Taking a risk on ginger

Santu once had a bountiful ginger harvest, but then lost it all to disease. A Mercy Corps program helped her build back her farm and prepare for the future. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

“I felt it was risky. Other people asked me if I was mad for investing my time and money in this new crop,” says Santu Dong, a mother of three from Ratomatu, a village in central Nepal.

More than 10 years ago, she and her husband planted ginger for the first time, becoming the first people in their community to try cultivating the crop. Livelihood options are few and far between in their rural community, so they rely largely on agriculture to support their family — and ginger is an in-demand crop ideal for growing in Nepal’s mid-hills.

Despite not having any formal training, their initial harvest was a massive success. Santu and her husband produced 2,000 kilograms (over 4,400 pounds) of ginger that season, plenty to sell for profit and still have some left for replanting.

“When we harvested, all the neighbors heard about how much ginger we had and [they] came to see,” she recalls. “There was a big crowd around our field.”

Santu working on her farm
Santu works on her ginger farm. She's now learning how to improve her harvests with help from Mercy Corps. ALL PHOTOS: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

But after a few steady years, they began losing large amounts of each harvest to mysterious diseases they didn’t know how to treat. Eventually, they were forced to invest everything they had into a large planting, hoping an abundant yield would leave them with enough healthy ginger to support themselves, even with the substantial losses they had come to expect.

When instead the entire harvest was wiped out by disease, Santu was devastated.

Just as they were on the verge of giving up, Santu’s husband heard about Mercy Corps. There was a project that was teaching farmers disease management and proper farming practices for ginger. With Mercy Corps’ help, they decided to give it one more try.

Nepal is the world’s third-largest producer of ginger. It’s the main source of income for around 80 percent of the Nepalese farmers who grow it. Yet more than a third of them still live in poverty — some on less than 25 cents per day.

The realities and risks of farming sometimes hit hard, and unexpectedly. A diseased crop or surprise drought can wipe away an entire family’s income for the whole season. Much like Santu, many ginger farmers in Nepal don’t know how to prevent the diseases that can ravage the crop, or where to find help when they need it.

Hands holding ginger root
Ginger is a valuable crop to grow in Nepal, but it also comes with the risk of disease. Farmers must learn how to treat a disease before it ravages their entire crop.

And other obstacles, including limited access to quality seeds and a lack of training, keep these farmers from producing the healthy, bountiful ginger that would help them buy food, medicine and pay school fees for their families.

Mercy Corps is helping these farmers earn more income by improving the way they grow high-value, promising crops like ginger. We’re increasing their access to seeds and fungicides that treat diseases, educating them about proper crop management and introducing them to efficient storage techniques for seeds and fresh harvests.

When Santu and her husband agreed to use their land for one of dozens of demonstration plots, we utilized their fledgling crops to educate the couple and their community about how to cultivate healthy ginger.

Through the lessons at their demonstration plot, Santu learned how to measure fungicides and other treatments, and mix them with the soil to prevent the diseases ginger is naturally vulnerable to. She also learned how to plant the seeds for optimal growth, how to create a compost fertilizer, and then how to build a storage pit to keep her harvested crops fresh.

Mercy corps' agriculture specialist with santu
Mercy Corps' Agriculture Specialist shows Santu how the storage pits work. The farmers can earn more income this way, because they can store their ginger until the price in the market is good.

The program also ensures farmers have access to the local resources they need to keep their harvests going strong. We link farmers to quality seed suppliers and local "agro vets" that provide fungicides and plant treatments — and we made sure that Santu’s local agriculture shop carried the right kind of treatments for her crop, and that she knew which product to purchase.

Participants in the program are now connected to agricultural experts who can help them solve any problems that arise in the future. And, they know which markets offer competitive and fair prices for their ginger.

The first harvest in Santu’s demonstration plot produced 200 kilograms of ginger — a significant improvement after all the failed harvests she and her husband had recently experienced. Now, they can build back their crop slowly and meticulously.

Santu with her two sons
Now that Santu is building back her ginger farm, she hopes to earn enough money to keep sending her three children, including two boys, to school.

During the following planting season, Santu was careful to use the techniques she learned through the Mercy Corps program so that she can build her ginger production back up and provide for her family again.

Her top priority is to continue sending her three children to school. Santu never attended school, and her husband only made it through the third grade. She wants her children to have the opportunities she and her husband missed out on, especially her daughter. “If I educate my daughter, it will give her a bright future, and she can stand on her own feet,” she says.

When farmers plant new crops, there is always risk, but we’re dedicated to giving farmers like Santu the support they need to try new crops and techniques that will improve their livelihoods. With better training and more knowledge, Santu can look forward to improving her ginger harvests year after year. It may be a slow process but, in the end, the risk is worth the reward.

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