Rahibai Soma Popere travels around Maharashtra with a single-minded devotion to conserving indigenous seeds.
“Native crop varieties are not only drought and disease resistant, but are nutritive and retain the soil fertility as they do not need chemical fertilisers and excessive water,” she tells VillageSquare.in with conviction. Her words come from experience.
Besides conserving seeds, she spreads awareness about the importance of organic farming, conserving indigenous seeds, agro-biodiversity and wild food resources.
The conservation of native seeds is important to prevent the exploitation of already distressed farmers. Native crops are likely to become extinct as large seed companies promote and patent hybrid seeds.
Here’s what happens. Native crops are likely to become extinct as large seed companies promote and patent hybrid seeds. Farmers often become dependent on these companies for seeds as these cannot be saved for the next sowing season. In this context, conservation of native crops becomes paramount to
In such a context, the conservation of native crops becomes paramount to ensure genetic diversity and the welfare of farmers and consumers.
Saving native crops
The selection and conservation of good seeds are central to sustainable agriculture and global food security.
Recognising the need to save landraces, Rahibai has conserved several native crops including 15 varieties of rice, nine varieties of pigeon pea and 60 varieties of vegetables, besides many oilseeds.
Hailing from Kombhalne village in Maharashtra, Rahibai, in her early fifties, also wants the community to keep farm chemicals away – for a good reason.
“Villagers were falling sick frequently after eating food prepared from hybrid crops,” Rahibai told VillageSquare.in. She understood that the nutritive value of traditional seeds was much higher than that of hybrid seeds.
So she started collecting local seeds with the help of other women farmers from Akole taluk in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. She formed a self-help group (SHG) named Kalsubai Parisar Biyanee Samvardhan Samiti to conserve native seeds.
Resolve to transform
Rahibai’s seven-member family farmed when it rained and migrated to Akole the remaining months to work in the sugar factory as labourers. They practised rain-fed agriculture on three acres of land, while four acres remained barren.
True to the Marathi saying ‘One is the pioneer of one’s own life’, Rahibai created her own water harvesting structures such as a farm pond and a traditional jalkund. She made two acres of wasteland productive and started earning income from the vegetables she grew there.
With support from the Maharashtra Institute of Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (MITTRA), she learnt to rear poultry in her backyard and established a nursery.
She is skilled in the four-step paddy cultivation method and her crop yields have increased up to 30% with improved cultivation practices.
After successfully implementing all that she learnt, Rahibai now trains farmers and students on seed selection, techniques to improve soil fertility and pest management among others. She supplies farmers with seedlings of native crops, encouraging them to switch to native varieties.
Rahibai also heads another SHG, Chemdeobaba Mahila Bachat Gat in Kombhalne, through which many social initiatives such as health camps and solar lamp supplies are organised, besides the agricultural initiatives.
Having experienced the benefits of growing native crops, Rahibai wants more farmers to start farming on similar lines.
She has established a seed bank to work towards this goal.
Farmers are given seeds with the condition that they return twice the quantity of seeds they borrowed!
The seed bank distributes 122 varieties of 32 crops. Before the seed bank was established, farmers used to buy hybrid seeds, often on borrowed money. “If we use indigenous seeds and stop using chemical fertilizers, we can save almost Rs 5,000 a year,” the farmers told VillageSquare.in.
Rahibai has applied for registration in Protection of Plant Varieties & Farmers’ Rights Authority, India (PPV & FRA) under Farmers’ Varieties. To promote the cause of conservation of landraces, she participates in programs such as the Indo-German Bilateral Co-operation in Seed Sector, organised by PPV &FRA, besides local seed and agriculture fairs.
Rahibai wants to conserve and promote sustainable use of 250 varieties of different crops. To ensure nutritional security of tribal families, Rahibai plans to help 25,000 households establish kitchen gardens.
While Rahibai’s efforts are making a visible impact at the district and state level, it is an immense contribution towards genetic diversity in the country’s agricultural sector.
Ashlesha Deo is a development professional working with the Maharashtra Institute of Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (MITTRA) in Nashik, Maharashtra. Views are personal.