Conserving the wellness grain

Organic practices are adopted on the farm

Farmers work on field in Chittur in Palakkad in Kerala.

An eco farm in Palakkad leads the way in cultivating Navara, an endemic variety of rice with medicinal qualities.

In peak-summer April, P Narayanan Unny walks through his sprawling, integrated farmland. The heat doesn’t wear the third-generation farmer down as he doubles as tour guide, sharing stories that have marked the farm’s history over 125 years.

This, however, is not quite the familiar story of farming generations cultivating crop on inherited property – at the 18-acre Navara Eco Farm (NEF), on the banks of river Shokanashini (destroyer of sorrows) in Chittur, Unny cultivates Navara, a nearly extinct variety of medicinal rice endemic to Kerala and noted for its use in Ayurveda.

Over the 23 years since he took over the property after the death of his father M Ramachandra Menon, Unny has developed the farm into clusters for specialty rice varieties and secured Geographical Indication (GI) tags for two of them. He has adopted organic practices on the farm and has initiated a farmers’ collective engaged in research and awareness campaigns.

During Menon’s time (he managed the farm for about 60 years), the main crops were rice varieties, including the Palakkadan Matta. In the late 1970s, also influenced by The One-Straw Revolution – the best-selling book by Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka – he moved away from the use of chemical fertilisers.

“I was running a business in Kozhikode when I had to make the switch to farming. At the time, it did not make a lot of economic sense and there were other challenges – low returns and the non-availability of pure seeds, for instance. But I also wanted to explore the idea of specialty rice varieties and since Navara is both medicine and food, the approach was always going to be organic,” says Unny.

The focus on Navara was firmed up around the year 2000, with 15 cents of the farm initially earmarked for its cultivation. It took another couple of years to get to the first batch of purified seeds.

Navara is a variety of red, shashtika (it matures in 60 days) rice with a recorded history of over 2,000 years. It comes in two glume varieties – black and golden-yellow. Seeds for the seasonal, 60-day crop are typically sown around December. At NEF, Navara is cultivated on 24 acres (twice a year, on a 12-acre stretch). In Ayurveda, the rice is put to use in two prominent regimens of treatment –Navarakkizhi (a form of massage that uses rice boiled in a decoction, wrapped in cloth pouches) and Navaratheppu (application of a paste made from rice boiled in a decoction).

“These methods have proved effective in the treatment of arthritis and paralysis. There’s also the Navarakkanji (gruel made with the rice) consumed during the monsoon months in Kerala. The rice improves levels of immunity when it’s at the lowest, during the monsoon. The Navara rice bran helps in the treatment of mouth ulcers and the rice roots are being used to treat urinary infections,” says Unny.

The rice variety is also used to prepare traditional foods including puttu, payasam  and kozhukkatta. Cultivation of Navara, despite its well-documented medicinal values, has remained limited to pockets in the state due to scarcity of pure seeds and high production costs.

Plants on the farm are used for manure, along with green leaves. The all-organic mode adopted in cultivation also extends to pest control. Tulsi and marigold are planted on the bunds to keep the pests away. Indigenous, if unconventional, methods are followed to counter pests like the chaazhi  (earhead bug) – a case in point is the conical net used by workers in the farm to catch the pests.

The earhead bugs, an old menace, once damaged Navara crop on four acres in the farm. Then, there’s the problem of rats and boars. Maintenance also becomes a tough ask with a limited workforce.

NEF (www.navara.in), however, is moving beyond logistic hiccups – it has diversified into value-added products and now leads a movement to conserve Navara. In 2006, the farm and its products were certified organic. Since 2008, it’s in the market as brand UNF (Unny’s Navara Farm), with rice, rice flakes and rice powder.

The branded Navara wellness rice is priced Rs 460 per kg while the rice flakes and rice powder are priced Rs 720 and Rs 600, respectively. The farm delivers all the products based on orders placed by the customers. NEF has tied up with dealers in cities, including Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai, and it delivers orders to different parts of the country. The farm did offer the provision of online shopping till July last year but suspended it following implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Unny says he’ll need “some more clarity” on GST before resuming the e-shopping service.

“Navara is among the first agricultural products in the country to obtain a GI registration (certified in 2007) through a farmer-led movement. We are now extensively engaged in conducting awareness programmes and are trying to ensure that the farmers also benefit from the premium their products carry. The idea is to prepare the community to counter the threats of biopiracy. Collaborations with the industry and experts in agriculture have helped in taking the movement forward,” says Unny.

NEF has generated interest from farming enthusiasts, leading Unny to more possibilities to diversify. A Navara rice museum is on the cards and plans are on for organised farm tours and a home-stay facility.

“We’ve been getting enquiries for sometime but were waiting for things to fall in place. The plan is to package the visitor’s stay as an experience that traces life on the farm,” he says.

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