Variety is the spice of life - Spectrum

Variety is the spice of life - Spectrum

Sidda Sanna Rice Seed Producer Hemanth Photo- Krishna Prasad

Eat to your heart’s content,” exclaimed Kanthraj with a kind smile on his face, as I rummaged through the fruit trees in his garden. The afternoon sun cast a warm glow on the leaves as I hid in the shade and savoured a mango that I had just plucked. It seemed like a perfect end to a field trip to Mayasandra, an organic village near Bengaluru, where the seed movement has made great strides. 

“I began my journey five years ago. Organic farming has worked out well for me and I now conserve 20 varieties of brinjal. I am getting a favourable marketing support from Sahaja Seeds, a Bengaluru-based farmers’ seed brand,” smiled Kanthraj, a pioneer of the seed movement in the village.

Rows of brinjal cover a part of his farm, with boards that carry the names of these varieties. As the dry breeze pushes behind the leaves, one can catch a glimpse of the rich colour and shapes — cream, white, brown, green with white patches, and red.

Neo seed producers

The past decade has seen a new breed of seed savers emerge in the State. Trying to etch a place in seed production, farmers are now growing potential heirloom varieties selected carefully from a pool of traditional diversity. 

“We wanted a more sustainable model where we didn’t have to rely on companies and the government for seeds every year. With the advent of the seed movement, both the consumer and the farmer have become aware of the situation, and the landscape of farming is taking a turn for the better,” said Shrenik Raj of Chinnikatte village in Byadagi taluk. He has been producing paddy varieties such as Gandhasale, Chinniponni and HMT, and Unde Ragi finger millet variety for the past six years. He grows them in diversity blocks which are plots that house all the available traditional varieties.

“We follow a participatory approach to selecting a potential variety. Farmers gather at a diversity block and tag the variety they believe will suit their needs. The variety that gets the most tags is then mass produced by the farmers. This way, the farmers get to grow a variety that they are familiar with, and that grows well in their land,” said Anitha Reddy, a seed conservation expert. 

This approach is working out well for the organic farmers of the state and many farmers have shined brightly in its bask. Shankar and Roopa of Hitnehebbagilu, Periyapatna have grown 15 varieties of okra, C P Krishna of Gulurdoddi, Maddur has grown 12 varieties of rice, Puttaraju of Hosahalli, Malavalli has grown 30 bottle gourd varieties and Surendra of Nijiyappana Doddi village has grown 12 finger millet varieties. “The varieties that we choose are grown organically and don’t require any chemical inputs to generate high yields. And these crops are eco-friendly,” says Venkatesh, a seed conserver.

“In 2008, as I took a stroll through my Gandhasale field, I noticed a distinct ear of paddy that reminded me of Sona Masuri, the most sought-after variety for its superfine grains. I felt that this variety had the potential to compete with Sona Masuri,” recalled Boregowda of Shivalli village, Mandya.

“I collected the grains from that ear, and cultivated them in a separate patch the next season. For the next four years, I continued the experiment through seed selection and separate cultivation in two acres of land. I then distributed the seeds to fellow farmers and today, we sell more than 100 quintals of its seed every year,” he explained. Boregowda is now a recognised farmer breeder and his work has inspired many farmers.

“The government should invest in the movement, rather than spending crores of rupees on researching and subsidising hybrid varieties. That will help the farmers to be independent and self-sufficient,” said G Vidhya Sagar, chief executive officer of Desi Seed Producer Company Ltd, a collective of organic seed producers and seed savers, who sell their seeds under the brand name of Sahaja Seeds.

The company has in its stock, 98 varieties of rare seeds of crops such as paddy, millets, pulses, vegetables, fruits, and flowers, all cultivated organically. Of these, there are 60 varieties that have the potential for marketing and public acceptance. The company has 480 members, including 58 individual seed producers from places such as Mysuru, Chamarajanagar, Ramanagar, Chikkaballapur, Tumakuru, Mandya, Bengaluru Rural, Dharwad and Haveri districts.

Many other farmer groups in the State have also taken up seed production. One such group is Sanjivini Savayava Krushikara Balaga of Hanumanahalli village in Dharwad district which produced 2.5 tonnes of millet seeds in 2017. The Indian Institute of Millet Research, Hyderabad has entered into an agreement with the group for the supply of quality seeds on a regular basis. “Selling seeds is now proving to be a viable means of earning money,” said Yellappa Ramji, a millet farmer and seed producer. 

Apart from the obvious need to save the diversity that is available, conserving rare varieties can also give the farmer a lot of recognition. “I had planted 30 seeds of different varieties of okra in single beds and I managed to harvest a rich yield. In comparison to other vegetable crops, we found that cultivating okra, especially local varieties, doesn’t require a lot of money,” said Shankar, whose plot now attracts a lot of farmers.

Surge in demand

Furthermore, there is a surge in the demand for these unique vegetables in the market. “Organic breeds are rich in nutritional value when compared to other vegetables. In the coming days, through participatory varietal selection, more farmers in Periyapatna will be able to grow different types of vegetables. Of late, there is a lot of buzz around organic food and health consciousness, and the demand for desi crops will be high in the market,” said J S Aravind Kumar, assistant professor at the college of horticulture, Mysuru.

Mayasandra has grown to become a model to showcase how sustainability can be achieved using local varieties. It has inspired many farmers to walk in the path that it has etched out in the field of agriculture.

The evening sky blushed a deep pink when the time came for us to leave. With our hands weighed down by bags of fresh farm produce that Kanthraj had so generously gifted to us, we bid adieu. And as I walked out, I saw him smile, his eyes filled with hope for the future; a future where every farmer conserved the rich diversity of our nation.