Hazel Nuts to Alleviate Poverty in Bhutan

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Last week, Bhutan’s Agriculture Minister Dr. Pema Gyamtsho and Daniel Spitzer the manager of Sage Partners Limited, USA and the Chairperson of Timber Products, China, signed a memorandum of understating (MoU) to grow hazel nuts on a commercial scale in Bhutan’s eastern districts where most of the nation’s rural poor live.

The project is the first of its type in many aspects. This is the first large scale sustainable project the new democratic government is taking to its people. It is also the first case of partnership between a private US enterprise and the Bhutanese government. This welcomes an international tycoon, after a long reluctance, right into Bhutan’s rural heart. Besides trees for timber, this is the first commercial crop to be planted in the country.

The government’s plan to introduce the exotic nut and commercialize it is a praiseworthy challenge. The Bhutan-grown nuts are expected to be of superior quality. The soil and environment of Bhutan’s mid belt are suitable for hazelnut cultivation except for sporadic hurricanes and hailstorms during early spring when the plants flower. The plant is hardy in many aspects.

An easy-to-grow and profitable commercial crop of hazel nuts will certainly bring relief to the poor farmers, provided that they get motivation to wait for the initial five to six years for the commercial scale harvest to begin, and a few more years to pay back the debt.

The commercial harvest begins after 6 years at the earliest, provided fungal and bacterial attacks are prevented. A well established orchard lives for 4 to 5 decades. For the government it is a beginning of a new relationship with the American industrial tycoon, while to the farmers it is like asking them to marry it, to live with it for the rest of their lives.

Cultivation practices required are similar to those used for peach and persimmon, except for the time. Hazels begin flowering in late winter and the flowers last for weeks, thus the chances of fruit failure is low. However, strong wind and high temperature fluctuations cause empty nut sets and make nuts fall before maturity.

Although wild hazel nuts are abundant in Bhutan’s mid hills, commercial cultivars demand intensive care, regular nutrition and fertilizer to meet international standards in size and quality. An approximate dose of 130 kg nitrogen, 52 kg phosphorous and 117 kg potassium per hectare is necessary to keep the orchard healthy.

Nitrogen helps plant development and increases kernel size, potassium is necessary to maintain the nut quality and phosphorous helps to maintain fecundity and fruit set.

Hazel nuts are attacked by many predators, pests and diseases. Squirrels, hazel weevils, bud mite and aphids are prevalent but easy to control. Though exotic, Xanthomonas compestris strain of bacteria which causes bacterial blight, fungus Criptosporids coryli which attacks and desiccates buds, stems and catkins (flowers), and ascomycete Angiogramma anomala which causes Eastern filbert blight, can even pass through very strict quarantines, and are difficult to control.

It is labor intensive during weeding, pruning of branches, fertilization and harvest. As the summers are rainy, there is not much to worry about regarding irrigation except during the seedling stage; but a proper drainage system is a must. As the hazel orchards live as long as the farmers’ life, during which time the purchasing power of farmers change and technological development advances, a proper planning now must be able to fulfill the changing needs in the future. The planting design must suit mechanical harvest in future.

At present, harvest of nuts in other parts of the world are done in four major ways: using harvesting vacuum machines; using sweepers and pick up machines in tandem; using metallic broomers or blowers to fell fruits followed by mechanical cleaning; and by hand picking. Careful planning is necessary to leave the option for mechanical harvest feasible in future, for which a proper plant-to-plant distance must be maintained.

Although it is the first grand policy the government is bringing into the poorest segment of the population, growers must not be carried away by the chocolaty dreams. There are numerous hurdles to break before the nuts begin to change into dollars. The farmers need incentives and adequate training, support in the waiting period.

A single variety does not yield fruits. The flowers are self incompatible. At least 4 different species must be grown for successful fertilization and nut set. Not all varieties cross fertilize. A high yielding variety on average produces 5-8 kg of nuts, some plants, used only as pollinators. give none. When the plants are grown on a slope, the plants at the highest eleviation may not always get pollinated. In places where the wind continuously blows from one direction, the first rows of trees on the windward side bear few nuts.

The present market value of raw nut is $4 – 5 in the international market. The price however soars up multiple fold after adding values (roasted and packed), but this is usually done by processing plants. This is where the government must dive for a bigger share besides from the export tax. After considering a provision for the use of handy mechanical harvesters in future, the size of the canopy the trees may take up, the best planting distance must be at least 5 X 5 m, which gives 400 plants per hectare.

An annual return of 2,000 dollars can be expected per hectare of land which is a satisfactory return in the present scenario. It is less encouraging to the farmers with small land holdings, who should be the actual beneficiary, to sacrifice their land. The plan to utilize fallow and marginal lands is good if the expectation of return is not too high. This plantation cannot guarantee reduction of soil erosion rather it may increase, as the trees have shallow root system, get uprooted by strong winds, become deciduous during autumn and human activities increases in the cultivation area.

Varieties: Barcelona, Butler, Casina, Corabel, Ennis, Lewis, Negret, San Giovanni, Tombul, Tonda Gentile delle Langhe’, Tonda Giffoni, Tonda Romana, Pauetet are some of the unbeaten varieties in other parts of the world, where the climatic conditions is similar to Bhutan.

This project must come to a win-win situation not just to bring home hard currency, but also to increase farmers’ living standards, attract more joint and private ventures and to instill the positive effect of globalization on the common people. The result of interaction between commercialization, globalization, international investors’ interest, national government policies and farmers’ acceptance are difficult to predict but this endeavor necessitates encouragement and espousal from all.