Reviving Nepal’s farms, naturally

Regenerative agriculture practices spread as farmers reject harmful chemicals

Kamala Khadka in Pokhara plants marigold to protect her tomato crops from being infested instead of using insecticides. Photo: SIMON CRITTLE

Marigolds are cherished in Nepali culture as symbols of energy, enthusiasm, and creativity. Guests are greeted with garlands made from these bright orange blooms, and they are also draped over doorways during Tihar. 

But marigolds (सयपत्री) are surprisingly utilitarian for Nepali farmers too, who use the flowers in their fields as natural bug repellant. Marigolds give off a musk-like odor that drives insects away from crops. 

“I plant marigold in rows around my tomato crops instead of using insecticides,” says Kamala Khadka, 52, who has been farming the mountains near Pokhara for 16 years. A mother of three, Khadka also makes a tidy profit selling the flowers during the festival season.  

As well as intercropping marigolds, Khadka practices other regenerative techniques that increase soil fertility. She now produces biochar, a soil supplement, by heating organic material in an oxygen-starved pit in her garden. 

She spreads the charcoal-like substance into the soil of her crop rows to increase its water-holding capacity, prevent nutrient loss, and provide a transport structure for microorganisms. 

regenerative farming in Nepal
Photo: SANJEEV GHIMIRE

“I’m optimistic about biochar since soil health is very important. We should use chemicals only as a last resort,” says Khadka.

In recent years, Nepal’s farms have been substantially impacted by infestations of pests such as fall armyworms. These bugs threaten food security across the country by destroying staple crops such as maize. Scientists say higher temperatures, caused by global warming, can prolong infestations. 

With 80% of Nepal’s population engaged in farming, and 20% living in poverty, farmers need to have access to the knowhow and tools that enable them to produce more food more sustainably. 

Many farmers are now returning to traditional remedies instead of chemical pesticides and herbicides which pollute by leaving behind heavy metals and acid in the soil.

The International Development Enterprise (iDE) is assisting this switch by intervening at critical points within the agricultural market system, helping small scale entrepreneurs prosper on their own terms. The organisation works closely with the government and community partners to promote changes in farming culture. 

Making farmers aware about topsoil nutrition and alternative income streams are essential in raising the living standards of farmers like Khadka. 

Getting organic supplies from store owners known as ‘agrovets’ directly to farmers is also crucial. One way this happens is through outreach workers who sell necessary agriculture products door-to-door. 

Farm to lab

regenerative farming in Nepal
Photo: SANJEEV GHIMIRE

In his white lab coat, government soil scientist Sunil Pandey runs soil samples through a battery of chemical tests. The samples come from farms across Gandaki Province, some collected by technicians and others delivered by farmers themselves. 

Pandey is testing for a range of variables: micronutrients, pH level, texture, and moisture. But mostly he wants to know the parameters of the three key elements: nitrogen, needed for growth; phosphorus, required for grain formation; and potassium, essential to plant respiration and hence sugar production.

But in recent decades nutrient levels in soil across the province have degraded. Pandey explains: “Farmers have fewer animals because they don’t need oxen to pull plows anymore. There is less compaction and less compost in the fields. Many farmers today use chemical fertiliser, leading to high soil acidity, which causes big problems.” 

Pandey provides technical support and oversight to iDE’s interventions in the region, working with the government to also promote the use of organic fertilisers such as vermicompost, as well as agricultural lime, which counteracts soil acidity. 

While farmers are widely aware about the benefits of organic compost, it is often not available to them.

Pest control without pesticides 

Padam Bahadur Rana, 55, deploys traps that use pheromones, which are chemical scents that animals give off, to lure bugs like fruit flies and leaf miners that feed that on his crops.  

“The male insects think they are going to meet a female,” says Rana, showing us one of the traps. “They get caught inside and die. This means there are fewer males in the next generation, so they have difficulty breeding.”

regenerative farming in Nepal
Padam Bahaur Rana demonstrates the use of traps to lure bugs that feed on his crops. Photo: SIMON CRITTLE

As much as 75% of cucumber crops can be destroyed if such pest management practices are not used. 

Near Lumbini, Bal Bahadur Rokaya, 66, runs a commercial buffalo farm that sells milk and breeds calves. But when the dairy business began losing money, he started a new venture producing vermicompost, an organic fertiliser made by treating manure with red earthworms. 

The compost resembles black soil, and contains plant nutrients and beneficial microorganisms. It vastly improves a rich organic soil amendment. 

“We’ve now reduced the amount of milk we produce and plan to get rid of buffaloes we no longer need,” says Rokaya. Fresh buffalo manure is collected in wheelbarrows and once partly dry, it is transferred into the pits before worms are added to the mix. The worms digest the dry manure and excrete castings. These are gathered and sifted by hand. 

regenerative farming in Nepal
Bal Bahadur Rokaya runs a buffalo farm near Lumbini. Photo: SIMON CRITTLE

The remaining vermicast is shoveled into canvas bags, which are sealed with a hand-held sewing machine and sold to farmers at a local market.

Bhagwan Parajuli sits at a cluttered desk in his agricultural supply store in Pokhara where he has worked for 20 years. The 56-year-old is surrounded by stacked boxes and stocked shelves, full of bottles and bags of chemical fertiliser and insecticide. 

Parajuli also sells organic products, which he says have become more popular in recent years. “Things are changing,” he says. “Farmers want to use organic mechanisms to control pests and disease these days.” 

Taking down an item used to kill caterpillars, he explains that it is made from the neem tree, which is well known for its medicinal properties and also used to make natural pesticides. Another bag contains Trichoderma, a fungus that protects crops from contracting root diseases, while another item is used to speed the decay of leaf litter and other organic matter, producing natural fertiliser. 

regenerative farming in Nepal
Bhagwan Parajuli at his agricultural supply store in Pokhara. Photo: SANJEEV GHIMIRE

Integrating traditional ecological knowledge with modern agricultural practices is part of a growing trend in Nepal. Farmers are being more conscious about how they use their lands, which are increasingly impacted by climate change, harmful pests, diseases and damaging modern farming practices.

Simon Crittle is at the International Development Enterprise (iDE) Global based in Colorado.

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