Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The major part of Sherpa production consists of field agriculture. Potatoes are the main staple, along with barley, some wheat varieties, and more recently maize in the lower-elevation villages. Rious garden vegetables are also grown, the most prominent being huge radishes the size of turnips (or larger) and cucumbers the size of watermelons. There is no mechanized farming; plowing is done with a single-bladed plow drawn by oxen. The other main component of the domestic economy is livestock herding for dairy products, especially butter and a form of yogurt. Butter is produced in surplus by some herders and is a major trade item. Imported tea, mixed with butter and salt, and chang, local beer made from maize or other grain, are drunk in great quantities. Rice and fruits are obtained from regional markets frequented by growers from lower-elevation regions. Sherpas, being Buddhists, do not slaughter animals and are not generally meat consumers, though they will eat meat slaughtered by non-Sherpas at the market or on special occasions.
Industrial Arts. The various crafts and industries necessary for Sherpa life are, at present, almost exclusively relegated to ethnic Nepalis of the artisan castes, including blacksmiths, goldsmiths, leather workers, and tailors. This pattern dates from the nineteenth century, when Nepali caste restrictions were accepted by the Sherpas as part of their incorporation into the expanding state.
Trade. Trade, including trans-Himalayan trade, has long been a leading Sherpa entrepreneurial activity and was the source of a number of very substantial fortunes. Sherpas like to make long trading expeditions, and men often go off on such journeys singly or in groups for many months, leaving both domestic chores and agricultural work in the hands of women. In recent times, merchants catering to the tourist trade have grown more numerous.
Division of Labor. Trading and wage labor are predominantly male activities. Agricultural and pastoral labor is shared by both sexes, and often women do the major share while men trek. Plowing is the only productive activity assigned exclusively to men.
Land Tenure. Most land is individually owned and worked by households. Threshing is sometimes done communally by cooperating households. Sherpas will not in general do agricultural work for wages, preferring to work the tourist trade or in the cities. A few Sherpa families who made great fortunes in trade own large tracts of land worked by wage laborers and tenant farmers coming from non-Sherpa ethnic groups. In recent years a land reform program of the government of Nepal has attempted to address major inequities in landownership.