and vegetable farm, but doesn't have enough funds to afford a gallbladder operation. She raised all her children on her own after her husband abandoned the family.All photos: SUMAN NEPALI

Of her five children, her oldest daughter is already married and another is studying journalism. The two younger daughters are in high school, and her youngest son is in Grade 5.

Altogether, their tuition fees total Rs15,000 a month, and another Rs10,00 is spent on books, uniforms and school lunches. Then there is another Rs10,000 a month in household expenses.

“There is so much expense but my only cash income is from milk. Vegetable farming has left me in debt,” explains Karki, who makes Rs50,000 a month selling milk. Even then, she spends Rs15,000 on cow feed and care, so there is not much savings.

Read also: Back to the future of farming, Anil Chitrakar

Durga took up vegetable farming hoping it would augment their income but she has been struggling. Most recently, she took a loan of Rs100,000 to plant cauliflowers in the plot, she made only Rs70,000.

“I don’t think it is because I cannot farm or I’m down on my luck, vegetable farming just does not have the margins,” says Durga, who cites the low price of her produce in the market.

nepali farmer

Farmers in Chitwan are agitating against the low prices middlemen pay by dumping tomatoes, cabbages and other vegetables along the East-west Highway. Karki’s neighbour Narahari Prasad Kandel agrees: "If you don't sell them in time, they will spoil. When you do sell them, you don’t get a price that is worth the produce.”

Kandel repeats the reason for the price drop: cheaper vegetable imports from India where farmers get subsidies for everything from seeds, fertilisers to diesel for irrigation pumps. In Nepal, the opposite is true.

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Back in the Karki household, the daughters help with the farm. She herself tends to her vegetable patch from 10AM to 7PM every day. And while they are struggling, the farm has also kept them together as a family.

As a matriarch, Karki had tried to keep her hopes up that things would change. But lately, she has been plagued by doubts. She wonders if others in different professions also live their life as miserably, if they too cannot pay their debts, afford schooling and healthcare even after working over 12 hours a day. 

nepali farmer

Now, she needs a gallbladder operation which she cannot afford, and her doubts about farming are deeper. She cannot lift heavy objects and physicians have told her to rest, but she cannot afford to do that either.

“I’m sick because of all these years on the farm and yet I couldn’t even earn enough to treat my condition,” laments Karki, pouring out her anxiety to a visiting reporter. “I have told my children they shouldn’t become farmers.”

Karki did reach out to a local agricultural extension centre which provided her with higher yield vegetable seeds, and new cultivation methods. This helped her yield but, once again, the market price was much lower than the investment.

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“We farmers just want our products to be sold and at a price that provides us with a living,” says Karki, who was given the run around by local government officials. Farmers in Chitwan have been agitating by staging street protests for fertilisers, irrigation and proper prices.

Says agricultural expert Krishna Poudel: “We have been relying on Singha Darbar to act so far, but now there is no choice but for the local government to step in to solve the problems of their farmers once and for all.” 

nepali farmer