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Treading the sustainable path

Anitha Pailoor, Jan 14, 2014: 21:17 IST
Bio-diversity conserver and farmer-scientist Syed Ghani Khan in his farm. Photo by author

Farming Syed Ghani Khan’s farm stands unique with a verdant tapestry of 700 paddy varieties and 120 types of mango. This distinct ecosystem is the result of a farmer’s constant effort with constructive involvement of his family, writes Anitha Pailoor, against the backdrop of the United Nations declaring 2014 as the year of family farming

This is Nazar Bath collected from the tribal people of Maharashtra. They sow this unique rice variety in the middle of paddy field since it acts as a trap crop and weed controller. Black in colour, pockets of this variety in the field look like spots that protect the field. Dambar Sali is popular in North Karnataka for similar properties.”

“I have studied about 150 insects in this farm. More than 50 per cent support the crop. Those green twigs are resting places for birds. They are the natural pest controllers. Look here. I have recently come across this beetle in my farm. I am yet to figure out whether it is useful or not.” After a break, biodiversity conserver and farmer-scientist Syed Ghani Khan resumes to collecting seeds from 700 paddy strains cultivated in one acre while his 12-year-old daughter crosschecks her records and realises that few varieties are missing.

“Squirrels cherish the sweetness of paddy sprouts and do not let them grow.” We see a father passing on the knowledge of ecosystem. Fragrance of jasmine attracts us to the other part of the farm where Ghani’s brothers are harvesting Thai Jasmine Black paddy grown in one-and-a-half acres.

Paddy harvest in Bada Bagh, a unique farm in Kirugavalu near Malavalli Taluk of Mandya district, has intensified activities in their house a few kilometres away.

Ghani’s wife Syeda Firdouse and other women are busy making arrangements to store the seeds and pack as per the demand. Ghani’s mother Haleema Begum is occupied in seed preservation for next year’s sowing.

40 seeds that changed his life

Agriculture is something more than a livelihood activity to this family. It is a way to conserve biodiversity, a path to revive traditional practices. Syed Ghani Khan and his brother Syed Hasan are into agriculture while two brothers who are working in cities join hands when necessary.

Ghani Khan (37) had an innate passion to tend plants since his childhood. “During his school days, Ghani spent more time in the kitchen garden than playing with friends,” recalls his mother. “When I was a teenager, my father fell ill and was bedridden for years. Being the eldest, my studies and experiments in the farm went parallel.

By the time he could complete his graduation in archeology and museology, his father passed away. Ghani stood firm in his farm and anchored the future of his three brothers. “There are many turning points in my life. A fistful of native seeds tops among them,” Ghani narrates his journey from a chemical farmer to a native seed conserver. In the beginning, chemical farming looked comfortable. But when both personal and field’s health deteriorated, he decided to shift to organic farming. It was followed by his passion for paddy varieties.

Ghani’s uncle had acquired a small quantity of seeds of unknown paddy variety in 2000. Though he was reluctant to share the seeds, Ghani managed to get 40 seeds. The variety yielded well in organic method. Ironically, for two years the variety could not be identified, until a visitor recognised it as Ratnachudi. In those two years, Ghani Khan had realised that native paddy varieties were on the verge of extinction. This awareness compelled him to focus on conservation.

It was not an easy task considering the kind of work involved in conserving a variety. First six years saw only five additional varieties. Gradually, he came into contact with individuals and organisations with similar objectives. Save our Rice Campaign, anchored by Sahaja Samruddha in Karnataka, gave him opportunities to visit farms and research centres across the country. He interacted and exchanged seeds with other leading paddy conservers in the country. Paddy varieties of Thailand and Malaysia are gifted from his friends of Save Rice Campaign. “Every time he is back from a programme or field trip, I’m sure that Bada Bagh will get new members,” says Haleema Begum.

Conservation process

“I do not say that I’m doing it scientifically. But whatever I have done is systematic.” Wide diversity of wetland, dryland, medicinal, aromatic rices along with unique varieties like jugal, a twin-grained paddy, Narikel, which resembles coconut flower, Burma Black, Ramigali and Rajbhog, a weed suppressor, give the visitors a feel of plant museum. Each variety is evenly spaced in straight rows. A list of the varieties is hung in front of each row.

A portion of the experimental plot is covered with high-yielding varieties that are planted for comparative study with traditional rice plants. After being able to revive the distinct paddy varieties of the region, Ghani Khan is trying to test the most feasible varieties for local climatic conditions. Growing plants in cement rings for conservation purpose is his latest experiment. It saves him space.

About 99 per cent cross-pollination doesn’t happen in native paddy. But to rule out even one per cent, Ghani combines long and short duration crops. Direct sowing is done. Though there is sufficient water due to KRS Dam, Ghani takes care to use minimum water just to maintain moisture.

He uses a concoction of selected medicinal leaves to check pests and diseases. Weeding is done using cono weeder. Slurry, green manure and mulching of 10 types of pulses ensure good fertility.

Ghani was trained in seed production at Krishi Vijnana Kendra, Vishweshwaraiah Channel Farm, Mandya. In his early phase as a farmer, he had supplied seeds of high yielding varieties to Karnataka State Seed Corporation. He has applied the same knowledge to conserve native seeds. So far he has given seeds to more than 6,000 farmers across Karnataka and outside the state. Some farmers exchange the seeds, other return double the quantity after harvest.

Once the crop is ready for harvest, he organises a field day so that farmers can choose the variety that best suits their requirement. Ghani selects the varieties based on yield, market demand and climatic conditions. Usually, consumers contact him directly for rice. Sahaja Organics is one of the major clients. He has even exported certain varieties to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

“Farmers are the primary victims of climate change. Traditional varieties help us face unpredictable climatic and ecological conditions while high yielding varieties can’t.” Through his careful insight of selecting plants and developing varieties with suitable traits, Ghani has become a farmer breeder. He has been studying each variety and the ecosystem it builds. This year, he has cross-pollinated Salem Sanna and HMT to get a new race.

“Ghani has a clear understanding of the significance of on-farm conservation. He has also cultivated a researcher’s outlook. Research centres and universities should join hands with him to systematically propagate the good work done. Scientists should help him in characterisation and experiment the varieties in a larger area.

Even if five per cent of the varieties in his collection are found useful for their drought, flood, pest, disease-resistant properties or for high yield, it is remarkable for both researchers and farmers. Farmers can relate more when they observe the crop in another farmer’s field. Keeping this in mind, we are planning to conduct activities in his farm,” says Dr N Devakumar, co-ordinator, Research Institute on Organic Farming, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore.

Hand in hand

When his brother is busy researching on paddy strains, Syed Hasan takes care of the vegetable plots, papaya, guava and sugar cane which make the farm diverse in terms of crops too. Casuarina is grown in 3 acres and teak in patches bordering the 20-acre farm.

Bada Bagh is also known for its exotic mango collection. About 120 mango varieties which are 100 to 200 years old are registered with the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources.

When the paddy variety crossed 100, Ghani’s mother thought of tasting all the varieties. So, once the seeds are distributed to those interested, she mixes all the varieties together and gets it milled to use it for their daily consumption. “It is tasty, colourful and nutritious,” she says. HMT, a farmer-developed variety, is the other one they prefer for consumption.

Syeda Firdouse has started the novel activity of designing ornaments and decorative items from paddy seeds.

Ghani was given the Plant Genome Savior Farmer Recognition by the Central Government in 2012. The family has launched the Ghani Agriculture and Rural Development Organisation to support their activities.

“This family demonstrates the joy of farming. They are content in what they do and what they get in return. Ghani can locate paddy in the woods. The entire family is supportive of Ghani’s quest,” lauds Murthy, a fellow farmer, who is inspired by Ghani.

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