Bhim Bahadur Budha from Chakheli Rural Municipality, Humla, grew 1.3 tons of foxtail millet (kaguno) on his farm this year, which was bought by traders and shipped to Kathmandu.
“Nobody in my family likes kaguno. I planted it so that my field wouldn’t remain barren,” he said.
Bird millet was once widely grown in the Karnali region, considered the most remote part of the country. In recent years, the crop has been crowded out by rice and sweet potato.
But foxtail millet has found new followers as a healthy food because it is rich in calcium, especially in the country’s capital where cereals grown in remote areas have become fashionable lately.
On Bahadur Shahi, a farmer from Jumla, this year sold 3 tons of marsi paddy which was shipped to Kathmandu.
Located in the far west and largest province of Nepal, the mention of Karnali conjures up images of annual food shortages and airdrops of grain. The region has long been considered a food-insecure region, leading the government to ship hundreds of tons of subsidized rice every year.
But the usual image of Karnali is misleading. When people say food shortage, they really mean rice shortage.
“Until a few years ago, we only considered white rice as a grain,” Shahi said. “Grain produced in Karnali is now much more expensive than rice.”
Karnali mountainous region is a rich habitat of special grain varieties. Here, farmers grow foxtail millet, proso (chino) millet, kali marsi rice, buckwheat and varieties of beans, all of which are shipped to the Kathmandu Valley. Kali marsi rice is grown up to an altitude of 2,790 meters, the highest in the world.
“These are the foods that the people of Karnali used to eat. They were known as food for the poor. But these foods are now in high demand among the people in the urban areas,” Shahi said.
Farmers get higher prices for their crops if they are sold in urban markets. Common millet costs 160 rupees per kg, foxtail millet 150 rupees per kg and marsi rice 180 rupees per kg in local markets. But in Kathmandu, proso millet fetches up to 250 rupees per kg and marsi rice 700 rupees per kg.
Last year, farmers in Humla planted foxtail millet on 78 hectares and harvested a total harvest of 81 tons.
Foxtail millet is grown in the Humla Highlands.
Ayurvedic physician Bhakta Bahadur KC says that foxtail millet is very good for health. “It’s the most important food source for pregnant women,” he said. “Millet is also vital in tackling the problem of malnutrition.”
Bakhat Bahadur Khadka, Head of Agriculture Development Bureau in Humla, said that Humla grows millet worth Rs 1.5 million per year. “Here in Humla, everyone only considers white rice as food,” he said. “Humla has not been able to understand the potential of the crops he is growing.”
Black marsi, a paddy particularly grown in Jumla, is also sold in Nepalgunj and Surkhet. Everyone who visits Jumla should remember to bring a bag of black marsi rice as a gift.
Nanda Ram Neupane from Tatopani-5, Jumla says traders visit farmers door to door in search of the expensive rice. It is difficult to grow black marsi paddy compared to other paddy varieties, he said.
“With the advent of modern paddy varieties, the incidence of pests has increased. But as the demand for black marsi rice increases in the market, we are excited to grow it on a commercial scale,” Neupane said.
“Black marsi paddy is Karnali’s identity and it can change Karnali’s fortunes if grown commercially.”
Farmers have started commercial cultivation of black marsi in Sinja and Tatopani. According to the farmers, local traders exported 15 tons of black marsi rice grown in Jumla to Canada last year.
The Agriculture Development Bureau implemented a program with the local government for the marketing of black marsi. In Jumla, paddy is grown on 2,900 hectares and the marsi area is 1,600 hectares. Jumla produced 4,000 tons of marsi last year.
Sales of marsi rice have increased in department stores and malls in cities.
In Mugu and Kalikot also, the number of farmers growing paddy marsi is increasing. Last year, 1,143 tons of marsi were produced in Kalikot and 1,046 tons in Mugu.
Pediatrician Dr Nawaraj KC from Karnali Provincial Hospital says marsi rice is high in fiber and good for diabetics and hypertension patients. Marsi also contains a balanced amount of nutrients, including iron and starch.
Another crop that is becoming threatened in Karnali is proso millet. The demand for this crop has increased significantly in urban areas.
Chopsang Lama of Bargau from Simkot Rural Municipality in Humla sold 700 kg of common millet this year. “Common millet fetches Rs 160 per kg when we sell it door-to-door,” she said.
Lama’s neighbour, Kesang Tamang, also supplied 3 tons of common millet to urban areas. “In the past, we used to give out common millet to people for free,” she said. “Now traders contact us frequently and quote the price in advance.”
Simkot-based Sowarna Food Industries produced proso millet biscuits for the first time and shipped them to market.
Company director Mukunda Rokaya said the factory produced 1,000 packets of proso millet biscuits in the first batch and supplied them to Kathmandu. The price of biscuits has been set at Rs65 per piece.
In Humla, common millet is grown on 400 hectares, according to the District Agricultural Development Office.
Dr. KC says proso millet increases memory power, controls high blood pressure and strengthens bones. The crop is grown in all the mountainous districts of Karnali.
“The tendency of Karnali people to eat only rice as their main food has not diminished,” said Dipendra Rokaya, a former member of the Karnali Province Planning Commission.
Karnali’s economy has weakened due to a drop in traditional agricultural production, the closure of trade points on all sides, the limitation of goods and prices, and the fall in animal husbandry.
Food Management and Trading Company spent about 700 million rupees last year to transport subsidized food to Karnali.
According to the Provincial Planning Commission, Karnali has 299,000 hectares of land suitable for cultivation, but only 216,000 hectares have been exploited.
Karnali produces 390,000 tons of food grains per year and has a deficit of 16,000 tons.
According to the Ministry of Spatial Planning, Agriculture and Cooperatives, Karnali produced 20,868 tonnes of millet from 19,076 hectares last year. Farmers also grew 13,075 tons of common millet on 18,072 hectares and 575 tons of foxtail millet on 948 hectares.
“About half of the grain production has been supplied to other districts,” said Kisan Lal Bhatta, secretary of the ministry.
Chief Minister Jeevan Bahadur Shahi of Karnali province said the practice of “begging with a bowl of gold” should stop in Karnali. “We have everything. We survive on white rice by selling common millet, millet and other crops,” he said. “The habit of only eating rice should stop.”
Shahi says the common image of food shortages in Karnali is a result of the habit of eating white rice. “We should not depend on rice. We should start commercial farming of local and traditional crops. There is a strong demand for our products.
This year, Food Management and Trading Company is also buying common millet and beans from Karnali. The state-owned company, which began sourcing Marsi rice last year, has supplied 5 tons of rice to Kathmandu. Also this year, the company started sourcing marsi rice.
She has been selling beans for five years and this year is buying 30 tons of marsi rice from Surkhet, 20 tons from Humla and 100 tons from Jumla.
According to Madhav Mishra, head of the company’s regional office in Surkhet, they buy common millet, foxtail millet and other crops. He said the company would buy around 50 tonnes of food grain from Karnali this year.