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Barley field
The Tibetan economy focuses on plateau animal husbandry and farming. Sheep, goat and yak are their main domestic animals and highland barley and wheat are their main crops. Tsampa (roasted highland barley) and buttered tea are main food for herdsmen and farmers. A typical farming family owns five acres of land terraced on a hillside. Each terrace is devoted to a specific crop: wheat, rice, chilies or potatoes. Tibetan farmers only earned around $240 a year in the early 2000s, compared to $350 for the average Chinese farmer.

Agriculture and livestock breeding are the backbone of the Tibetan economy. The Tibetan plateau contains huge pastoral areas. About two thirds percent of Tibetans are farmers or herders. Some have trouble feeding themselves. A comfortable life or a life near starvation conditions traditionally has depended on whether a family has a good or bad harvest. In 1984, total grain output reached 494,000 tons. Annual food aid from China worked out to about 50 kilograms a year per person in the early 2000s.

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “Tibet is a land of scant rainfall and a short growing season, and the only extensive agricultural region is the Yarlung Zangbo valley.In this valley as well are nearly all the large cities, including Lhasa, Xigazê (Shigatse), and Gyangzê (Gyangtse). Most other areas of Tibet are suited only for grazing. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Columbia University Press |~|]

Southern Tibet, where the climate is less hostile and there are a number of valley where barley and other crops are raised, is main agricultural area in Tibet and the place where most Tibetans in Tibet live. Most of the inhabitants of the highland plateau are nomadic shepherds and yak and horse breeders. The two groups have traditionally exchanged products at annual and biennial markets.

Irrigation is often critical for agriculture. The system was traditionally coordinated on a village levels by headmen and head irrigators. Most of the field work is done with the help of dzo (yak-cattle crossbreeds) or by hand. Harvests are carried by yokes or on people’s backs. Threshing is done on the ground with the help of poles or trampling cattle. Winnowing is done by tossing the grain in the air and letting the wind blow away the chaff.

Traditional Tibetan Agriculture and Land Tenure

Communities have typically been self-sufficient and associated with monasteries or feudal lords. Land was often distributed on the basis of the needs of families and quality of the land, with families typically getting both good and bad quality land. This system has changed as the government has encouraged rural people to get more involved with the regional economy.

Rebecca R. French wrote: Prior to 1955, much of the Tibetan plateau was considered the ultimate property of the central government in Lhasa and the ruler of Tibet, the Dalai Lama. Each peasant household had a deed, in the name of the eldest male, to the property that it farmed. Many of the peasant farmers were also organized into estates, which were an intermediate form of title holding by monasteries, incarnate lamas, or aristocratic families. The laborers attached to the estate owed taxes and corvée to the lord and were not free to move elsewhere without permission. Being bound to an estate, however, did not prevent some families from hiring others to fulfill their obligations to the lord or from traveling for purposes of trade and pilgrimage. These three levels of ownership constituted the bulk of Tibetan land tenure before 1950. [Source: Rebecca R. French, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

According to the Chinese government: Farmers used crude implements such as iron plough shares, hoes, sickles and rakes and wooden tools. Cultivation was extensive, with crop rotation and fallow. Weeding and manuring were done very rarely, resulting in low output. In livestock breeding areas, the tools were even more primitive. Herds were moved about with the seasons, and the herdsmen never laid aside fodder nor built sheds for the winter. Farmers and livestock breeders had no way of resisting natural calamities and pests, but praying to gods for protection. Natural disasters usually devastated large tracts of land and took heavy tolls of animals. [Source:]

Tibetan Agriculture and Land Tenure Under the Chinese

Life has improved for many rural Tibetans under the Chinese. Taxes have been reduced or repealed. It is not uncommon to see mud brick houses with satellite dishes and nomad tents with solar panels and generators powering televisions and boomboxes. Still, rural Tibetans are among the poorest people in the world and their rates of illiteracy, infant mortality and poverty are high.

Land-reform policies in Tibet under the Communist government have involved a few experiments with collective farming and ownership. Most rural peasants still farm the land of their family household, but intermediate titles have generally been extinguished. [Source: Rebecca R. French, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

Under Mao's command to "make grain the key link," Tibetan farmers were forced abandon raising traditional crops such as barley and grow crops like rice and wheat that were unsuited for high-altitude agriculture. Tens of thousands are believed to have died from starvation.

Crops in Tibet

Green pears and herbal medicine are important sources of income. Highland barley, peas, horse beans, jute (fibers from a plant), and beets are major crops.

The fast ripening and cold- and drought-resistant qingke, a kind of highland barley, is the main crop. Wheat (for bread and alcohol), buckwheat, potatoes, buckwheat, peas, mustards, dry land rice, corn, red peppers, pumpkins, turnips, broad beans, radishes and cabbage are also grown. Fruit trees grow in some places. In the warmer places in the river valleys, rape, apple and walnuts are grown. People also grow rice and cotton in river valleys in southern Tibet where the weather is very warm.

Wheat is harvested by women who use dowel-like sticks to grab and pull up on fistfuls of wheat to break off the heads (which contain the grain). Wheat, earmarked for long-term storage, is gathered with the stalk, bound into sheaves and stored in the attic. It is threshed as the family needs it.


Highland barley is the main ingredient in tsamba, the Tibetan staple food. It is widely grown in Tibet and on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau and is it is able to endure the high altitude, harshness and coldness. Tsamba is made by drying highland barley in the sun, parching the barley, and grinding the barley into flour in a water mill. It is ground into coarse or fine flour according to different tastes. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Barley is a grain that is similar to wheat in appearance and is the only grain that grows well in the extreme north and in high altitudes. It can be found in Arctic regions and in the high Himalayas. Barley is cultivated in fields surrounded by rock walls or on rocky terraces or hills nourished by water channeled from glacier-fed streams. Barley needs well drained soils but does not thrive in sand. Because barley ripens in a relatively short period it can often be sown and harvested after wheat.

Sometimes plows are attached to yaks or dzos but most fields are hoed by hand with long-handled wooden spades. To ensure that the barley gets all the available water, weeds are pulled up and later eaten as food or given to animals. Harvesting is done by hand with sickles. Villagers help their neighbors during the harvest in return for help with their harvests. Those with no land trade labor for grain. After harvesting barley is bundled and laid out in sheaves to dry. It is threshed with rakes and sticks. Eric Valli wrote in National Geographic, "The barley is prepared handful by handful as workers twist the tops of the stalks from the straw. Then the threshing begins as beaters face each other, the women in one row, men in the other. Singing to set the rhythm, each row of beaters wields wooden flails against the heads of barley on the hard packed ground. As the beaters tire, their song slows; it picks up as they revive.”

Barley is often winnowed in the wind by women. In the Dolpo region of Tibet, women whistle to call wind and gently tips their basket. Valli wrote, "A woman with a basket tosses threshed barley in the air; the chaff blows away and the seeds fall.” When most of the work is done in Dolpo, there is feast in the village with barley beer and music made from with five-string lutes and dancing around a fire.

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Livestock in Tibet

Nomads and herders raise yaks (animals particularly suited for high altitude), sheep, horses, cow-yak cross-breeds, and at lower altitudes, cattle, mules and goats. Rebecca R. French wrote: At annual or biennial markets throughout Tibet, rural nomads and farmers exchanged produce and purchased other commodities. For distant nomadic communities, annual grain-trading expeditions occurred in the late fall; each encampment of tents functioned as a unit and each family contributed a member or supplies to the group traveling down to the market in the lower regions. [Source: Rebecca R. French, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “ Most areas of Tibet are suited only for grazing, Yaks are the principal domestic animals, and there are also large herds of goats and sheep. Much of the population traditionally was engaged in a pastoral life, but the advances made by irrigation and the growing of forage crops combined with Chinese attempts to spur economic development and relocate Tibetans into new housing developments have reduced nomadism and also increased the urban population. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Columbia University Press |~|]

There are millions, maybe tens of millions, of head of livestock in Tibet. Animals include bulls (used for plowing and dung), cows (for milk and butter), cashmere goats (for their valuable wool) and sheep (for milk, butter and wool), horses (as beasts of burdens) and occasionally some pigs. When their flocks grow too large, some herders let animals go free to earn merit in their next life. Horses often have jingling bells. High quality horses come from the northeast. In 1984, livestock animals numbered 21.68 million, nearly double the 1965 figure.

Sheep provide meat, wool for weaving and barter, stomachs into which butter is sewn for storage, and intestines for sausages. Tibetans prefer mutton to goat meat, but many of them have begun raising cashmere goats, whose valuable wool is made into cashmere garments. Sheep and goats only give milk for three or four months in the summer, which means that a large portion of their milk is made into cheese or butter to be consumed in the winter.♠

Cows are milked by women into a wooden bucket in the morning and used by men to plow the fields. Bulls are "notoriously bad tempered" and people tread carefully around them. To get them to move often requires a loud shout and a well-placed stone to the animal's back.

Sheep counting, is a traditional activity at pastoral areas in Tibet. Before the herdsemen count the number of their sheep, they perform a counting ceremony in which they scatter highland barley to pray for blessings as flocks of sheep and eulogize their bellwethers in a symbolic gesture to pray for good growth of livestock in the next year. This ritual is performed at a sheep show held in Zhexia Township, Shigatse City. [Source: Xinhua, September 11, 2019]


Yaks are cattle-like animals about the size of small oxen. Adapted for living at high altitudes, they have long hair that hangs off their sides like a curtain, sometimes touching the ground. Underneath is a soft undercoat that keeps the animal warm in the coldest and windiest environments. Yaks are highly valued by Himalayan peoples. They may have been domesticated in Tibet in the first millennium B.C.. According to Tibetan legend, the first yaks were domesticated by Tibetan Buddhism founder Guru Rinpoche.

Yaks are essential to life in the Himalayas and the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. Docile yet powerful, they are the most useful domestic mammals at high elevations. They serve as mounts, beasts of burden, and provide milk, meat and wool and have no problem living in terrain elevations up to 6,500 meters. Tibetan Yaks were formerly ranched and used for transporting goods. Today with highways, trucks and modern agricultural equipment, yaks are rarely used as work animals any more. Instead, they are raised for wool, milk and meat.

Image Sources: Purdue University, Antique Tibet; caterpillar fungus, Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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