I have lived ten years of my life in Hetauda, Makwanpur District, which is enough to make me an expert in growing maize. Each year, everyone in my small town grew maize in their small backyards or on their big lands. I still have memories of sowing the maize seeds in our small land at my mother’s side, watering the seedlings after completing my school work, tearing through the tall plants to collect fully packed cobs in the summer heat, being petrified at the thought of snakes while hiding from playmates amongst the tall plants, and playing with the thick brown maize ears after the kernels were removed.
When young, our lunch boxes always had good things made from corn. The seasonal harvest would last for the entire year. Back then, maize was almost like a staple food for us. We devoured corn in every conceivable way—boiled, fried, barbequed..., you name it, we had it.
The maize that I grew up seeing is different from the Japanese sweet corn; otherwise I would not have missed the friendly sight of corn, even though I screened through the entire 60 ropanis of the JAITI’s Kakani farmland in search of them for a good five minutes. If the regular corn plants are 6 feet tall, the Japanese sweet corns are mere 4 feet. The soft grains of the sweet corn cannot be removed from the cob, at least not mechanically. Besides, it is best when consumed fresh. Cold weather favors the Japanese sweet corn plantation even though they can be cultivated under hot climatic conditions also. The difference is in the taste, and those grown under cooler conditions taste sweeter. The seeds are imported from Japan at ¥250 (Rs.163) per packet. Each seed has to be sown in a pot and preserved in the greenhouse. They are shifted to the farming area only after they have germinated and have grown into small seedlings. Compared to maize, Japanese sweet corn is sweeter. It is best steamed or prepared as a soup.
In 1982, a Japanese mountaineer by the name of Kikuchi Kensuke came to Nepal to climb Numbur Himal. He would not have returned home with a success story had he not been assisted by his Sherpa porters. Gratified, Mr Kikuchi decided to pay them back, and what better way than teaching them a sustainable means of livelihood. With those thoughts in mind, back in Japan he and his friend and partner Kobayashi Sakae, collected funds and opened JAITI (Japanese Agricultural Inservice Training Institute) Foundation, an NGO dedicated to improving the agricultural economy of Nepal. Hiring the same sturdy young Sherpas who had proven their sincerity and endurance climbing the 6,957 meter (22,825 foot) Numbur Himal, JAITI Nepal was formed in Kakani in 1989. Four Sherpas were brought to Kakani by the Japanese agriculture experts for on-farm training and to learn to live an agrarian lifestyle.
The JAITI Kakani Farm is situated at 25 km northwest of Kathmandu. It is an experimental training farm, focusing on various cash crops including vegetables, cereals and trees. The foundation has been working to help people live on agriculture in developing countries, to help increase and stabilize the food supply. The foundation’s activities include transferring agricultural technology to developing countries, supporting agricultural organizations, studying and researching agriculture related matters, and enlightenment through education. In Nepal, the JAITI Foundation has entrusted the operation of the farm on lease to Lakpa Sherpa. Presently, Lakpa, his family of six, and several helpers take care of the farm.
The first experimental crop at Kakani was strawberry plants. The weather at Kakani favors the production of strawberries, which require a maximum temperature between 25 and 4 degrees Celsius. Strawberry plants grow best in a cool, moist climate. The farm had all the right conditions—an irrigation system in place, good soil, emperate climate, so that with qualified staff it could hardly fail.
For three years, farm staff and trainees experimented on different varieties of strawberries. They tested the local climate, pH of the soil, adaptability of the imported plants, their productivity, and benefits to the local farmers from the plantation. Each day brought new challenges; many varieties became infected with disease, some did not acclimate to the new environment, some would not send out underground runners, some did not taste as good, and some lost their freshness too quickly after harvest.
One variety called Nyoho survived the tests and it is now what local farmers around Kakani raise. After the strawberry farming was considered successful by the Japanese experts, Lakpa trained local farmers. What began with six seedlings turned into a source of cash for 700 households in the locality. Today, almost all the strawberries for sale in the local fruit
markets of Kathmandu are the outcome of the labor of the Kakani farmers and represent a highly successful endeavor by the JAITI Foundation.
Cultivation of Japanese strawberries has so far proven to be the most favorable output on the farm compared to other cash crops that Lakpa and local farmers have tried. Strawberry farming has grown into a lucrative business, and has helped raise incomes among the local farmers. Nevertheless, farming procedures test patience of even the most persevering toilers. Safeguarding the plants from unforeseeable diseases, as well as weeding, hoeing, culling, protecting the leaves while watering the roots, knowing when to harvest and how to pluck the ripe fruits are some of the things that a strawberry farmer needs to know. For some years, the strawberry farmers complained of ‘snake dot disease’, an ailment that charred the leaves and poisoned the fruit. A project is now underway to solve that problem and 600 seedlings of ‘virus free’ Nyoho strawberries have been transplanted on the farms of Kakani.
At one time they also tried growing Japanese pumpkin and Japanese beans. Their productivity, however, was not ‘fruitful’ (pun intended). The Kakani farm also grows Japanese kiwi, and Japanese sweet potato. This variety of sweet potato is different from the local kinds. Each one weighs almost 2 kilograms and tastes sweeter than others. As for the cultivation of kiwi fruit, it does not require long hours of hard labor and the succulent fruit is now in such demand that it is considered another of the farm’s more successful ventures.
The natural conditions of climate and soil are good for production. The farm produce is growing in popularity—even among the birds, deer, insects and wild boar, all of which feed on the plants and give the farm staff a lot of trouble. Japanese agricultural professionals continue their visits to the Kakani farm annually. They still experiment with new varieties, provide solutions to problems encountered by Lakpa and his team, and help fund the maintenance and smooth workings of the farm.
Down in Kathmandu, Strawberry House at Maharajgunj buys berries from Lakpa and supplies them to many customers, some of whom send kilos of fresh strawberries out of the country as gifts to friends in India, Thailand and Sri Lanka, for example. They also make jam, juice and ice-cream from strawberries at Strawberry House, and they have a home delivery service so you can have fresh corn on the cob, fresh kiwi fruit, and great strawberries on a regular basis (in season). In addition to all this, the JAITI Foundation has funded the establishment of two schools; one in Bashiphant, Namtar village, located in 90 km southwest of Kathmandu, and one in Kakani, itself, called the Kakani Brighter School.
For more information about JAITI, including requests to visit the farm, contact the JAITI Nepal office in New Baneshwor, Kathmandu. Phone 478.1680 or 478.1980. Or write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.