The travel through the Thanjavur belt to visitthe Save Our Rice Campaign farmers was plannedfor March when the drought peaked; the farmershad almost given up. The distress about the drought was compounded by the worries about Jayaraman’s ill health. Nel Jayaraman, the State Coordinator of the Campaign was diagnosed with a serious condition in January and has been undergoing treatment. In the normal course it would have been Jayaraman who would have taken us around and explained with insight and deep knowledge about the whole situation. But we had to manage without him: Sridhar, Usha and me from Trichy along with Suresh.
This has been an year of trials and tribulations for farmers all over Tamilnadu. Climate scientists,farmers and common people are talking about the drought, the likes of which we haven’t seen in 140 years. However, it has not translated into action either at the government level or the public level. Crops have failed almost everywhere, water bodies have dried up , bore wells dug to an unbelievable 1000 feet are throwing up barely any water, river beds are tinder dry, open wells show the clay at the bottom and farmers are thinking whether farming as theyknow is viable any more.
Most farmers felt that this time the drought was so acute that even natural farmers were not spared. Despite that their losses were less than that of chemical farmers and the native varieties ofpaddy have withstood the drought better. They are questioning if they have to rewrite crop calendars, change sowing time, rethink their cropping pattern or even continue to farm! The journey threw up expected scenarios, unexpected learnings and more questions.
The idea of the journey was multi-fold, meet our farmers and understand firsth and the drought related distress, study the innovations that worked for some farmers, which helped them salvage at least something from a bad season and also to motivate and encourage the farmers at a time of crisis. We began with Sampat at Lalgudi village, an IT professional turned farmer. Out of his 10 acres of paddy he lost 7 acres to the drought and harvested only 3 acres where the yield was down to 20% of the normal. He said something interesting, “Even if we have irrigation it is not enough, the rain is needed for the plants to give the best yield.”
Something to keep in mind in a time where we think that technology can seamlessly replace nature without any repercussions. He has been a natural farmer since 2013. He also maintained a rice diversity block (RDB) of 35 varieties and managed to harvest it.He said
that chemical paddy farmers have lost much more as they spent much more money in the land
preparation and inputs and the crops just dried up on the land.
We travelled from there crossing the 1.5 km wide bridge over Kollidam river, a tributary of the Kaveri, the river reduced to a dry bed of sand with the sun beating down. We could experience, albeit for a few minutes, what is happening in the countryside. We crossed another dry river bed, yet another tributary of Kaveri, Vennar to reach the farm of Anbuselvan. Anbuselvan is yet another engineerturned- farmer who has been involved with the activities of the SOR campaign actively since many years. He farms regularly but decided that in addition to farming he should also do marketing of organic produce. He says the combination of activities has helped this year when his crops failed. He also rescued part of his crop by planting urad which he could harvest, process and sell. He went organic about eight years back, has been growing many traditional rices like Salem sanna, Jeeraga samba, Kicahdi samba and kaivara samba. These he grows alternating with green gram, black gram, sesame. He also echoed the words of the other farmers, this
has been the worst year, almost nothing could withstand the drought. Under most conditions
traditional paddy varieties withstand climate vagaries better and even this year he could get some yield from traditional varieties.
From there our next destination was to theancestral house of farmer Mayil Vahanan, the house was brimming with paddy sacks from the veranda to the inside rooms. Hs harvest was over and in addition to his bags of harvest he also had the harvest from his 52 varieties from the RDB. Maintaining an RDB is a backbreaking task requiring tremendous effort from the farmer from sowing to harvesting to processing to beyond. In his 17 acres he cultivated 10 varieties. He said due to drought they did late sowing, then the Varda cyclone and mist in December led to fungal attacks and yields were low. He has also been facing problems with milling due to the unavailability of modern milling facilities , which use rubber hullers, can de-stone the rice and also give high returns . He has also been struggling with marketing his rice. Muthu Kumar , yet another SOR farmer, who works quite closely with Mayil to market their rice was also in Mayil’s house giving insights about the struggles faced by them and their decision to continue despite that. Both Muthu and
Mayil said that they are able to pursue organic paddy cultivation as they are following the Alangudi Perumalmethod, which has cut down sowing and seed cost considerably .
Next day our journey took us to farmer Bhaskaran, who had left behind his corporate life
years back to farm his ancestral lands. He is the quintessential professor who treats organic paddy
farming as his research laboratory. Studying and documenting rainfall and weather patterns has
become one of his primary occupations, making him a veritable encyclopedia on the topic. We had
an enlightening morning at his place over some delicious traditional breakfast. He talked at length
about his experiments with ensuring climate resilience in his choice of crop, choice of timing and approach. Details of his experiments and approach have been detailed in two articles recently, one which appeared in The Wire website and another one in the Leisa magazine. What Bhaskaran sir feel is that farmers have to look at paddy farming in a holistic manner, be flexible enough to shift to other climate friendly crops, in case of adverse growing conditions and be nimble enough to change course midway. This year he did that. When he realised that there wasn’t enough moisture for paddy he decided to shift to ragi and harvested a decent crop.
From one laboratory to another, post lunch our meeting was with Alangudi Perumal. A humble small farmer, who has farmed since youth, he evolved the method of planting paddy with minimal quantity of seeds, now famously named after him and adopted widely by organic farmers in the Delta region. From the traditional quantity of 60 kilos per acre Perumal’s method requires a mere 250 gms of seeds, reducing the cost of sowing ( in terms of sowing and seed cost itself). It was humbling to listen to this farmer about how he evolved this method with his own experiments and battled for years to get the agricultural establishment to accept it. It was Nammalwar Ayya who began talking about the Perumal method and making it widely known. Even though Perumal himself continues to farm using chemicals (he feels that unless he consistently shows outstanding yields with his method under chemical farming conditions nobody will believe him, particularly the agriculture establishment). It is organic farmers who are embracing his method .
From Perumal’s house to Ashokan a farmer associated with the campaign since the beginning, was a cool drive with the sun coming down. Ashokan was delighted that finally after years Usha and Sridhar were actually at his farm and showed us around with childlike delight. From there at his house we were offered the delicious yet healthy lupai poo samba rice kanji. He has been growing medicinal rices and believes that we should highlight their nutritional and
healing properties. Again the drought effect was visible as in other farms. From there we travelled to Sriram’s house in Kathiramangalam. A large land owner, Sriram had taken the decision to shift from chemical to organic completely, which is unusual. Most large scale farmers de-risk by staying partly chemical and going partly organic. Sriram has developed his farm into a training centre for farmers who want to see the Alangudi Perumal method at work. He farms around 10 varieties and sells it as seed and rice ( directly to consumers in large quantities).
The late night discussion where Muthu and Mayil also joined dwelled on the drought, the losses to paddy farmers and on Jayarama’s ill health which was causing a lot of distress among all of us. All the farmers mentioned how the Perumal method is a ‘varaprasadam’ for them, otherwise they couldn’t have managed organic paddy cultivation in a viable manner.
The next day morning was with Gnanaprakash at Narasimha nattam, a healer and farmer who met Nammalwar Ayya in 1976-77. He is a water engineer and harvesting water is his mantra. He took everybody around the fields explaining how water can be harvested, conserved and stored. His farmis very unique in its design. Paddy is the main crop. Around the paddy field, especially the bunds, are trees of different types that provide multiple benefits and fulfils the entire family’s needs. Similarly, the wide range of vegetables under the trees includes tomato, ladies finger, brinjal and chillies. The trees also have lot of gourds and that too supplements his family’s vegetable needs. The paddy field is full of uncultivated herbs, which are used for preparation of medicine for both human and livestock health problems. Every day, there is an assured harvest for him for his family’s needs and also his professional needs. This model is not only a sustainable small farmer model, but also climate resilient.
Lunch was with the wonderful couple Dr. Uma Maheswari and her husband Mr. Muthukrishnan who are committed to organic paddy and also propagating natural methods of healing . They are committed to growing and marketing organic paddy and vegetables. We made a very rushed trip to his farm in Kadagam and witnessed the micro design of intensive farming with vegetables. The choice and combinations of vegetables have been systematically done to get maximum yield in a piece of land. Luckily, Muthukrishnan has a team of committed farm workers from Viralaimalai and their main aim is to defeat the notion that organic farming gives less yield. So, the team works very hard and is also doing extensive documentation precisely.
The next day started with travel from Thiruvarur to Thalainayeru. We met Somu Ilango, a committed farmer and a long term associate of SOR campaign. The discussion with him also brought out local issues like land grabbing and increasing soil salinity of agriculture fields due to shrimp farming. With ever expanding shrimp farming reaching almost 10 kms inland from the sea, it is becoming a livelihood problem for the farmers. Their efforts of making soil based check dams are also opposed by the public works, revenue and forest departments. Because of this, cultivation of even one crop in a year is becoming a challenge for the farmers of this area. Even traditional paddy varieties are not able to withstand the heavy soil salinity. Though Somu Ilango devotes his precious time for mobilizing people for local issues, he continues to excel as a model farmer on climate resilient technologies in the area with his integrated model of farming by combining croplivestock, country chicken, goat rearing, fish rearing and vegetable cultivation on the farm bunds.
Lastly, we visited Paramasivam’s field, near Thiruthuraipoondi. He had cultivated two traditional rice varieties, namely Mappillai Samba and Kattu Yaanam. Both performed very well
and he had no problems due to the drought situation. He directly sells his products to the customers and comfortably sells his Kattuyaanam rice for Rs. 100 per kg without middle man
exploitation. “I managed my paddy cultivation using traditional varieties like Mappillai Samba and Kattuyaanam very well and as a result the food and fodder security of my family is ensured for the whole season. Besides, I am able to retain my customers”, he claimed.
Overall, the visit was extremely educative for us. During the interaction with farmers, they shared that the cultivation of traditional paddy varieties coupled with organic agriculture practices have performed well and gave them new hope for mitigating the effect of climate variation in
agriculture. Though, there is no 100% success in all traditional paddy varieties in terms its climate resilient capacities, in each area these farmers have been able to identify at least 5-6 traditional varieties which are specific to their area and have emerged as potential climate resilient varieties. Apart from the cultivation of traditional paddy varieties, the farmers with whom we have interacted also shared their skills in constant monitoring of changing weather pattern and selection of appropriate crop varieties. Unfortunately, this knowledge is not very much shared andspread with other farmers in the villages. The large scale adaption of climate resilient practices by farmers is essential to demonstrate these as viable climate resilient practices and influence the state for scaling up.
It was the third day of travel that Sridhar heard from Jayaraman that he is on his way back from Chennai after a round of treatment . So on the final day just before starting back the team could briefly meet Jayaraman. It was a joyous meeting for all and a befitting ending to the journey which began without Jayaraman but ended with meeting him. It was good to see that Jayaraman was responding well to treatment and he was able to participate in the Nel Thiruvizha in June, which has been organized by him regularly since the last 10 years.