Most of India’s cold arid area, 90% to be precise, is in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir. Spread over 80,000 square kilometres, this cold desert is shut for almost eight months in a year. Nearly 89% of people live in rural areas.

The villages are remote, unconnected and inaccessible. Agriculture in this region is different from that in other rural areas of India, since farming can be done only for four months. Further, the soil suffers from moisture stress. There are socio-economic constraints as well – small land holdings, low productivity, labour shortage, poor post-harvest management and marketing of produce.

In winter, Ladakh imports vegetables worth lakhs of rupees from other parts of the country. People do not get access to green vegetables in winter, and as a result, they suffer from nutritional issues.

Farmers here construct vegetable cellars, and store potatoes and onions underground. They take them out for consumption in winter. Some people pickle vegetables like carrot to eat in winter. But most of the people consume meat, pulses and dairy products.

“The farming season here lasts for just four months,” Tashi Tsetan, chief agricultural officer, said. “In other areas, crop rotation happens, but here due to short farming season, only mono-cropping is possible.”

Technological help

If farmers could grow vegetables in winter, they could have nutritious food and also supply vegetables to the defense personnel stationed in the region. Could technology help? Yes, said Anup Raj, a scientist at theSher-e-Kashmir University for Agricultural Science and Technology, but “the technology should not need much labour as population is sparse and labour costs are high”. One such technology is the greenhouse.

Tsering Angchok, a farmer from Saboo village, set up a greenhouse about eight years ago. Earlier, he used to cover the crops with plastic sheets, even blankets and logs.

He received financial support from the state government to set up the greenhouse. “I spent Rs 1.5 lakh and got a subsidy of Rs 80,000 from the government,” he said. “I produce more vegetables, and so can sell more.”

Growing fruits and vegetables is a challenge in Ladakh as the farming season is restricted to four months. Photo credit: Sharada Balasubramanian
Growing fruits and vegetables is a challenge in Ladakh as the farming season is restricted to four months. Photo credit: Sharada Balasubramanian

Trench farming

The cost of greenhouses is high, however, and not all farmers can afford them. So, many have adopted alternatives such as the low tunnel technology to grow vegetables. Farmers need to spend only Rs 2,000 for this. This technology is not only cheap but also portable. The farmers can shift the tunnel anywhere. Krishi Vigyan Kendra has been actively promoting this technology among Ladakh’s villagers.

Apricot is one of the key commercial crops in Ladakh. The region is also abundant in sea buckthorn – Hippophae rhamnoides – a fruit that is rich in vitamins. Despite the potential to grow these crops, there are challenges. The farmers need support for drying and processing apricot, packaging and marketing. “If there is support for processing, we can get 100% tasty and organic apricots,” said Raj. “The market value will also go up.”

Though apples grow here, fresh apples do not go outside the region due to the presence of codling moth, an insect that cannot be easily controlled. “People here will not agree to spray chemicals as they follow Buddhist practices of not killing any life form,” said Tsetan. “In the month of September, there is a glut of tomatoes in the market; there is a good potential for sundried tomatoes from this region but people are not keen.” However, apple juice can be sold locally in bottles without any preservative.

“We were planning to set up vermicompost as well, but people think the insects will die, and they would not use it,” Tsetan said. “Also earthworms need humidity which is difficult in winter.”

Other than vegetables, there is great scope for floriculture. Ladakh produces gladiolus flowers of such quality they rival the flowers found in Holland and France. If greenhouses are available, these flowers can be grown here. However, transportation is an issue as airfreight charges are high.

A diary industry can flourish as well. “We are currently only producing milk, not processing it,” Angchok Mahay, the district agricultural officer, said. “If we process it into curd, or cottage cheese, and package it, people can double their income.”

Way forward

Farming involves a lot of hard work here and hence, people quit farming for the tourism industry. Earlier farmers grew barley and wheat. At some places, people still grow barley but they have stopped growing wheat.

Under the Public Distribution System, people get what they need and hence do not find the need to cultivate wheat or barley. The wheat quota per head has now reduced. “We ask them what they would do if all of a sudden PDS distribution is stopped and they have to produce their own food,” said Tsetan. “If right technologies are introduced here and products are sold at premium price, migration can also be controlled.”

“Tourism income is good but not sustainable as we are in the border area, and are also prone to disasters,” added Tsetan. “Agriculture, on the other hand, is more sustainable. If agriculture is promoted, it will outdo tourism and increase the income of local people.”

Sharada Balasubramanian is a Coimbatore-based journalist.

This article first appeared on Village Square.