Custodian of paddy diversity

B K Deva Rao of Mittabagilu village in Belthangady taluk has conserved over 150 paddy varieties in his five-acre farm.

Custodian of paddy diversity

Take a closer look. They are not coriander seeds but a type of paddy. This is Burma Black rice, good for payasam. The violet colour of the dish makes it appealing. This is a scented variety. We normally add a fistful of this rice with other rice while cooking to get the distinct aroma. This is meese bhatta, check the moustache-like streaks on the grain...”

Seventy-two-year-old B K Deva Rao takes a pause to check the harvest activity at the farther end of his five-acre farm in Mittabagilu village of Belthangady taluk. As I look around, I am overwhelmed by the rich tapestry of colours. Blocks of paddy in different shades of brown, green, red and black seem antithetical to the common notion that the colour of paddy straw is green and the seed is brown. Deva Rao takes me through the field to show many other varieties, “Massoori, kayame, rajakayme, chinnaponni, salem sanna, halaga, kaavalakannu, raktasali, gandhasale....”

Incredibly diverse

While Deva Rao ignites my curiosity by showing the shape, size and features of these varieties, his wife, Sharada, brings a plate in which coloured rice varieties are arranged artistically. “It is not just the shape, colour or scent that makes these varieties unique, but also their characteristics,” he points out. As he details the farming practices and culinary and medicinal applications of each variety, a whole new world unfolds.

The passion for collecting paddy varieties is something that Deva Rao inherited from his father. His interest in agriculture brought him back to the fields after his studies. Then, many varieties were grown in coastal Karnataka and the family grew 40 varieties in 20 acres. Now, after four decades, there is a sharp decline in paddy cultivation in the region, but interestingly, the number of varieties in Deva Rao’s farm has increased to 157. However, the area under cultivation has shrunk from 20 acres to five acres.

In the four decades of conservation efforts, the family has faced ups and downs. For a few years, they even tried chemical farming and returned to organic and sustainable methods after realising the inherent dangers of chemical farming. Unlike horticulture crops that have replaced the paddy fields in the district, paddy cultivation is labour-intensive and requires continuous efforts. “From maintaining cattle to managing the paddy fields, we do most of the work ourselves. We do hire people for planting the seedlings, harvesting the crop and post-harvest activities. And we are able to sail through without much difficulty,” says Harini B Rao, daughter of Deva Rao and Sharada.

Their son B K Parameshwara Rao is also a farmer and helps his father in the conservation effort.

Deva Rao sees a connection between acute shortage of groundwater in the coastal region and the decrease in the area under paddy cultivation. He points out that paddy fields act as percolation ponds during the monsoons. From crop duration to storage methods, each variety is unique. Deva Rao observes and documents their properties meticulously. Also, he takes enough care at all stages to retain the distinct properties of each variety. The crops are grown organically, without using any external inputs. Though they tried growing legumes before the crop for a few years, now only cow dung manure is used. Deva Rao says that pesticide or disease has not caused devastation to the crops so far as they control it in the initial stages using cow urine or neem-based concoction.

Constant observation is essential for the success of any crop, he feels. They get an yield of around 10 quintals per acre. A few varieties are grown in large areas, otherwise most of the varieties are in small blocks. To retain purity, grains collected from the middle rows of each block are preserved as seeds.

A fistful of seeds

Initially, Deva Rao used to go in search of varieties, but now new varieties come to him through friends and relatives. “I don’t need more than a fistful of seeds. I don’t have any aversion towards high-yielding varieties. I do have some of them.  But we stress on collecting heirloom varieties,” says Deva Rao. He also gives seeds to those who are interested. The farm also has over 80 wild mango varieties.

Deva Rao grows crops in two seasons — monsoon (enilu) and winter (suggi). Water from a stream that flows along the farm is used for the winter crop. About 120 varieties are grown in the monsoon; the rest are grown in winter. It becomes necessary to grow each variety every year to save them. The paddy grown in their field is processed at home using a huller. The shelf life of boiled rice is eight months. When it comes to white rice, the older the better. Paddy, if stored properly, lasts for decades.

Paddy cultivation is not lucrative, all of them say, “But we are happy with what we are doing and we don’t have high expectations. We can’t value everything in terms of money.” Deva Rao quips, “Some collect coins, some stamps. Likewise, collecting paddy varieties is my passion.” He is aware of the enormity of his effort, but prefers to play it down. His work has been recognised at state and national platforms.

That the entire produce gets sold at their doorstep is testimony to the quality of rice produced here. Dr Srikumar, an ayurvedic doctor in Puttur taluk, has been purchasing rice from Deva Rao for the last 10 years. “The rice is clean and we know that it is chemical-free. Then there is variety and necessary quantity. What’s more, it is an experience to interact with Deva Rao and we have become more like friends now,” he says.

Sundar Kenaje, who has researched and documented over 350 paddy varieties of coastal Karnataka, uses a metaphor to emphasise the significance of Deva Rao’s efforts. “Atikaya is a revered paddy variety in Tulu culture. In the olden days, there was a practice of placing the ears of this paddy on top of the pillar (called kodimara in Tulu) situated in front of the temple. This was to ensure that the variety remained safe even during floods. Deva Rao’s farm is as safe as the top of kodimara for paddy varieties.”

One can contact Parameshwara Rao on 9448287051.

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