Did you know that India once used to have over 100,000 varieties of rice? Some fifty years ago, these varieties abounded in the country. Now, however, only 6000 odd local varieties remain and not all are grown. This diversity can be experienced when one visits remote rural corners of the country.
For instance, in Sunderbans, one can find people defying agriculture scientists who claim that rice can’t be grown in salt water. This special salt-resistant variety of rice has been passed on to the people by their ancestors. Similarly, a deep water variety of rice is harvested using a small boat in areas around Kolkata and Visakhapatnam.
This is why the community initiative to bring back the cultivation of many of these indigenous varieties of Indian crops, along with traditional and organic cultivation methods, is a welcome change.
Starting with nine farmers in 2000, the movement called ‘Sahaja Samrudha’ (Bountiful Nature) has grown into a network of small farmers that shares practices and exchanges knowledge about sustainable agriculture.
Besides farmers, the network also includes individuals from the IT sector, academia, science and banking. However, they all have a common vision — to venture into organic farming and encourage farmers to do so as well. A few of them have even given up their professions to pursue organic farming full time.
Sahaja Samrudha began by gathering information from experts and passing them on to farmers to encourage them to take up organic farming. Next, the organization provided good quality organic seeds and natural fertilizers (like panchagavya, poochi marunthu, jeevamruta) to farmers to help them grow any kind of produce, right from paddy and millets to fruits and vegetables.
Convincing farmers to give up hybrid varieties and chemical fertilizers was the hardest part as they were wary of crop failure and low yield. However, with time and effort, this farmers gradually realised the benefits of returning to organic farming.
A young Sahaja farmer from Shimoga district of Karnataka, Nandish returned to his roots to follow traditional farming practices. Today, he grows over 100 legumes such as herbs, shrubs, climbers in different cropping patterns to get free nitrogen and green manure for his plants. Through this method, he has reduced his dependency on chemicals and still reaps bountiful benefits — a record 32 bags of grain yield per acre which has also attracted the attention of Bangalore Agriculture University!
Bore Gowda, a farmer from Shivahalli in Mandya district, has inspired 60 other farmers in the region to preserve and produce the various strains of Rajamudi rice, a favourite variety of the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore. This rice, when cooked, remains unspoiled for two days.
Mukappa Pujar of Haveri district has perfected the cultivation method of guli ragi that increases the yield by four times. Kantharaj, who turned to organic farming about four years ago, grows flowers and fruits on his 10-acre farm while Syed Ghani Khan of Mandya district has conserved over 700 heritage varieties of paddy, 120 varieties of mango and many types of vegetables and legumes.
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Sarojammma, a housewife from Harihar in Davanagere district, was inspired when she saw the work being done by Sahaja Samrudha on TV. She volunteered half an acre of her backyard and has helped conserve 24 different varieties of rice.
Not just individuals, farmer groups have also contribute immensely to the Sahaja Samrudha movement. The 70 farmers of Sanjeevini Organic Farmers Group in Hanumanahalli of Kundagol taluk is successfully conserving traditional cotton varieties on their farm. Banavasi panchayat in Sirsi taluk have started the first community seed bank in the region and has conserved more than 30 varieties of rice with medicinal benefits.
Various ethnic communities are also getting involved in this conservation movement. For instance, Tibetan settlements in cities are growing various indigenous pest-resistant varieties of tomatoes that can be raised easily by urban farmers.
As the movement grew, Sahaja Samrudha tackled their next challenge: how to get people to start eating traditional organic food again? The first millet mela was held in 2011 by the group in association with Dharwad Agricultural University in Bengaluru. A series of melas followed and other organic groups too organised similar events to aid farmers in the sales of their organic produce.
They also set up produce collection points where harvest was collected on a weekly basis from farmers and supplied to larger markets like organic food supermarkets. The aim was to enhance the productivity of organic farmers and to ensure that these farmers have a role — and thus the ability to improve their household incomes — in increasingly competitive markets.
Till date, the farmers of Sahaja Samrudha have conserved and revived over 700 traditional paddy varieties including Diana rice, which is great for diabetics, and Black Burma rice, indigenous to northeast India. They have also facilitated the growth and conservation of more than 68 varieties of millets , ancient Indian grains that are hardy, drought resistant, and extremely nutritious.
Other than farmer markets across Karnataka, organic bazaars have been established on the premises of WIPRO and Indian Institute of Sciences in Bengaluru. They have even set up a wholly-farmer owned marketing company for the produce— Sahaja Organics — one of the first of its kind.
The culmination of the tireless efforts of organic farmers from across India, Sahaja Samrudha has today become an exciting and powerful force working to make sustainable agriculture a way of life of the farming community. The noteworthy organization continues to encourage and help implement organic farming practices in India’s rural communities through a combination of training programs, lectures, publications and partnerships with like-minded groups.