Mr. Sadashivu, a farmer from Kottagarahalli,Magadi taluk, was busy since morning arranging for the milling of his paddy. Later, with the help of his wife Meenakshi, he cleaned and graded the rice. They separated the small broken rice and packed the rice into 1 kg packets and tried to write the name of the rice - Salem sanna- and the price, in English, using a sketch pen, on the packets. The very next day he caught the early morning bus to Bangalore, to participate in the organic festival organized by Sahaja Samrudha. He was worried whether the 20kgs of rice packets he carried will find buyers or he would be forced to bring them back. In his mind he was rehearsing what he would tell the customers about the rice variety that he grew organically. It took him three hours and changing three buses (all the while carrying the 20 kgs of rice) to reach Bangalore. He did not even stop to have breakfast and rushed to the venue. There he was given a table to display his rice. He opened the sack, took out the packets and found to his dismay that the writing on most of the packets was partially erased. He was a little upset with his wife for hastily packing the packets into the sack before the writing dried on the labels. He was worried that his effort in growing the paddy, processing and packing will be negated by the messy packets. He tried to clean the writing using a wet cloth. He sought the help of a volunteer to write the name and price of the rice on a piece of paper and placed it over the rice packets. He placed stones on the corners of the paper to prevent it from being blown away by the wind. People began trickling in slowly and the meeting officially began. Consumers were listening to him speak about the rice characteristics but were not buying the rice; he had managed to sell only two packets. He felt that maybe the price was high and he should reduce it. Then he dropped the idea as that would have resulted in losses for him. During lunch time some people gathered again to listen and a few among them picked the rice. By evening he was left with just two kilograms of unsold rice. Krishna Prasad, Director, Sahaja Samrudha promised him that he will buy the remaining rice and not to worry about taking it back. He also told Sadashivu to bring about 30kgs of rice for the next month’s meeting. Sadashivu went home happy having sold all his rice and at a better price. The year before, he had to sell his organically grown Salem sanna rice, in the regular market, for a nominal price. This happened in 2003. It all began with farmers like Sadashivu selling 10, 20, 30 kilograms of rice in 2003, from there the marketing of traditional red rice varieties has come a long way in Karnataka. The quantity of rice sold through the Save our Rice Campaign in Karnataka in 2013 crossed 100 tonnes. However, we realize that even this is a drop in the ocean of rice marketing in the state.
Sahaja Samrudha1 began its seed conservation activities in 2003 and in 2006 began coordinating the Save Our Rice Campaign2 in Karnataka. The initial focus, rightly so, was on getting as many seed saver farmers to conserve varieties and to multiply seeds, season after season. At some point the realization dawned on us that seed conservation as an end in itself with no economic support and/or demand for the rice was not sustainable in the long run. That’s when we (the Campaign team) decided that these traditional varieties, which were being diligently conserved by farmers, should have a market and committed consumers who buy and eat it season after season. Thus began the saga of marketing of traditional rice varieties. On one hand, it is difficult to change the taste and mentality of the urban consumers, on the other; farmers are reluctant to grow traditional rice varieties unless a good market price is assured. Traditional rice varieties are usually large in size and are normally not white in colour. However, many of these rare varieties are still being cultivated in remote villages for their excellent taste, special characteristics, performance (drought resistance, disease resistance, and salt-tolerance), health benefits and cooking qualities. We tapped into this understanding about traditional rice varieties and gathered indigenous knowledge associated with traditional rice varieties and began highlighting these special qualities. We also undertook the process of laboratory based analysis of local varieties to assess their nutritional and other values. Even though we had gathered a lot of local wisdom about the qualities of the traditional rice varieties, we were astonished with the results of the laboratory reports.
The reports established that these varieties have greater nutritional content and properties beneficial to health compared to popular polished rice varieties available in the market. We put out these results through our posters, leaflets, and articles. The media coverage and rice melas helped spread this information which influenced many people to move to traditional rice.
We came up with the idea of conducting regular rice melas in different regions of the state to create awareness among consumers about the health benefits of consuming these traditional varieties (which were the staple of their forefathers). We also wanted to expose people to the unique and distinctive characteristics of these rices and also facilitate the interaction between farmers and consumers at the mela. The melas were designed to provide tasting sessions of cooked rice, displays of rice, and colourful posters with interesting information about rice varieties and products with paddy rice.
Rice for daily consumption, rice for dosa and idli, rice for pulav and biryani, diabetic rice, healthy red rice, payasam rice, and medicinal rice were introduced to the people gradually. Delicious recipes were prepared using these traditional rice varieties; they were attractively displayed and were offered for tasting during melas. We also came across many consumers who were already educated, by doctors or nutritionists, about the beneficial qualities of these varieties. We organized ( and continue to organize) numerous melas in Bangalore and other cities in Karnataka and other metros of India. Each melahas a distinctive theme for example, the organic mela, the desi (indigenous) rice mela, the red rice mela, the biodiversity mela and the safe food mela. The themes pique the curiosity of the public and supported by media coverage brings in foot falls. On an average each Mela has been attracting about four-five thousand consumers, rice buyers and /or visitors. In addition the print media, both in English and Kannada, has helped tremendously by covering the Melas, doing interesting stories on the rice varieties, benefits of red rice and organic rice, farmers and seed saving efforts. The media coverage has helped in creating significant awareness among the public. Almost every Mela has seen sales worth three-four lakh rupees and in 2013, in terms of quantity, annual sale of traditional rice varieties crossed 100 tonnes. However, this is only a beginning as the consumption of traditional rice varieties is only a very small fraction compared to the total consumption of rice in the state.
The journey of popularizing traditional red rice varieties and reviving the culture of growing, processing, selling and eating traditional rice varieties has been fraught with challenges. One of the major problems is the lack of working capital to procure the paddy on time from farmers. Rice millers initially refused to process small volumes of rare rice varieties. Even with the millers who were willing to do it contamination during the milling process was unavoidable. Even today we are forced to discard the first many kilos of rice. On the processing front the other problem was the unavailability, in south India, of processing units that can deal with long fine grain rice. Since the scale of growing the rare rice varieties was ( and is relatively) small, marketing this small quantity and creating demand has resulted in a chicken and egg situation. By the time we create demand we would run out of rice and when the rice arrived the next season, the consumers would have moved on and we would be forced to create fresh demand. This was partly because the farmers did not dare to grow more without an assured market, and partly because most of us have forgotten the seasonality of food. Also the other issue that we constantly battle with is the short shelf life of unpolished traditional rice. We incur losses if the rice remains unsold. Consumers are unhappy when the rice gets infested with bugs and we struggle to make them understand that because no chemicals are used and presence of bran makes it attractive for the bugs. All they need to do is to dry the rice periodically in the sun, however, “hyper-convenience” many a time triumphs over taste and health. Climate change is also making things difficult; the percentage of recovery of rice is reducing due to erratic weather conditions and poor rain. For example there is the problem of choppy rice and broken rice both of which happen due to lack of rains or rains at the wrong time . The lack of a common pricing policy is still a big issue. Growers and buyers are fixing their own prices and margins. The minimum support price set by the Government is nowhere near being a viable price for farmers. In addition the government procurement machinery doesn’t recognize the properties or unique characteristics of traditional rice varieties. As of now traditional rice growers depend on the market to sell their rice.
We have come a long way facing all these challenges, learning out of past experiences and finding suitable solutions for the situations today. We are giving the best possible price to our farmers and selling at a reasonable price to our consumers. With the support from the Campaign, NABARD and Deshpande Foundation, Sahaja Samrudha has created a first of its kind exclusive brand to market traditional rice. The brand is called ‘Namma Anna’. Apart from rice and value added rice products, innovatively designed paddy jewellery have been introduced to the market in collaboration with Jungle Jewels. This traditional rice marketing initiative is gaining recognition and is being replicated by various groups in other states as well. Our desire is to increase the acres under traditional, climate friendly, healthy rice varieties and to reintroduce traditional rice into more homes.