Most agricultural land is in the Hilly Region and the Terai not in the Himalayan areas. The lowland Terai region produces an agricultural surplus, part of which supplies the food-deficient mountains areas, where soil is generally poor and the landscape difficult to cultivate.

There are three main types of land in Nepal: 1) “khet” (land that can be irrigated, regarded as the best quality land); 2) “bari” (land that can be cultivated but not irrigated); and 3) “pakho” (land that generally can not be cultivated because it is too rocky or steep). The relatively well-off landowners generally get the best land and the poor generally getting the worst quality land. [Source: John T. Hitchcock, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Nepal’s mountainous terrain constrains land use options. The main crops and agriculture and livestock products: pulses, rice, corn, wheat, sugarcane, jute, root crops, millet, potatoes, oilseed, milk, water buffalo meat. Major crops for domestic consumption: rice, wheat, corn and lentils. Major crops for export: tea, sugar cane, cannabis. Rice is the most important food and cereal crop. It is grown on more than half the cultivated land, including large areas of the Terai in the south and the Kathmandu Valley during the monsoon season. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020, “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009]

Agriculture and Herding in the Himalayan Region of Nepal

Most agricultural land in Nepal is in the Hilly Region and the Terai not in the mountains. In general, the snow line occurs between 5,000 and 5,500 meters. The region is characterized by inclement climatic and rugged topographic conditions, and human habitation and economic activities are extremely limited and arduous. Indeed, the region is sparsely populated, and whatever farming activity exists is mostly confined to the low-lying valleys and the river basins, such as the upper Kali Gandaki Valley. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

In the early 1990s, pastoralism and trading were common economic activities among mountain dwellers. Because of their heavy dependence on herding and trading, transhumance was widely practiced. While the herders moved their goths (temporary animal shelters) in accordance with the seasonal climatic rhythms, traders also migrated seasonally between highlands and lowlands, buying and selling goods and commodities in order to generate muchneeded income and to secure food supplies.*

The high Himalayan 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. The world's highest rice paddies (3,050 meters, 10,000 feet high) are in Nepal, but fast ripening and cold- and drought-resistant qingke, a kind of highland barley, is often the preferred crop. Wheat (for bread and alcohol), buckwheat, potatoes, 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.

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 carry goods, possessions and household goods; they provide food and hair that can be made into tents, clothes and other products. Some nomads ride on their yaks and some farmers use yaks to plow their plots of land. Yak dung is used to make fires in a land where there are no trees (many Tibetan houses have piles of drying yak dung next to the walls).

Agriculture in the Hill Region of Nepal

In the Hill Region (called Pahar in Nepali) the climate depends primarily on elevation, which varies from 1000 meters or so in the valley bottoms to as high as 4,000 meters on the hillsides and tops of ridges. Agriculture mainly takes place on flat land in the valleys or in terraces on the hillsides. Situated south of the Himalayan mountains region, the Hill Region includes the Kathmandu Valley, the country's most fertile and urbanized area. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Like the Mountain Region, the Hill Region was a food-deficit area in the early 1990s, although agriculture was the predominant economic activity supplemented by livestock raising, foraging, and seasonal migrating of laborers. The vast majority of the households living in the hills were land-hungry and owned largely pakho (hilly) land. The poor economic situation caused by lack of sufficient land was aggravated by the relatively short growing season, a phenomenon directly attributable to the climatic impact of the region's higher altitude. As a result, a hill farmer's ability to grow multiple crops was limited. The families were forced to adapt to the marginality, as well as the seasonality, of their environment, cultivating their land whenever they could and growing whatever would survive. *

Bishop has noted that "as crop productivity decreases with elevation, the importance of livestock in livelihood pursuits . . . increases. For many Bhotia [or Bhote, Tibetan-related people] living in the highlands . . . animal husbandry supplants agriculture in importance." During the slack season, when the weather did not permit cropping, hill dwellers generally became seasonal migrants, who engaged in wage labor wherever they could find it to supplement their meager farm output. Dependence on nonagricultural activities was even more necessary in the mountain ecological belt.


In hilly and mountainous areas, terraces are widely used to make slopes into arable land. Terraces conserve soil and prevent erosion but their primary purpose is to create flat land that retains water rather than letting it trickle away. Temporary dams direct the flow of water. Dirt and water are kept in place with earth or earth-and-rock ridges, or dikes, that are constructed at a standard height of around 15 inches and are wide enough for people can walk on them.

In terraces on mountain slopes the high terraces are often rain-fed and used to grow crops that don't need much rain such as potatoes or dry land rice. Those further down receive irrigation water and are intensively cultivated to produce staples such as maize and wetland rice.

Many terraces have been used for hundreds and even thousands of years. In terraces that grow rice, water flows down hill in stages with plots near the top being planted first. After the water is used it is released filling the terraces below it. The rice is harvested in stages with plots at the bottom harvested last. In places where water is somewhat scarce, groups of fields are watered one at a time because relatively little water is wasted that way.

Some terraces are collectively owned and worked by a community. Others are owned by individuals, sometimes from distant villages, who are free to sell the land, work it, or lease it and consume or sell the crops that are grown on it. The water is distributed using a system like that used in conventional irrigation systems.

Agriculture in the Terai

Much of Nepal’s most productive agricultural land is in the Terai Region, a lowland tropical and subtropical belt of flat, alluvial land stretching along the Nepal-India border, and paralleling the Hill Region. It is the northern extension of the Gangetic Plain in India, commencing at about 300 meters above sea level and rising to about 1,000 meters at the foot of the Siwalik Range. The Terai includes several valleys (dun), such as the Surkhet and Dang valleys in western Nepal, and the Rapti Valley (Chitwan) in central Nepal. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

In the 1980s and 90s the Terai served as the country's granary and land resettlement frontier. At that time it the most coveted internal destination for land-hungry hill peasants. Overall, Terai residents enjoyed a greater availability of agricultural land than did other Nepalese because of the area's generally flat terrain, which is drained and nourished by several rivers.

Southern Nepal is dominated by the Terai (or Tarai), a region of swamps, grasslands, agricultural land, jungles and forests that extends for 900 kilometers (550 miles) across the southern part of the country. The region remained isolated for a long time and few people lived there because it was infested by malaria mosquitos. After the 1950s when the threat of malaria was reduced by the introduction of DDT, many people moved there and now it has large agricultural areas.

Since the eradication of malaria, the landscape of the Terai has been dramatically changed by agriculture. The alluvial soil is fertile and easy to clear and plow.. In many places the forests and grasslands are gone and swamps have been drained. The Terai is Nepal’s primary rice-growing region. It produces surpluses of rice, wheat and other crops that are vital for making sure people in other areas of Nepal don’t starve, and some crops are exported to India, which a short distance away. During the monsoon parts of the Terai floods. In the dry season grassy areas burn. The elephants, one horned rhinos and tigers that once roamed the entire area now primarily relegated to the national parks.

Magar Agriculture

Magar are the third largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 7.1 percent of the population. They are a Hindu people who live in the middle Himalayas and Terai and west-central and southern Nepal.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Banyan Hill's subsistence activities are carried out at elevations ranging from about 800 meters to 1,000 meters in a climatic zone classified as subtropical and characterized by deciduous broad-leaf trees such as Shorea robustus, as well as by banyans, pipals, bananas, and papayas. [Source: John T. Hitchcock, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

“The major crops on dry land terraces are maize, accounting for half of the harvest, wheat, and dry rice. With the exception of a small amount of maize, the irrigated terraces are planted to rice. Over the years the Magars have also made use of buckwheat, hulled barley, mustard, potatoes, sugarcane, bananas, arum lilies, radishes, sesame, lentils, beans, pumpkins, cucumbers, carrots, cauliflowers, cabbages, onions, tomatoes, yams, chilies, and tobacco. In addition there are many kinds of fruit and trees with leaves suitable for fodder, two plants providing leaves useful as plates, and three plants used for fencing. |~|

“All of Banyan Hill's tillage, dry or irrigated, is within a half-hour's walk from any house. The same is true of places where there are trees for firewood and grass for cutting hay or thatch. Water for irrigation and domestic use is spring-fed and plentiful. The cattle population includes buffalo, cows and calves, and bullocks. There are also goats, pigs, and horses, and a few familes keep beehives and chickens. Buffalo are stall-fed and are seldom taken from their shed except to be bred. |~|

“The saying in Banyan Hill that "everyone gets enough to fill his belly" does not mean that every family obtains enough grain from its own land to meet even its minimum needs. It means rather that if the family does not have a sufficiently large grain income, it can make up the deficit by borrowing or by sending one or more family members to work as hired laborers. In the 1960s, only seven of Banyan Hill's families had tillage so large and productive that it provided a salable surplus. This problem still exists today. Families who are not among the fortunate few with adequate land have to purchase or borrow grain in amounts varying from what is required to support an adult for a year to the very little needed to feed a guest on ceremonial occasions. Even households that are comparatively well-off because they have dry landholdings that are more than adequate may lack paddy land and Therefore have to buy rice. Most people prefer to sell jewelry rather than suffer the ignominy of serving riceless meals to guests. The majority of the families also need an income greater than their land can produce so that they can buy the services of specialists, cloth, supplemental ghee, salt, and occasional bazaar items such as powdered color, cigarettes, or soap. |~|

“At the time of 1960s studies, only one Banyan Hill family did not own land. Most of the hamlet's tillage thus is owned by families individually. Exceptions are a small irrigated plot, the use of which rotates annually among the families of one particular lineage, and woodlots and places where thatch can be cut, which all lineages may use. Only well-to-do families purchase land. Obtaining land for use is much more common. Some is leased and paid for by a fixed sum. In other cases the user agrees to give the owner a share of the land's produce, usually two-thirds from a rice paddy and one-half from dry land. |~|

Newar Agriculture

The Newars are an ethnic group associated with the Kathmandu Valley. Regarded by some as the earliest inhabitants of the valley, they are both Buddhists and Hindus. They speak a Tibetan language with many Sanskit and Nepali loan words. The word “Nepal” is believed by some to have been derived from word “Newar,” or possibly the other way around. The Newar are the sixth largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 5 percent of the population of Nepal.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The main crop is rice, grown during the monsoon (June-September) in irrigated fields. Both men and women work in agriculture. Men use the hoe and women transplant rice. [Source: Hiroshi Ishii, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Wheat, potatoes, and pulse in the dry season, vegetables, and maize are secondary crops. Since the 1960s improved varieties of rice, wheat, and maize have been introduced) and are cultivated with chemical fertilizers. Although some farmers now use hand tractors (cultivators), many still cultivate with a short-handled hoe called ku. Plowing is not popular, perhaps because it is not well suited for sloping fields. Agricultural labor from outside the household is recruited through the systems of bwala (reciprocal exchange), gwali (help without any direct repayment) and jyami (daily paid work). The last form has become more popular these days.

“Most of the agricultural land is under the raikar or state-owned tenure, under which farmers can utilize land by paying a tax. Old land-tenure forms, bitta and jagīr, have been changed to raikar since the 1950s. Some land is still owned as tax-exempt, such as land owned by socioritual organizations (guthi ) and land owned by temples, much of which is also ultimately controlled by the semigovernmental guthi corporation. The amount of land held by a farming household seldom exceeds one hectare. Tenancy exists only to a limited extent. |~|

Nyinba Agriculture

The Nyinda are a small Tibetan ethnic group that lives in Humal Karnali, a rugged area between 2,850 and 3,300 meters in elevation in Nepal near the Tibetan border. There are only a few thousand of them. They have traditionally raised high elevation crops like buckwheat and millet and were involved in the Tibetan salt trade. They are also known as Barthapalya (in Nepali), Bhotia, Bhutia and Tamang.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Due to the difficult terrain and the high elevation, however, it is both physically demanding and relatively unproductive. Villagers may double-crop their lowest-level fields with winter barley and buckwheat or plant a single crop of millet, amaranth, and beans. At middle elevations wheat and buckwheat are grown, whereas the highest fields are planted only with buckwheat. People grow vegetables — daikons (radishes), turnips, potatoes, peas, pumpkins, Hubbard squash, and cabbages — in small kitchen gardens. [Source: Nancy E. Levine, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

“Households also own fruit and nut trees: apricot, walnut, apple, and the rare peach tree. On average, households produced approximately 84 bushels of unhusked grain in 1982, a disastrous agricultural year; in a year of good harvests, they expect to produce about 50 percent more. That yield was supplemented by the proceeds of trade and cattle herding. Nyinba do not have access to extensive grasslands, so that cattle herding is limited and continues to contract, as high lands are being converted into farmland. Nonetheless, households keep some cattle, for their milk products and manure.

Individual households have rights over farmland, while villages control forests and grazing lands. All Nyinba own some land, though the richer households have vastly more than the poorer ones. The state has ultimate rights over all this land, although they are realized in little more than the right to taxation. Nyinba buy and sell land rarely; it is in short supply and very expensive. In the past, when wastelands were reclaimed, each village household received an equivalent share. |~|

Dolpo Agriculture and Livestock

Dolpo is a remote region northwest of the Annapurna region. Immortalized by the “Snow Leopard”, Peter Mathiessesn's account of Himalayan exploration,the Dolpo is inhabited by Bhotias who embrace the Bon-Po faith, an animist religion that predates and influenced Tibetan Buddhism. The people of the Dolpo region— the Dolpa-pa — are a Tibetan people who have lived pretty much the same way for the last 1,000 years. The food they grown in their valleys is only enough to feed them for half a year. The key to their existence is the yak caravan. From Dolpa they travel up to Tibet and trade barely and corn for salt. The salt is then taken to the south were it is traded for corn, beans and rice. [Source: Eric Valli and Diane Summers, National Geographic, December 1993 [☺]

About the only grain that will grow in the Dolpo is barley and there is hardly enough water to go around. Every April before the plowing begins the men in some Dolpo villages engage in a dice a game that determines who will get how much water. ☺

Men plow the fields with primitive plows. Women doing weeding and other chores. The people in Karnali use stone plows with wooden handles similar to those used in Greece 5,000 year ago. At an elevation of 2,745 meters (9,000 feet) they tend some of the highest rice fields in the world. To achieve this, rice kernel are first germinated inside stone hot houses that use fire instead of the sun to produce heat. ♬

Almost every part every part of the yak is utilized for something. It backs is used for carrying loads up to 45 kilograms (100 pounds). Milk provides yoghurt, cheese and butter for tea; the hide is used for leather shoes; the wool is spun into blankets and clothes; and the dung is used for fuel in a treeless land. ☺

Sherpa Agriculture

Sherpas are a Tibetan Buddhist people that are essentially Tibetans who have lived in Nepal long enough to develop some of their own unique traits and characteristics. They are quite different from Hindu Nepalese. The Sherpas of the Khumbu valley near Mt. Everest are famous mountaineers and guides.

Sherpas have traditionally been yak herders, farmers and traders. In high, harsh Khumbu area, around Everest, they traded, raised Yaks and herded. In the lower Solu region to the south they farmed terraced hillsides with buckwheat, corn, rice and potatoes.

Many Sherpas eat mostly potatoes. They crop was probably introduced in the 19th century and helped the Sherpas change from trading to a more settled lifestyle. They also raise turnips, radishes, watermelon-size cucumbers, barely and wheat and corn varieties. There is little or no mechanization. Plowing is done with oxen.

Sherpas raise yaks, cows and yak-cow crossbred prized for their high quality milk. Butter and a kind of yogurt are produced for home consumption and traded for tea, rice, fruit and other items. Sherpas don't like to sent their yaks below 3,660 meters (12,000 feet). They are worried the animals will get malaria. Be careful entering a Sherpa's home at night. A house is often guarded by a Tibetan mastiff. And if it doesn't attack you the yaks and sheep in the living room might. [Source: Desmond Doig, National Geographic, October 1966]

Land has traditionally been individually owned and worked by households. Tools and utensils were generally acquired through trade with ethnic Nepalis.

Charas (Hashish) Cultivation and Production in Nepal

High quality charas (hashish) is produced in Nepal. It used to sold in government monopoly stores in Kathmandu. The Rolpa district in western Nepal was a production center. Ganja and charas were important cash crop, providing a much needed source of income in an extremely isolated, underdeveloped and impoverished region. In hashish producing countries like Morocco, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan, hashish is generally made by dry sieving the plants to collect the resin glands. In Nepal, by contrast, charas is produced by hand-rubbing fresh plants. Harvesters first thoroughly wash their hands and let them dry in the sun. Then start rubbing the fresh colas of the female plants until a thick layer of resin glands covers their palms. They then scrape off and collect the resin and repeat the process, this time collecting a second-grade resin. After they finish rubbing the plants, the resin is rolled with hands into shiny spheres round (friction and heat really help) as round pieces, commonly called Temple Balls. After leaving them to stand for some days, they’re ready to be enjoyed!

In the higher elevation of Darchula District in northwest Nepal provide, all three major products of the cannabis plant — seeds and resin from the female flowers as well as fiber from the stems — are extracted from the same crop. Describing the cultivation of cannabis and production of charas there, Robert Connell Clarke of the International Hemp Association wrote: “Cannabis crops share terraced fields with other “grain” crops such as wheat, maize and amaranth, field crops like squashes, chilies, tomatoes, root crops like potatoes and radishes and apple, pear and plum trees. Cannabis is the only cultivated fiber plant in Darchula District.Most households usually grow one to several relatively small Cannabis fields of 10-200 square meters. Fields are sown at high density to encourage the plants to grow tall, straight and without branches so the stalks will be suitable for fiber extraction. Manure is added to the fields and they are plowed thoroughly to make the soil as fine and aerated as possible. Seed is broadcast sown when the soil has warmed sufficiently, some time in late May through early July. Additional fertilizer may be added when the seed is sown, but no nutrients are added after the seeds germinate, and the crop is not irrigated, as it receives sufficient water from localized spring rainfall and the summer monsoons. Occasionally crops are also sown at wider spacing, which requires less seed and encourages the plants to branch. [Source: Robert Connell Clarke, International Hemp Association“Traditional Cannabis Cultivation in Darchula District, Nepal—Seed, Resin and Textiles.” Journal of Industrial Hemp, November 2007]

“Mature plants are harvested in October through early December, commencing a few weeks after the last monsoon rains. Plants are harvested in the morning after the dew evaporates, beginning with the larger spontaneously growing plants. Flowering branches are cut from the plants and rubbed to collect the resin (charas) before they are dried in the sun and the seeds threshed out. Once the spontaneous plants are harvested the farmers begin to cut the ripe fields sown for fiber production.

“Throughout the afternoon entire families will sit and collect charas by first tearing the large leaves from the floral clusters and then strip ping the floral clusters from the stalk. The flowers are aggressively rubbed between the hands so that the psychoactive resin (as well as extraneous dust, plant juice, leaf fragments and insect parts) adhere to the palms and fingers. One person can collect from five to ten grams of potent higher quality charas in a day, but more commonly 20-30 grams of lower quality charas containing more extraneous plant juices and tissues is rubbed each day. Rubbing Cannabis flowers by hand is very simple and this extraction technique was likely the first used by ancient agricultural societies to collect resin. Hand-rubbed charas is also produced in the Malana and Manali regions of Kulu District of the Indian Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, northwest of Uttaranchal State, but it is presently uncommon outside the Himalayan foothill region.

Charas is most often smoked in a conical clay pipe called a chillum, but may also be infused into hot milk and drunk as bhang. Charas is only rarely consumed by farmers, who rely on it for important income, and most often choose to sell whatever they produce. A 100 square meter cannabis field can yield up to 200 grams of charas, which sells for approximately US$28, as well as about ten kilograms of seed worth a minimum of US$0.55 per kilogram. So, the total economic benefit from a well grown and efficiently harvested and extracted 100 square meter crop ranges between US$25-40, which is roughly equivalent to US$2,500-4,000 per hectare and based on the projected area of hemp/charas/seed cultivation, the annual production of cultivated charas is conservatively estimated to exceed 500 kilograms and may be much higher. When charas collected from feral plants is included, production in the upper Darchula region may exceed one metric ton.

Tea in Nepal

Deepak Adhikari of AFP wrote: “After decades spent in the shadow of their neighbours across the border in Darjeeling, Nepalese tea growers are finally laying out their own stalls in the lucrative global market for premium leaves. The hill gardens of eastern Nepal are at an equivalent altitude — and share a similar climate — to those just across the Indian border in Darjeeling, which produce some of the world's most sought-after and highest-priced premium black tea. . [Source: Deepak Adhikari, AFP, August 8, 2011]

“The Darjeeling brand enjoys international renown, but experts say complacency, price-gouging and a low-level but persistent separatist insurgency in the Indian region have given the Nepalese teas a foothold in the market. In the mid 2000s “some European buyers became frustrated with the Darjeeling growers, feeling they were using their monopoly on the brand to push prices far too high," said Vikram Mittal, a New Delhi-based trader in speciality teas. “So they started looking more closely at similar-tasting but cheaper Nepali teas as a sourcing option," Mittal said.

“Nonetheless, as an impoverished, landlocked country, Nepal poses particular challenges to tea growers who have to struggle with a woeful transport infrastructure, power and labour shortages and a lack of government support. “The government hasn't provided any real incentives," said garden owner Bachan Gyawali. “Labour shortages and regular strikes enforced by one group or another have, at times, crippled the business," Gyawali said.

“Around 8,000 small farmers are involved in orthodox tea cultivation and employ some 27,000 people — the vast majority of them women. In an effort to promote their brands, Nepal's private tea producers launched the Himalayan Tea Producers Cooperative (HIMCOOP) in 2003, and have started to take part in global trade fairs, such as the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas. HIMCOOP has hired a Darjeeling native, John Taylor, to oversee its marketing side, and has created a "Nepal Tea" brand endorsed by the legendary Italian mountaineer, Reinhold Messner.

“While branding is crucial, Taylor said a long-term effort was also needed to woo major overseas buyers. “Tea is a very personal business. You have to build up a personal relationship with the buyers who often visit the gardens themselves," he said. HIMCOOP president Sushil Rijal acknowledged: "There is huge potential for orthodox tea in European countries and North America but, up till now, we haven't been able to market our products that well. “Honestly, we are very new in this trade," he admitted.

Tea: It’s Not Darjeeling, It’s Nepali

“A few hours across the border” from India’s famed Darjeeling tea-producing area, Max Falkowitz wrote in the New York Times, “Nepal’s tea community is in the budding stages of a loose-leaf revolution. Growers are planting tea bushes in the same kind of steep, high-elevation fields that granted Darjeeling its unmatched reputation. Entrepreneurial farmers and factory owners, unburdened by Darjeeling’s colonial-era baggage, are developing remarkable styles of tea all their own at a fraction of the price, often with younger, more vigorous bushes thriving in comparatively richer soil. [Source: Max Falkowitz, New York Times, May 28, 2019]

“You won’t find Nepali teas at your local Starbucks, but they’re increasingly popular with specialty boutiques and online stores across North America and Europe, that are eager to pounce on rare teas from emerging regions. “Nepal and Darjeeling are so close together, but there’s a characteristic of Nepali tea that’s brilliant all by itself,” said Jeni Dodd, 48, an American buyer and consultant for tea shops and cafes who rents an apartment in Kathmandu, Nepal, for frequent visits. “There’s no bite or astringency at all. They’re full-bodied but smooth and accessible.”

“A legend says that in 1863 the Daoguang Emperor of China gave Nepal’s then prime minister, Junga Bahadur Rana, a gift of tea plants; records show the country’s eastern Ilam district, near the Indian border, began production shortly after Darjeeling’s plantations were established. Tradition and market demand have standardized Darjeeling’s production into particular styles called “flushes”: Leaves picked in early spring are processed as a light, piney first flush, while more mature leaves picked later in the season are used for a fruity, full-bodied second flush.

“Historically, most Nepali leaves were processed into inexpensive broken-leaf black tea grades destined for domestic consumption and export to the Indian commodity market. Finer whole-leaf “orthodox” grades were usually sold to Indian merchants, then labeled by Indian sellers as Darjeeling tea. (Today, the amount of tea sold as Darjeeling is roughly four times the maximum yield of the region’s 87 origin-protected estates.)

Himalayas Orthodox Teas From Nepal

Deepak Adhikari of AFP wrote: “Grown at high altitude in lush, emerald gardens among the foothills of the Himalayas, "orthodox" Nepalese teas are now finding their way onto the books of speciality buyers from Europe and the United States. The orthodox method of production oxidises and prepares teas with a focus on the top-quality, whole leaves and buds that produce a nuanced and slightly fruity flavour and can be used for multiple infusions. [Source: Deepak Adhikari, AFP, August 8, 2011]

“It is a niche but profitable market, supplying high-end tea shops and retailers around the world who cater to an affluent, health-conscious clientele. “Nepalese tea is increasingly visible in the western world where the demand for high-quality tea has grown in recent years," said Dilli Baskota, manager of Kanchanjangha Tea, a garden based in the hills of eastern Nepal. Germany and United States are the primary markets, but Baskota said that buyers from France, Britain, Russia and Canada, as well as consumer giants China and Japan, had recently placed sizeable orders.

“Premium Nepalese teas can fetch prices as high as $85 per kilo on the international market, and according to the National Tea Board production has almost doubled” between 2006 and 2011 “to 2.6 million kilos, of which 90 percent is exported. The global market for orthodox teas is currently estimated by the US Tea Association at around 45 million kilos.

“Nepal growers cannot compete with the top-grade Darjeeling premium teas — such as the "Silver Tip" leaves which are traditionally hand-picked under a full moon and retail at up to $500 a kilo. But their medium-grade orthodox teas are competitive and quality is improving as owners lure Darjeeling planters to manage their gardens. “Quite a few have moved to Nepal, where they are given more responsibility and better salaries," said P.K. Ganguly, a retired Darjeeling grower. “They take with them decades of accumulated expertise in growing and processing and that makes a huge difference quality-wise," he said.

Nepali Tea Producers

Max Falkowitz wrote in the New York Times: “Unlike Darjeeling tea, which is produced on estates that own their land outright, almost all Nepali tea is grown on tiny plots owned by independent farmers who then sell fresh leaves to factories. Nepali Tea Traders imports small-batch productions from an Ilam factory that buys fresh leaf from a cooperative of 47 small-scale farmers. [Source: Max Falkowitz, New York Times, May 28, 2019]

“When the brothers Bachan and Lochan Gyawali established Jun Chiyabari Estate in the Dhankuta district of Nepal in 2000, the last thing they wanted was to mimic Darjeeling’s gardens just 150 miles away. “Nepal has always been classified as a poor cousin of Darjeeling,” said Bachan, 57, “and when we spoke with tea buyers, it became clear there’d be no reason for them to buy a similar tea from Nepal when Darjeeling will always be Darjeeling.”

Jun Chiyabari’s equivalent of first flushes exhibits the full rush of alpine air and sprightly florals that have made Darjeeling teas so famous, but the estate’s real specialty is small productions influenced by East Asian tea regions like China and Taiwan. Under the Gyawalis’ direction, Jun Chiyabari’s tea makers are encouraged to experiment and produce unique organic Himalayan teas, which the estate then sells directly to wholesale buyers. (Nepali teas are officially banned from the Indian auction market.) The result is season after season of heady black, white and oolong styles whose flavors evolve through a dozen steepings and linger for hours after your final sip.

“Darjeeling estates have experimented with white teas in recent years, but the style has really become a signature of Nepali innovation. The spring white buds from Nepali Tea Traders, a Massachusetts tea importer dedicated solely to specialty teas from Nepal, produce a drink as distinctive as white tea gets — carrying the essence of sweet summer corn slathered with butter, heavy enough to leave a film on your lips.

“The number of players in the country’s tea economy has made the industry difficult to organize, and critics in the Western tea business point to it as the reason Nepali producers have struggled to maintain consistent quality from year to year. “It’s a chaotic scene, very Wild West,” said Kevin Gascoyne, an owner of the Montreal tea boutique Camellia Sinensis, who has bought tea from Darjeeling for 25 years. “A few gardens are taking advantage of the situation to innovate, but others are more rustic operations. Some lucky batches work out, and others don’t.” But Rabin Joshi, 36, an owner of Nepali Tea Traders, considers that a strength. “They’re not just workers trying to make ends meet,” he said. “These farmers treat their plants as their own babies.”

Nepal’s Worker- and Farmer-Friendly Tea Trade

Max Falkowitz wrote in the New York Times: Nepali Tea Traders, a Denver-based company, “was founded in 2012 by Maggie Le Beau, a former marketing executive who saw promise in Nepal’s tea industry and wanted to give independent producers direct access to the lucrative American market. Mr. Joshi and his wife, Sunita Karmacharya Joshi, both Nepali immigrants, became involved with the company after the country’s devastating 2015 earthquake. “We were donating money,” Mr. Joshi said, “but realized collecting donations wasn’t enough.” The couple was attracted to Ms. Le Beau’s approach to social enterprise and became co-owners in 2017. [Source: Max Falkowitz, New York Times, May 28, 2019]

“ For Nishchal Banksota, the 28-year-old founder of Nepal Tea in New Jersey, expanding Nepal’s tea industry and improving rural quality of life go hand-in-hand. Mr. Banksota’s father, Deepak Banksota, organized Nepal’s first certified organic tea cooperative, Kanchanjangha Tea Estate and Research Center, in 1984. The organization pays for farmers’ housing and children's education, and subsidizes food costs, a model reminiscent of the colonial-era laws requiring Darjeeling estates to provide lodging and education for their workers and their children.

“These are noteworthy exceptions in a global tea industry that relies generally on poorly compensated migrant labor to harvest fresh leaves, and offers few protections for its workers. “As Nepal’s specialty tea industry improves its output and sophistication, Mr. Banksota and his family are looking for ways to build the country’s tea into a brand like Darjeeling without succumbing to its pitfalls. “We’re in a honeymoon phase,” he said. Tea is an ancient drink, after all, and while trends move quickly, nurturing a consistent and sustainable tea industry takes time. “It could be a very short success story if we’re not on our game,” said Bachan Gyawali, of Jun Chiyabari. “To be sustainable, you need to be more than the Johnny-come-lately, and it will require consistency and some very hard work over the next 50 years.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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