Farming in Bir, Himachal Pradesh

I’ve been living close to the Dhauladhars from 2013 and have taken immense delight and joy in the daily farming activities around. For the first few years around the Sidhbari region in Dharamshala and since October 2018, closer to Bir, Himachal Pradesh. I’ve played around little like helping out the locals with whatever is being grown in that season (harvesting wheat, planting rice, planting vegetables) but the largest role has been that of an observer.

If you’re looking for indepth, hardcore research, a lot of hard work has gone here: Shunya.Earth.

In this blog post, I intend to catalog the daily activities that are being followed in the fields between Tibetan Colony in Chougan and Bir Khas. There will be images and basically a catalog of what activities the locals of the region are involved in throughout the year.

November 7, 2020

It’s a bright and sunny day. It’s been like this for more than a month now. Day temperatures are around 25 and night temperatures dip to a chilly 10 degrees Celsius, I believe. The fields have just been watered after they were left to breathe for a month. Monsoons is pretty intense in the region and as it wanes around September end/October beginning, people start harvesting corn and the infinite number of gourds that were planted during the summers.

This is how the area around the house looks right now.

What are the people doing right now:

  • One major activity that is happening is that of channeling the kuls (small channels of water, more on this in a bit). Since water is in abundance from the gracious and generous snow covered Dhauladhar ranges, there are several small and big streams in the region which end up meeting the River Beas or Uhl and they also eventually meet each other. Through these streams or other smaller springs, the entire region is bordered by these man-made channels (which are now concretised). All the fields get water through these channels. People have to co-ordiante timings and redirect the water flow so that their fields get water. This is what is being done right now. Some people are up at 4 in the morning and digging smaller channels within their fields (of say an acre or less) to ensure each and every point in the field gets damp.
  • Another activity is dumping of cowdung evenly across the field so that it can be mixed up in the soil nicely. This cowdung is from their own cows or buffaloes and this is a daily activity. Domesticating cattle ties a human to the land (you can read this in as many ways as you want 🙂 ). And dung is a wonderful source of nutrition for the soil. So all the dung that was daily collected in a heap (and it is a great starting point to grow gourds as well) is now being showered across the field.
  • All this preparation is happening for the planting of Peas (a major cash crop which everyone grows here) and the staple wheat.
  • People are also drying chillies. The final bloom of green chillies seem to be going on which means the all the extra chillies will be dried and stored for use throughout the year till we plant them again.
  • Broccoli, Bokchoy and mushrooms seem to be a favourite of the Tibetan Community here (I love the green veggies of this season too!). And they are all grown here in small quantities. So some people who grow these veggies are harvesting it right now to sell in the local shops. Mushroom growing requires a warm damp room and there seem to be government schemes promoting their cultivation.

November 28, 2020

This entry comes in 3 weeks after the last one. The weather has completely turned out. The Dhauladhars have got their first cover of snow, it’s incredibly beautiful with the Cherry Blossoms blooming all around and intensely cold when it snowing in the higher reaches which means rain in Bir. In a 10 day window, typically 3 days would be cloudy and rainy, a week would be sunny. Days are extremely short with the sun rising at around 7am and setting by 5pm!

In terms of farming activities, here’s what looks like happening:

Tractor in Bir
  • Onion sapling have been growing. Called ‘uri’ by some, ‘paneeri’ by some, these must have been planted around a month ago for the to be visible now as tiny straight blades in a small piece of land. They are then transplanted into a larger area. I’ve sometimes seen them being covered by a plastic sheet to make a mini green house kind of a system.
  • Another major activity was tractors! This is a hilly terrain with steps but the tractors manage to make their way through the region like it’s plain and flat. All soil has been tilled in preparation for wheat and peas. The large tractors, mini tractors, and I’m assuming bulls are still used in areas which are economically poor. (side effect: moving to tractors have rendered the bulls without a use from the human lens and in effect, they are left astray and in turn they get beaten up by people whose fields they enter. Mechanization has improved convenience but it has broken this cycle of self sufficiency which is leading to a lot of disruption)
  • Seeds have also been cast 🙂 Peas and wheat. Again, one would think that these are local mountain seeds but no, these are the hybrid seeds which are bought from the market and there is some use of chemical pesticides. So, just before the tractors went around, the men would bring bagfuls of dung and evenly lay it out across the land. And when the tractor goes around, the land gets nicely fertilised with cow dung and it’s also a time with the occasional rain shower which helps in mixing and settling down. After this, the women cast the seeds.
Women sowing the seeds (most likely peas)
  • Locals have also been engaged in cutting firewood throughout November. In earlier times, I’m told a lot more wood was chopped but owing to modern constructions which don’t have an arrangement for a fireplace and more means of engagement means less people are making bonfires. But yet, cutting of wood remains an activity and it’s value is made apparent when it is cold and wet outside and the warmth of the fire thaws the bones 🙂
  • Closer to home. Well, inside the home, I’d planted some seeds in grow bags. I’d planted peas on Diwali day, 14th November, they’ve just sprouted! Tulsi and desi spinach haven’t sprouted yet. Potatoes are growing like anything! I’d just planted a slice of potato which had 5-6 eyes and it’s just shooting up (and down) right now.
Pea germinating
Potato plant shooting up!

January 13, 2021 (the following note is by Kirti Punia)

I have been meaning to write this for a few days now. But I am only getting to it today when I am in Patiala. I missed seeing all the green around when I woke up here this morning. 

For the last 3 weeks, I have been mesmerized by a shade of green, that I call “the freshest green”, that I see on the wheat farms when the sunlight hits the tiny leaves at a specific angle. It is really a different green than all the shades of green I have ever seen. Or maybe I hadn’t been looking intently at all 🙂 

This entry isn’t going to be as informative as the earlier ones because I have only seen all the farming activities going around but I haven’t asked many questions about what’s really going on there. Also, I have just realized that I don’t have much of a farming vocabulary. 

It snowed on the Dhauladhars about 4 times in the last 6 weeks. The weather pattern has been like this: 4-5 cloudy or snowy days followed by about 8-10 sunny days. It also drizzled on 4-5 days and there were two 2-day spells of good rain. 

What I see growing around is Wheat, Sarson, Matar, Cauliflower, Radish, Palak, Onion, Garlic, and a kind of fruit that’s 3/4th orange-1/4th lemon. 

A local uncle told us that only those people grow matar (peas) at a large scale who have big families as the crop requires a lot of labor. 

The wheat crop looked like a healthy shiny grass to me till about 4 weeks ago and it is only now that it has become recognizable to me with its 8-12 blades coming out from the same spot in the soil. 

The sarson (mustard) flowers, though seen only in a small number of fields, are adding the loveliest yellow to the landscape. 

I also see small kitchen garden kind of crop beds in people’s back & front yards where they are growing vegetables. The flower-like shape of cauliflower leaves is quite distinguishable but the leaves of Mooli (Radish),  Sarson (Mustard), and another local variety of saag that’s growing these days are looking pretty similar to an untrained or inattentive eye. 

Garlic is a crop of patience. It takes about 6 to 8 months to grow, making June-July as the harvest season.  After knowing this, I wanted to figure out ways to not waste even a single part of the garlic bulbs and I have found out that we can store the garlic peels, dry them completely and powder them. This garlic powder can be used for the extra garlic flavor some of us love so much in our dishes. 

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