Farming was the only skill that Urgain Phuntsog, a 48-year-old resident of the village of Gya knew. This village is situated 70 km from Leh and perched at an altitude of 14000 feet above sea level. He lost his father at the age of 12, after which, his only memories are that of helping his mother gather mountain shrubs or dry dung for heating or cooking. Stanzin Dorjai, his younger brother is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, while his older sister, Tsering (53), takes care of the cattle, including cashmere goats, sheep and yaks, to graze on higher land.
After the death of his father, he had no choice but to learn to plough, sow, grind flour and make irrigation channels at the mere age of 12. He struggled initially, but the fellow villagers helped him with these tasks. He grew mustard, peas and barley on their family farm, but during the winters, their main source of income was their livestock. Urgain, who had finished high school, had dreams of leaving his village and obtaining a government job, like the others of his generation. In the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), there were opportunities to enlist and he even applied to the Indian Navy. But Urgain could not pursue his dream as he had to assist his mother in managing the family farm because of her severe knee-related condition.
Urgain currently owns about 31 kanals of the land but cultivates about 62 kanals, including his younger brother's share. Urgain Phuntsog, popularly known in the village as 'Mitti Ka Aadmi', effectively adopted an integrated approach in his farming method. He produces various crops, grows cereals such as barley, raises poultry, grows mushrooms, raises sheep and goats and produces vermicompost from his farm, animal and household waste, at a height of 14,000 feet, where it is difficult for even human beings to survive, as noted by noted a 2019 paper published in the International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences. The main feature of his agricultural system is that he uses one component's output as the input of another component, thus reducing his cultivation costs and increasing his profits, he adds.
Urgain mainly grows barley and wheat. He earns a yield of about 35.7 quintals over 42 kanals of land in a season (four months) (85 kg per kanal). He sells his wheat in parts of Ladakh, including Demchok and Kharnak in the Changthang district, for Rs 50 per kg. He also sells wheat in the regions Sheynam and Tukcha of Leh.
He grows his vegetables in two greenhouses, measuring 32×16 feet and 100×25 feet. Since he manufactures his own seed for almost every vegetable, the cost of cultivation is limited to the cost of labour involved in preparing the plant bed, weeding and transport. The entire exercise, including other expenditures, takes about 12 days at Rs 600 per labourer.
Leaving all his expenses aside, he earns around 1,20,000 per season on all crops.
When it comes to livestock, from a single goat, he extracts about 150 gm of Pashmina and about 1.7 kg of fleece. In total, he earns about Rs 27,000 in any given season from the sale of Pashmina. He also earns a net income of Rs 80,700 from milking his cattle.
Besides, his family helps him make traditional dresses such as the Goncha, hats, gloves, and other accessories that offer him extra money, he also makes his own bread and serves it to the tourists who reside in the nearby homestays.
Urgain also owns a homestay where he trains people in organic agriculture. Every year there are about 200-250 people who come here to learn.
He says, with winter temperatures falling to -30 ° C and winds blowing at about 25 kmph, growing crops at this altitude is very challenging. In particular, these factors influence the polythene sheets used in greenhouses. Such sheets (costing around Rs 12,000-13,000 each) suffer from daily wear and tear and it is not easy to replace them regularly.
However, he says that none of this would have been possible without his family and their constant support.