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Indigenous Gurung farmers revive climate-resilient millet in Nepal

A woman prepares a field for paddy farming after harvesting foxtail millet.

A woman prepares a field for paddy farming after harvesting foxtail millet. Farmers wear a syakhu (a shield made up of leaves of Himalayan bamboo to beat the scorching heat while in the field. Image by Sonam Lama Hyolmo/Mongabay.

  • Indigenous Gurung farmers in central Nepal are trying to revive the cultivation of an almost-forgotten, drought-resilient crop: foxtail millet.
  • This hardy grain was traditionally farmed as a famine crop because it grows at a time of the year when farmers are finished harvesting other crops like rice, maize and wheat.
  • With Nepal experiencing increasingly unpredictable changes in weather and droughts that affect their harvests, proponents say local crops like foxtail millet have the potential to help farmers adapt to the changing climate.
  • Over the past seven years, organic farming of the crop has seen consistent growth, thanks to the help of a community seed bank.

LAMJUNG DISTRICT, Nepal — When the dark, heavy clouds loom over the lush hills of Ghanpokhara, Ratna Gurung knows it’s time to bring in the sun-dried foxtail millet. Before the rain begins pouring, she’s swiftly gathered the grain in a bamboo basket. Once inside, the next step is to sift through the husks, thresh them in a dhiki, a traditional wooden beater, before packing and sending them to the community seed bank to sell.

For generations, the Indigenous Gurung women farmers of Ghanpokhara, a village in central Nepal’s Lamjung district, have farmed on the giant, hills spread around the cascading Rhide-meu, a waterfall the Gurung have revered for ages. Amid these hills and the patches of forests near their small villages is land that once saw an abundance of cultivation of foxtail millet (Setaria italica), a drought-resistant food consumed as a daily substitute for rice.

Previously a staple crop in this region, foxtail millet, known locally as bariyo kaguno, has seen a sharp decline in its cultivation over the last few decades. In recent years, however, women in these remote villages in Lamjung have started to revive the climate-resilient crop, with the hope that the almost-forgotten grain will help farmers adapt to the region’s unpredictable and changing climate.

“The crop gradually grew out of fashion… We had lost sight of this crop for years,” Ratna says. “But now we’re glad to farm with friends and neighbors trying to revive them.”

Foxtail millet harvested by farmers in Ghopte and Ghanpokhara.
Foxtail millet harvested by farmers in Ghopte and Ghanpokhara. Image by Sonam Lama Hyolmo/Mongabay.

Conserving a climate-resilient famine crop

Foxtail millet was traditionally farmed as a famine crop because it grows at the time of the year when farmers have finished harvesting other crops like rice, maize and wheat.

“Foxtail millet is harvested before the monsoon [June to July] at a time when other crops are no longer growing. Unlike the other cash crops, it needs less water to grow and takes only three months to harvest for consumption,” says Bina Gurung, a farmer from the small village of Ghopte.

Despite having the properties of a drought-resilient crop with a good source of nutrients, foxtail millet grew out of fashion as crops like rice, wheat and maize became highly commercialized. “The crop could hardly reap a good income and given that it takes a good amount of labor to prepare it for consumption, farmers grew more inclined farm crops that are easier and more profitable to sell in the market,” Bina tells Mongabay.

But now, foxtail millet presents an opportunity as a grain that can help farmers adapt to climate change. In Nepal, one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, farmers across Lamjung district have faced rising challenges, including a significant increase in temperatures, droughts, changes in the monsoon season, and erratic rainfall. As crop failures increase, some farmers say there’s potential to reintroduce foxtail millet as a reliable crop, or at least provide more options of seeds to cultivate.

“With the increased use of hybrid seeds over the last decades, many of our local seed varieties are extinct now, which made it all the more important to conserve the ones we have,” Bina says.

It was the Ghanpokhara communal seed bank, opened in 2016, that played a central role in reviving the crop and changing minds. The seed bank was created with the support of a research organization, Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD), and a national seed bank group, Community Seed Bank Association of Nepal (CSBAN). Today it holds 63 local rice varieties, including 23 endemic to Ghanpokhara, and promotes organic farming by involving farmers in seed conservation and improving their access to markets.

Gurung women harvesting foxtail millet.
Gurung women harvesting foxtail millet. Image by Sonam Lama Hyolmo/Mongabay.

Bhakta Gurung, chair of the Ghanpokhara community seed bank, says conservation efforts must also offer benefits and financial incentives for communities.

“Farmers in Ghanpokhara could just grow other cash crops or run homestays to reap financial benefits and supplement their losses [from farming],” he says. “But since the seed bank and local government [are] supporting them in making an earning from an underutilized crop like bariyo kaguno, the community is encouraged to increase their efforts to revive it, and others.”

There was previously little incentive for farmers in villages like Ghanpokhara to grow local crops like foxtail millet, because markets were far and the profit too low to make the difficult journey worth it. Given the remoteness of the villages, reaching the market during the monsoon season, when the crop is harvested, means crossing heavy rivers and waterfalls — a near-impossible prospect for many.

But the local seed bank stepped in and bought the farmers harvests directly from them at a guaranteed pay rate. It now serves as the nearest market. The seed bank then packages the grain and sells it within its network of customers across Nepal, including the capital, Kathmandu. Millet production for the fiscal year 2021/22 was 339,462 metric tons, a 4% increase from the 2020/21 period, according to national data.

“As farmers, we feel encouraged to cultivate these local varieties knowing that it sells out in the market,” Ratna tells Mongabay. Demand for the crop has also increased in urban areas, where it’s considered a healthier option to other grains because of its lower glycemic index, making it more suitable for type 2 diabetes patients.

Ratna Gurung winnowing sun-dried foxtail millet
Ratna Gurung winnowing sun-dried foxtail millet to finally thresh them in the traditional dhiki (a traditional wooden beater). Image by Sonam Lama Hyolmo/Mongabay.

Since the seed bank’s inception, the area of land dedicated to foxtail millet cultivation has expanded, from 0.15 to 5 hectares (0.37-12.4 acres). The seed bank is now trying to double that number by increasing the number of farmers involved.

“We started with five farmers on the field and we now have 51 farmers, the majority being women, involved in foxtail millet farming,” Bhakta tells Mongabay.

The seed bank has also set up a fund to financially support farmers to allow them to continue their traditional occupation while ensuring they farm local seeds.

“The seed bank has progressed further than other seed banks that LI-BIRD supported with a community biodiversity management fund [$4,000-$7,000] for smallholder farmers that provides them with loans on minimum interest on need basis to pursue their farming startups,” says Pitambar Shrestha, program adviser with LI-BIRD, who also worked as its program operation director.

According to Shrestha, the progress was possible because the community and farmers in Ghanpokhara had a sense of ownership to promote their underutilized local crops.

Every year, the seed bank provides 0.5-1 kilogram (1-2 pounds) of foxtail millet source seeds to farmers to cultivate.

“In Ghanpokhara, the farmers are not required to pay for these seeds,” Bhakta says. “Once the annual crop is harvested, they pay back the seeds from their fresh yields. They are allowed to conserve seeds to replant them in the next cultivation cycle, but every seed they have may not be a source seed. It needs to have physical and genetic purity to be called source seeds. So, we recommend them to use source seeds provided by the seed bank as it determines the quality of production.”

As production of the traditional grain ramped up, the community in Ghanpokhara renovated an ancient communal dhiki to thresh the millet, helping preserve their traditional ways of food production.

“Ever since the loss of traditional tools like dhiki [that] were used for threshing foxtail millet, this has impacted the production of local crops,” Bina says. “Although we have new technology in use, the machines end up grinding the crop in[to a] floury texture which is not how we are familiar with making our delicacies using foxtail millet.”

A woman prepares a field for paddy farming after harvesting foxtail millet.Women harvesting foxtail millet and putting it in a bamboo basket.The chaffs separated from the foxtail millet seeds.After harvest, Ratna’s husband used his feet to thresh the crop.Women threshing foxtail millet in a traditional dhiki — a wooden beater.Paddy plantation in GhanpokharaA board lists out the names of 63 local seed varieties conserved by Ghanpokhara seed bank.

Changing minds

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization declared 2023 the International Year of Millets, and has worked with various governments to promote local varieties of millets. Ram Krishna Shrestha, joint secretary at the Nepali Department of Agriculture’s Centre for Crop Development and Agro-biodiversity Conservation, says there are projects underway to boost public awareness about the benefits of local crop varieties.

“Required under the country’s existing law, it is necessary for any local crop to be registered for sale. We have registered foxtail millet for commercial farming this year,” he tells Mongabay.

The department also plans to provide increased subsidies and machinery support for farmers, the aim of empowering women and young farmers in local seed conservation and sustainable farming.

Bina, the farmer from Ghopte village, is among those who’ve received a local government incentive of the equivalent of $7 for every 500 square meters (5,400 square feet) of foxtail millet that they harvest.

“It could encourage more women farmers to engage in millet production if we [also] receive machinery support and an increased amount of incentive and subsidies,” she says.

The FAO’s Nepal is reaching out to remote districts to turn local farmers on to the importance and utilization of local crops.

“We have so far reached out to school campaigns and smallholder farmers in diverse districts so that they have a better understanding on the unexplored utilization and benefits of local varieties of crops,” says Arun G.C., program specialist at FAO Nepal.

Among the seed banks operating across the country, says the CSBAN, the Ghanpokhara one is an outstanding example not only of local seed conservation but also of empowering communities to realize their roles and participation in local seed conservation and reinvigorate their traditional ways of farming.

This article won a 2024 Developing Asia Journalism Award.

Banner image: A woman prepares a field for paddy farming after harvesting foxtail millet. Farmers wear a syakhu (a shield made up of leaves of Himalayan bamboo) to beat the scorching heat while in the field. Image by Sonam Lama Hyolmo/Mongabay.

Return to agroforestry empowers women in Nepal


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