CLN and local non-profit partner Society Development Center (SODEC) began the Organic Almond Project 4 years ago to help people in one of the poorest areas of Nepal, where life has been brutally challenging for centuries. The land isn’t suitable for traditional food crops, so families regularly suffer from malnutrition because they cannot grow enough food for the whole year. Over 60% of young children are malnourished. With no way to make money locally, able-bodied men will work the agricultural season and then leave after the harvest to work in India for 3-4 months in construction or mining in order to earn cash. They sleep outdoors, under tarps, engage in heavy labor, and bring home perhaps $70-$100 total for their efforts—the only cash the family will see all year.
Our goal was to initiate an organic cash-crop industry that could produce income as well as supplement the local diet. SODEC built on their learning from our joint tea program and looked for a crop that was low-maintenance, had a high selling price, and was in high demand within Nepal. Almonds also store well for months and have good nutritional value. The challenge was that no one had ever grown commercial almonds in Nepal…and many people thought it couldn’t be done due to the rainfall cycles. Director Parshu Dahal and the team of SODEC drew on technical agricultural research conducted by an INGO, on local knowledge at an expat-owned plant nursery near Kathmandu, and on their grassroots organizing skills to prove the viability of almonds.
Through the past 4 years, we have planted over 1200 trees as well as trained and subsidized 62 farmers in the program. Farmers have learned how to care properly for the trees and graft healthier saplings, bringing sapling survival up from 50% to 90%. We have installed rainwater barrels and cisterns to collect water that is used during the dry season to keep the trees healthy, and we have created a local sapling nursery. The nursery marks a major turning point in the program’s success: saplings from Kathmandu are expensive, do not transport well, and have a high mortality rate. By training local farmers in grafting techniques, we will now produce saplings locally—making them more affordable and more likely to survive being transplanted. The high cost and low survival of the saplings was a barrier for farmer participation, but with 2500 saplings being grafted in the nursery this year, we have strong local interest and many more farmers ready to plant when the saplings are ready next year.
At the same time, we have demonstrated that almonds can be grown in Nepal. 60% of our existing trees are already flowering! Some varieties flower quickly while others take an extra year or two to begin flowering (but have higher yields and/or tastier nuts). We expect that all of the trees will be flowering in the next two years. Of the trees that are flowering, about half have good production of nuts (and that number will improve as the trees mature). Almonds in Nepal will probably never have the high yields that we see in commercial U.S. production…but they don’t need to. One tree with good production will net a farmer about $12 this year and more in the future as the trees mature to full production. $12 may not sound like much, but if you multiply it times 10 trees, it’s more than what a family member would earn from 3-4 months of harsh labor in India. It’s a very substantial cash earner for these families, and farmers are ready to begin planting more trees!
Now local government agricultural programs as well as NGO’s are interested to potentially support the program. Part of this year’s goals (in addition to grafting 2500 almond saplings) is to organize the farmers into cooperatives that are registered with the government so that they can access local agricultural support funds. SODEC Director Parshu Dahal also plans to write a grant on behalf of the cooperative to tap other international funding. With demonstrated success, outside organizations have shown up for field visits and been impressed with the progress and the possibilities. CLN organic agriculture grants over the past 8 years have directly created the opportunity for more than 250 rural farming families to generate income that will be increasing over time–and have indirectly supported hundreds more. Almond farming will provide essential economic support for this community and will create stability for education, nutrition, housing, and other basic needs.
We are moving towards immediate income generation, relief from malnutrition, and long-term sustainability both through other donors and through a viable economic model as the program grows! Donations of $3000 are needed so that CLN and SODEC can facilitate the cooperatives, ensure successful expansion of the plantations and nurseries, and collaborate with interested government and non-profit agencies to get them involved with the program long-term for sustainability.