THROUGH KARNATAKA IN SEARCH OF RICE SEEDS, FOOD AND FARMERS- Part 2

By Sreedevi Lekshmikutty on 14th May, 2019

Shikaripur- an extraordinary farmer and a wonderful family !

                From Bhadravati it was almost a two hour drive to Nandish’s home in Shikaripur (the name sounds straight out a hunting story). Nandish is a prominent  organic rice farmer known for his path breaking approach ( legume logic and other new experiments ) and we were looking forward to seeing his farm, home and experiencing his lifestyle. Our visit with him and his lovely family, his farm was all that we had heard and more. 

A natural farmer, a practicing healer , with a lovely traditional home and a life style rooted in the tenets of natural methods rooted in their culture, Nandish and his young family were a revelation and kindled hope within us for the future. The visit was about innovative farming experiments, natural food habits and numerous rice delicacies. Looking back, delicious rice based foods was one of the highlights of each day, despite the fact that Usha and I did not plan for it or think about it actively when we set out, it was truly an unexpected bonus of our journey, which reinforced our thoughts and ideas to improve traditional rice marketing and taking it widely to urban consumers.

The next day, early in the morning, Aarti (Nandish’s wife) provided us with small bowls of rice from the night before, mixed in butter milk and chopped onions.  Nandish exhorted us to try it and told us that old rice eaten like this first thing in the morning is excellent for health, even better, he said, was the water in which it was kept overnight. Along with it was a bowl of sprouted peanuts, green gram and bengal gram. Fortified by this wonderful time-tested power food the three of us set out to see the farm, the laboratory of his experiments. He explained each of his trials, experiments in detail with the results he got, his assumptions and his plans for other experiments.  ( Nandish’s article on legume logic was featured in PADDY of October 2011)

 

The Varada river basin beckons – land of red rice

After a breakfast of rice adai and idlis we set out to visit a new  seed bank in  Soraba, started by Sahaja Samruddha under the organic village project . It  was inaugurated by Usha and the District Agriculture Officer. The women farmers had created a beautiful fresh flower arrangement for the seed bank , located in a  tiny building . After the inauguration and a meal topped by rice payasam ( by then we had become past masters in eating different varieties in rice in large quantities  during every meal),  we were taken around the fields of the farmers who were part of the Karnataka government’s organic village initiative ( for which Sahaja Samruddha is the implementing NGO in around 60 villages). The paddy seeds for the organic village project are being purchased from the SOR seed savers, providing them a steady source of income currently.  Many SOR farmers and seed savers ( who are by now known organic farmers in their areas ) have also been functioning as trainers and facilitators for hand holding new farmers to begin organic paddy cultivation.

The organic village project in Karnataka hopefully will become a conduit for mainstreaming of organic paddy farming and uptake of more traditional rices, farmers are definitely interested in traditional varieties. Once they become adept at growing it, they need vibrant markets where the rice can be sold at a viable price. What the SOR campaign and partner groups have to do is to explore more innovative, collective and broad based strategies for building markets in the three southern states where the traditional rice cultivation has picked up.

From the seed bank we journeyed to Banavasi in Sirsi Taluka to meet a group of farmer seed savers who began conserving  traditional deep water red rice varieties ( flood tolerant and salt resistant) in the Varada river basin. These farmers from the famed Malnad region of Karnataka began as a small group with the help of Sahaja and SOR. Today the small group has grown to 200 growers and 300-350 acres of land under these traditional varieties. They call themselves the Malnad Rice Growers Association, proudly taking the name of their region which is famed for its beauty, fertility, bountiful rivers, rich soil and proud history and heritage.

The 12 executive committee members including a lady member were waiting for us. One of our problems in paddy farming, most of our seed savers are men ,  is it because in this campaign we have been working with landed farmers who can spare land, money and time for the seed conservation, after managing their regular farming activities?

The Association which began with the intention of seed conservation today is a partner of Sahaja Organics and sends about 1-2 tonnes of red rice every month to them. In addition, they also sell directly to organic stores in Hubli, Mysore and Shimoga.  The deep water varieties that they grow include Karijaddu, Bilijaddu, and Mahanavami Budda. Another variety of rice that they grow is Bangara gundu, as of now it is not very popular. However, the farmers said that it is excellent as first food for babies and  we should examine the possibility of marketing this wonderful rice.

The conservation efforts  in the Varada river basin began, as hybrids and HYVs do not grow well in the flood plains and these deep water varieties naturally do well. According to the members of the Association till two years back about 60% of the areas in their villages was under deep water varieties and 40% under HYVs; now 95% of the area is under deep water varieties.

They said that most of the deep water red rice varieties grown by conventional farmers are sold in Kerala, similarly, they want to explore selling their organic red rice also in Kerala. With a  bigger market  they could expand the area under organic red rice. Every meeting the theme which came up again and again was markets- consistent, reliable, with a  good price- so that farmers can continue organic traditional variety cultivation and conservation.

Gudavi sanctuary and goodbye to Shikaripur!

It was while returning from this meeting that we experienced an amazing sight. Nandish who had accompanied us for the meetings suggested that we should visit a small bird sanctuary nearby in Gudavi . Located a little off our course back to Shikaripur from Banawasi , we got there just before closing time, the staff was kind enough to let us in when we told them that some of us come all the way from Kerala.

From the watch tower in the sanctuary we saw the amazing sight of  hundreds of thousands of birds bedding for the night. We were lucky to be there in October which is breeding season, the sanctuary though a small one is considered prominent in Karnataka and has seen numerous birds.  The tree tops were completely covered with birds, seen like puffs of cotton; we could only hear the cacophony of different bird cries, feathers flying all around and the sound of wings flapping furiously as darkness descended. The guard of the sanctuary told us that most of these were migratory birds and in their sojourn they stopped here and their main feeding lands were the extensive paddy lands and adjacent greenery all around.  It was a yet another validation of one of primary pillars of  the campaign:  paddy fields are not merely economic systems, they are first and foremost ecosystems that are crucial for the existence of many species including us.

After that magnificent sight, we returned to  yet another delicious rice based meal. This time it was delicious rice rotis, dexterously made with help from  Nandish’s neighbor dropped in to help Aarti. Combined with vegetables and chutnis of various hues it was a delight. The next morning we took leave of that wonderful family who taught us many lessons about leading a wholesome life, waved away by an almost tearful Vardhita ( Nandish’s  3 year old daughter who thrives on entertaining guests).

Seed savers

Our  next stop  was Chinnikatti village in Bedige Taluk, Haveri District, where we were slated to meet expert seed saver farmers like Shrinik Raju, Bujibalappa  and other farmers in their village. They explained to us their time tested method for seed selection.

Once in three years they choose a day two weeks before harvest and  go to the fields early in the morning before nine and  stand facing the sun and keenly observe the plants. At that time they are able to locate stray varieties that are removed or sometime conserved to grow out later.  Then they choose good ear heads that are not afflicted by pests or disease, have large number of grains in the panicle ( 300-350 for a good ear head in the case of  Gandhasale and Dodda baddha in the case of Bilidada budhe it is 200-250 grains per ear head)  check for the number of tillers, plants that haven’t lodged  and harvest about 10-15 kilos for seed selection.

In their region they celebrate a festival called Bhoomi Hunnime, which occurs just before Diwali, this is for the earth goddess. The farming families prepare Karibudhi, Bilibudhi , Kumbalangi kadubu ( a preparation made with pumpkins) and other food items . In all 15-20 items are prepared and  the farm families proceed with the food to the farm. The offerings are made to the earth goddess and then the food is eaten.  Shrinik Raju mentioned  that these offerings also have an ecological purpose as birds come in large numbers to eat the food and also eat the pests in the paddy fields , thereby resulting in a  round of pest cleanup.

Among other things we visited the local school , listened to the farmers about millet cultivation and processing and also the new business of growing vegetable saplings in green houses. This is a common feature in many villages, many new agri-business opportunities are emerging and the farmers are ready to try them for a better cash income. The need for a steady and fairly good cash income has become the overriding need of farming families what with the high cost of education , health care and the new consumer aspirations that have reached most of the villages. This was  followed with lunch of traditional rice varieties but also accompanied by maize bhakris and lovely chutnis made from flax seeds and ground nuts.

To meet Anjaneya at Davengere

From there to Anjaneya’s farm in Kumbaluru village, Davengere was a hot ride , Anjaneya was waiting to meet us and took us to his fields. Davengere is one of the more prosperous agriculture districts with more than 80% of the land under irrigation. Consequently, the pressure for high yields and the lure of high input commercial agriculture renders most farmers unwilling to try low input organic agriculture. This is a constant pressure Anjaneya and his fellow organic farmers’ experience.

We drove to Anjaneya’s fields where he led us enthusiastically and took  a handful of  lovely soil and showed us the earthworms  and showed the urad plants bordering them, which  add to soil fertility ( through nitrogen fixation) and also provides enough urad for household use. His enthusiasm was infectious, he told us about using green manure crops ( picked up from Nandish) to improve soil fertility.

When we gathered in Anjaneya’s house  with a few other organic rice farmers from the area, the discussions again veered to markets and better prices  for traditional rices. Since the village lies very close to the city, the cost of living was high and the farmers  reiterated that they need good prices to be able to sustain traditional rice cultivation. Anjaneya’s family had prepared a lovely snack called oggadu mandakki ( popped rice) made from Dodda batha rice.

 

Sahaja organics and Desi seeds- The new direction

 

From here began the last leg of our journey to Bangalore where we met the team at Sahaja Organics which has emerged as one of the large wholesalers dealing with organic traditional rices. We met with the CEO of Sahaja Organics Somesh. Sahaja Organics has been promoting traditional rice varieties and has been ( as part of the SOR campaign) been able to popularize many of these varieties . Rajamudi rice is one of their success stories , which is in high demand. Similarly Gandhasale , a scented variety has also become exceedingly popular. They may also begin supplying  traditional rices to online retailers.

However, the discussion also highlighted a contradiction; the number of retailers for organic food and traditional rices is increasing but the number of farmers is not increasing. Also there are other supply bottle necks, issues with certification , insufficient prices etc. Somesh added that there is a need to ensure consistent and steady supply of popular varieties, if the varieties are not consistently available people lose interest. Also , there is a  case for constant conversion and introduction of new people to traditional rices. He said that on one hand the prices need to be reasonable to attract more customers, on the other hand, the supply chain is so scattered that the transportation cost of getting the rices to the retail end is staggeringly high.

 

After Sahaja organics, we met  with Praveen of the Desi seed company which is another offshoot of Sahaja and working along with the SOR campaign.  The seed company is in the process of developing seed plots ( and in many cases has already established) to try out various traditional rice varieties ( like Rajamudi, Gandhashale, HMT, Njavara) in different geographies, in the southern states . Praveen said this is an important step to ensure the suitability and viability of the seed in various climatic and geographic zones before these are produced and sold widely. He said that there was a need to set up a Save Our Rice brand for traditional rice and seed varieties to assure quality.

The journey in search of rice, farmers and seeds ended  at the home of the artist who had visualized and designed the SOR campaign logo, the woman farmer bending over the paddy field. Dhanraj had also painted the images related to the Kumbalangi convention and other images used in the campaign.  Coincidentally,  he is currently working on a series on paddy fields, splashes of bright green , interspersed with streaks of dark green, and golden yellow the vision is emerging .  Having grown up amidst Kerala, paddy fields are part of Dhanraj’s subconscious and the colours and images flow  naturally. After a last glance at the lovely paintings emerging out of the talented artist’s brush, we ended our rice trail……to continue in another state, another time.