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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. Zanba (roasted highland barley) and buttered tea are main food for herdsmen.

About 78 percent of Tibetans are farmers or herders. Many have trouble feeding themselves. A comfortable life or a life near starvation conditions depends on whether a family has a good or bad harvest. Annual food aid from China works out to about 50 kilograms a year per person.

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.

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 earn around $240 a year, compared to $350 for the average Chinese farmer.

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: |]

Feudalism, Communism and Agriculture

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.

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.

Feudalism, See Society.

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

In farming, 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.


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. Russia leads the world in barley production.

Barley is rich is soluble fiber, which slows down digestion and helps lower cholesterol. It is rarely eaten in the West anymore because it regarded as coarse and is associated with peasant food.

Barley is made into black barley bread and sometimes served as a side dish. Traditionally barley has been a less important food source than other grains because it contains only small amounts of gluten, which is desirable when making bread. It is chiefly used as livestock feed and for making malt, thickening soups and modifying cow's milk for babies.

Websites: Saskatchewan Interactive:; Barleyworld:

Barley Agriculture in Tibet

Barley, wheat and rye bear their seeds in spikes. Barley is divided into the six-rowed type, four rowed-type and two-rowed type, based on the structure of the spikes. The six-rowed type has the highest yields. The four-rowed type are used in high altitudes and northern climates.

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.

Barley is cultivated in fields surrounded by rock walls or on rocky terraces or hills nourished by water channeled from glacier-fed streams.

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. Valli wrote, "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, the 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

There are an estimated 21 million head of livestock in Tibet. Animals include yaks, bulls (used for plowing and dung), cows (for milk and butter), goats 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.

See Nomads and Livestock; Life; See Yaks, Nature

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.

Horses often have jingling bells. High quality horses come from the northeast.

Fishing and Timber in Tibet

Tibetans generally don't eat fish. Some people fish with coracles made of yak skin.

See Deforestation.

Bamboo for pens and high quality paper comes from southeast Tibet.

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 April 2015

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