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One Man’s Paddy Gene Pool Collection

09 December 2013

We were at Narisho, a tiny interior Orissa state’s village, in Khurda district. What took us there was the amazing rice diversity this elderly farmer is maintaining. Natwar Sarangi, 74, has 308 varieties of rice, all grown organically.

“Look at this… this is a scented rice variety called Kaala Jeera. It gives 15 to 20 quintals per acre. That one is Matia Champa, gives 15 quintal. These are dry land varieties that could be grown in any region,” said Mr Sarangi.

Mr Sarangi turned to farming only a decade ago. Year by year, the number of varieties increased.

After his retirement in 1992, this school teacher got interested in agriculture. In the initial two years, like all others in the area, he too followed chemical farming. Year three turned out to be a turning point.

That year, he sowed super fine Super fine Ponni CR-1009, a paddy variety developed by Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack. It was severely damaged by pest and disease.

Acting on the experts suggestions, he bought an insecticide - Carbofuron - and asked his laborer to spray that. While spraying, within half an hour, the labour fell unconscious. Scared, Natwar brought him home and arranged for treatment. The labourer recovered.

Next day Sarangi had a surprise in store for him. In the paddy fields, all small living beings like earthworms, spiders, snails, snakes etc were found dead.

That made him to think twice about using the chemical pesticides. Subsequently, he chanced upon Masanobu Fukuoka’s book, ‘One Straw revolution’ and was very impressed by that.

Almost at the same time, his son Rajendra Kumar Sarangi was advising him to bid goodbye to chemical farming.

He was a social activist and environmentalist. His participation in eco movements had taught him the advantages of non-chemical farming. “Green revolution has made us to lose our traditional seeds," he used to insist. “Let us opt for organic farming and save our local seeds." Natwar agreed.

Seed search mission

Switching to organic farming had its own challenges. The first was to get the seeds of the conventional variety of rice.

"After aconsiderable search, I could manage to procure only three varieties. I was not at all happy with this. Where had all those earlier varieties gone, I wondered. On realizing the important of our own native seed varieties, I decided to search further," he recalls.

Natwar’s seed search mission commenced. Yuvaraja, a local youngster, came forward to lend a helping hand to him. During the 1997 monsoon he could collect only 5-6 varieties. Next year 30 varieties were gathered.

In 2005, the total number reached 100. The next year, it jumped to its double. Last year (2012), his total has surpassed the 350 mark. To collect this many varieties, he has covered almost half of Orissa. Either he or Yuvaraja have visited Orissa’s 10- 12 districts to procure this valuable collection.

Constant contact with his friends and various farmers was one of his strategies to collect seeds. One he reached 100 varieties, the collection activity got catalysed. After this there were no difficulties. Farmers themselves started approaching him with seeds. Yet others gave clues about the availability of other traditional variety seeds. Some farmers wished to have seed exchange with him.

He has only a small piece of land to grow all these varieties. Just a little over five acres. He divides the land into small sections. Now, he prepares his own vermi compost and sprays vermi wash to crops.

After harvest, he picks the best seeds from the heap. Under his headship, a seed bank also has been established three years ago. Many local farmers come here asking for seeds.

Go to any corner of the country, most of the successful farmers are poor in documenting their achievements, cultivation details, yield data etc. Natwar is an exception. He maintains a ‘seed album’ in which all particulars about each variety is carefully documented.

The seed album contains name of the paddy variety, source of seeds, basic characteristics (crop duration, height, number of tillers, length of panicle, yield etc), cultivation, harvesting features and other special features. Along with this information, a pocket of 10-15 grams of paddy seeds are attached.

Stunning diversity in just two hectare

Since the last half a century, the country is witnessing many ill-effects of the 'green revolution'. Pests and diseases have risen very high. The so-called 'high-yielding' varieties perform very poorly if high doses of water and fertilizers aren’t applied.

Due to excessive chemical use, soil has lost its micro-organisms and has turned unproductive.

“On the contrary”, points out Natwar, “our traditional varieties have survived the drought, pests and diseases since hundreds of years. More over, they don’t require much input.”

Natwar’s paddy field shows a stunning diversity. They vary in colour and height. There are a few dwarf varieties too, with maximum number of tillers and pinnacles. Kaala Jeera, the scented black variety is used for sweet dishes.

If cultivated in SRI (Madagascar) method, it gives 20 to 30 quintal per acre. He grows medicinal varieties too. Kedara Govi, another interesting type grows up to 1.8 meter height. “Some of the dry land varieties I have”, reveals he, “yield around 40 to 50 quintals per acre.”

After harvesting, he selects and conserves 10 to 15 kilo of seeds for further multiplication. The rest is used for food. In the local market, traditional rice fetches a better price than ‘improved varieties’.

“There is very good demand for my rice in Bhubaneswar. Health consciousness is growing among the consumers. One indication is that as soon as my rice reaches market, it gets sold within no time," he says proudly.

A reliable seed source for others

Years ago, he collected Jamu Basumati seeds from Punjab with the help of his sister in law who lives there. Now it grows very well here. Every year, he travels hundreds of kilometers in search of seeds. Many farmers happily offer the seeds for free.

“For me, searching for more and more traditional varieties is always an enjoyable task" says Natwar. Not only in collection, he derives pleasure in sharing the seeds with fellow farmers too. Farmers who take seeds from him vouch that in quality, these are far better than the hybrid seeds supplied by the government.

Central Rice Research Institute, (CRRI) Cuttack is hardly 100 kilometers away from Natwar’s farm. The center’s website claims that 74 varieties have been developed by their scientists. But, they seem to be ignorant about Natwar’s commendable effort.

“Three years ago, some CRRI scientists visited my field and took some seeds of Kaala Jeera. Now the center is saying that, the scientists have developed Black Rice. But it is very much like Kaala Jeera. Farmers have been conserving this since hundreds of years. But now scientists are claiming the credit for its development," regrets Natwar.

“Once upon a time there were more than 1.5 lakh paddy varieties in our country. But now only few hundreds are remaining. Governments have been supporting multi national companies with whopping amount of subsidies for production and supply the seeds. If the same amount can be given to farmers to procure traditional seeds, that will be beneficial to the nation in many ways," he suggests.

“Believe it or not, my paddy field is totally free from any pests. Not even a single plant is affected," he says with a grin.

Farmers from various states visit Natwar’s farm to see his diversity and to collect seeds. His home has turned into a paddy seed exchange center. “My aim is to conserve 500 varieties of paddy. I hope to achieve that mark by 2015,” Natwar says with strong commitment.

November 2013

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