Turmeric Story: Farm to Latte

A letter to my turmeric buyers

Now as you’ve received the organically grown haldi (turmeric) powder, sans preservatives and additives I would like to share some details which will help you appreciate how the crop is grown and later processed.

If by any chance, you visit my handkerchief-sized plot–for it’s just an acre–which overlooks the perennial river Barvi you will witness that I grow turmeric as an intercrop, that’s in-between the space offered by mango, chickoo, dragon fruit, custard apple, phalsa, jackfruit, coconut, love apple, cashew nut, mulberry, papaya, avocado, betel vine, pineapple and scores of medicinal herbs and spices.

Step on my farm in the months following October you’ll find the farm’s red soil which hides the stones and boulders exist in harmony with heaps of leaf litter, dried grass, fallen twigs and branches all over giving the impression that it belongs to a lazy farmer who can’t even keep his farm clean!

I suggest you drop on your haunches, pick a decaying twig and you will watch a miracle unfold–scores of termites munching on it and in the process creating soil. Yes, really. You’re witnessing a live demo of nature’s closely guarded secret. I’ve never tried to exterminate the termites because I know I will meet with failure for these tiny bugs have been around far longer than us, and it would be foolish on my part to believe that they can be exterminated! Many have tried and many in future would but you can’t overpower them. And if you did chances are that the soil will become pesticide rich. Earlier you accepted it’s better. It’s the termites who make the soil porous and are an inalienable part of Earth’s ecosystem. 

The millions of termites and earthworms make my farm their home and I have let them be for they are extremely beneficial to the soil’s health and farm’s future.

Coming to turmeric, I sow the rhizomes (planting material) a week before the rains arrive on raised soil beds enriched with vermicompost, farmyard manure, biofertilizer and jeevamrit . They remain under the soil close to nine months and grow in volumes spreading its roots while the leaves having opened the earth receive and absorb the sun to make food. In December the leaves which till recently were used to make a sweet dish using rice flour and jaggery have yellowed and dried up. Sending you signs that irrigate it once a fortnight.

Come April it’s time to harvest the rhizomes and mother rhizomes which have become as big as your palm after having occupied precious farm space for nine long months! Consider this with grains which mature within 120 to 150 days. Reason enough why this spice attracts a premium price. More so when its grown using natural and non-chemical fertilisers.  Did you know that the same patch of land cannot be used successively to grow turmeric as the crop exhausts the soil of its nutrients and needs to be left fallow for a season? Or go for a bi-annual crop.

Harvested, the rhizomes and the fingers are thoroughly cleaned, washed and then boiled for close to 45 minutes. As the vapours rise the cooked haldi spreads its aroma all over disinfecting the air and saying to us: I’ve arrived to bestow you with health. When volumes are high rhizomes are boiled in boilers. Once the rhizomes cool they are split and dried for a fortnight in shade. Hard and dried the rhizomes look like insects waiting to be powdered. From harvest to powder the volume reduces to a quarter. Which means if the harvest is around 100kg,  the powder you get at hand is merely 25kg. 

Having come to know of an indigenous variety cultivated by the tribals of Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh which has 6 per cent curcumin and 9 per cent volatile oil content, this year we sourced the rhizomes (planting material) from Srikakulam–a distance of 1460 km from our farm in Badlapur, Maharashtra. 

It’s aroma is excellent and unparalleled, one has to savour it to experience it’s purity. Those used to packaged/ branded haldi will immediately feel the difference. 

A physician friend who rode with a kilo of our haldi in his car complained that he had to breathe the spice-laced air for two days!

Ayurveda physicians also suggest haldi for skin problems, like acne. Make a paste of haldi using virgin coconut oil and a pinch of camphor. Apply before going to bed and wash it in the morning. You will see the difference within two days.

Interestingly you will find the colour of our new harvest yellow-ochreish and not yellow you’re familiar with. 

Importantly the haldi we offer is not only chemical-free it has no preservatives and neither do we add corn powder to increase the volumes. It’s just pure haldi. Har kan kan mein haldi, as I would like to say.

With  haldi powder reaching you its journey ends when you take it specifically to boost your health (yes some use it on their dishes).  And if you do we advise you to take it either with warm milk or ghee after adding a pinch of black pepper. The fat in the milk or ghee hastens the absorption of curcumin (haldi) and piperine (black pepper). 

Lastly, thanks for making me an agripreneur though I still continue to be a journalist. 

Tip: Always store spices including haldi in steel or glass containers to ensure long shelf-life.

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This Idukki Man Crafts World’s Finest Musical Wind Chimes

Wind Craft. That’s the name of Rajeev Valsala Kumaran’s brand. Very apt. For it’s the ‘wind’ that powers his beautiful creations made of bamboo—wind chimes.

Living in a hilly and forested neighbourhood with the river Periyar flowing by Rajeev often escapes into this bucolic surroundings to seek inspiration. “Bamboo holds so much spirituality in its being. It’s food–the bamboo shoots–, it’s used to make dwellings, musical instruments are fashioned from it and even the body is carried on its way for last rites. It gives us so much,” he elaborates on his fascination for the grass variety. Thanks to his government license, he can source bamboo directly from the forest.

Rajeev displaying his wind chimes during a workshop

His wind chimes have names. Each identified by the rhythm and mood he has tried to create. Like the ‘Candid Wild Stream’ which echoes the gurgle of a stream as it moves to splash on the boulders or the ‘Deep Rain Forest’ which reminds of raindrops falling on the leaves or the placid calmness of ‘Deep Blue Lake’ disturbed by a bird call. They are six of them, each differentiated by the length of the bamboo. “I have named them depending on the size and the particular theme obtained by tuning,” says the self-taught empanelled master craftsman of the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts working out of his home in Thattekanni (Idukki), 105 km from Kochi.

Rajeev’s wind-chimes echoes the sounds of the forest, river. He elaborates, “The sounds are representation of the surroundings.”

A wind chime

A bamboo chime has six fine-tuned segments. The smallest of Wind Craft’s wind chime measures 6 to 8 inches and the longest at 22-25 inches, the price beginning at Rs 3500 to upwards of Rs 10,500.

Hang it on your window and let the breeze stir it to motion and hear the river on an autumn day or experience the quietness of a jungle as the bamboo-groove sways.

Rajeev’s wind chimes are made from Ochlandra travancorica, a bamboo variety endemic to the Western Ghats which runs through Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Locally called etta and oda, Rajeev considers bamboo as a magical raw material for the future, which is also beneficial for the environment. A diploma holder in Electronics and unable to get a job he returned home to his pristine surroundings and embarked on a career creating art though insisting that he is a craftsman.

Details from an installation titled ‘Lily Pond’

Why Bamboo?

“I chose bamboo because it aligns with my principles. I don’t want my raw material to harm the environment.”

Being a member of several WhatsApp groups devoted to bamboo propagation I came across the 42-year-old Rajeev showcasing his creations in a post. He received several thumbs up but hardly any orders!

“I have spent years fine-tuning my wind chimes and getting the sound right,” says Rajeev, his first wind-chime, inspired by one from Bali, was the result of five years of experimentation and research, trial and error.

Calligraphy pens

Mostly self-taught, he is an empanelled master craftsman of the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts and sources aged or ripening bamboo for his creations.”I dry it for a year before working with it,” he says.

Rajeev’s work with bamboo has been mentioned by the Beijing-based International Network of Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) on their Facebook page thrice; possibly the first Indian craftsperson to be given the honour.  

He counts Susanth Satyendran, Head Centre for Bamboo Initiatives at the National Institute of Design (NID), Bengaluru, as his guru. (He is averse to the word ‘mentor’ and considers ‘guru’ as it has connotation to spirtuality.) “I was introduced to him in a workshop I attended in Waynad in 2002. He made me understand the organic sublimity of bamboo and what he said about design opened my eyes: “Design is our creative responsibilties to the surroundings we live in.””

Terracotta planter with cane and bamboo

He considers Filipino bamboo craftsman Edgar Balansi Banasan as his guide. “Banasan had come to Bangalore to conduct a NID-organised workshop in 2019 on “Healing through bamboo music” and I assisted him. His praise for my wind chime and its sound quality was a great encouragement,” he says.

But it was a chance encounter with a Tibetan Buddhist monk at a handicraft exhibition in Bangalore in 2003 which made him realise the importance of silence versus sound. “We sat under a tree but didn’t speak for the first 15 minutes. Then he said, “A sound is a tool, a medium to decorate silence.” And we parted ways after he gifted me a tiny bust of Buddha made in stone.””

Rajeev’s interest lies in creating utilitarian items out of bamboo including masks, sculptures, wall decors, trays, card books, mobile holders and an amplifier made of bamboo – a pocket-sized, eyelet-shaped hollow piece of bamboo with a groove. His latest is a terracotta planter with cane and bamboo. An installation by him, the ‘Lotus Pond’, earned praised from INBAR. For the four ft by three ft piece, he used bamboo and its nodes (as leaves) exclusively. The piece gives the impression of fluidity, without the stiffness one associates with bamboo. His minimalist design sensibility shows in the foldable coat hanger, which looks more like a stick with a cord. Like the amplifier, it connects to his interest in minimalism.

Mobile amplifier

Rajeev hopes of having a school of his own where he can “teach bamboo fine craft and which shall serve as a production centre too.”

He is on Facebook and Instagram and most of his orders originate online, especially from buyers residing in the European nations.

Reach him on https://www.facebook.com/rajiv.marur or write to rajiv.wind@gmail.com

Bhagya KDM & Sarpan 2: Next-Gen Moringa Varieties

I have been tracking Moringa for over six years now and published several pieces on the same. Being a weekend farmer my interest in Moringa is piqued whenever I come across new things about it.

In fact, the world too seems very much interested in Moringa considering there are 16.40lakh results Google yields when one searches “research papers on Moringa”. 

Its generic name is derived from the Tamil word ‘murungai’ meaning ‘twisted pod’, and ‘oleifera’ is Latin, meaning ‘oil-bearing’, due to the high oil content of the seeds, this tree has been around for ages. But ever since the Western world claimed it as a superfood, thanks to its nutritional qualities, its acreage in the country’s arid and semi-arid zones have been rising as farmers recognise it as a crop that never fails despite climate change.

The media—social and mainstream— and the scientific community at large have become enamoured with Moringa Oleifera’s health-giving properties. However, only a few of its many reputed health benefits have been studied scientifically. To date, studies show that Moringa may lead to modest reductions in blood sugar and cholesterol. It may also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and protect against arsenic toxicity.  Still the craze for the food plant with multiple medicinal properties continues to grow.

Bhagya KDM Moringa Variety

Moringa provides a rich and rare combination of nutrients, amino acids, antioxidants, anti-ageing and anti-inflammatory properties used for nutrition and healing. Moringa leaves have seven times the Vitamin C of oranges, four times the calcium of milk, four times the vitamin A of carrots, three times the potassium of bananas, and double the protein of yoghurt. With over 92 nutrients and 46 natural antioxidants, as well as anti-inflammatory compounds it has been dubbed the ‘miracle tree’. Additionally, the moringa oil, harvested from the seeds are much sought after in the formulation of skin care products. 

A study titled “Bioactive Components in Moringa Oleifera Leaves Protect against Chronic Disease” published by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes concludes thus:  Protective effects of MO leaves against chronic diseases: cardiovascular disease, by lowering plasma lipids including triglycerides (TG) decreasing blood pressure and reducing oxidative stress; diabetes, by lowering plasma glucose], reducing insulin resistance and increasing? cell function; NAFLD, by reducing hepatic lipids, reducing liver enzymes and decreasing hepatic inflammation and cancer, by reducing DNA damage, viability of cancer cells and increasing apoptosis.

A 2016 study by Malaysian researchers on animals found that aqueous fraction of Moringa contains Vicenin-2 active compound which may accelerate wound healing in hyperglycemic condition.  A diabetic foot ulcer is a serious complication of diabetes, which affects a significant percentage (15%) of diabetics and up to 15%–24% of those affected may require amputation.

In recent years those engaged in subsistence farming have taken to farming of Moringa oleifera (drumstick tree) for it needs minimum care, and if grown in large areas can fetch a good price from markets close to cities and also urban centres.

Farmers in drought-prone regions of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, West Bengal and Odisha are increasingly growing it in large acres. Moringa is presently traded in several vegetable markets across Maharashtra, in Pune, Vashi, Solapur, and Aurangabad. This season, the rate for the drumsticks is between Rs 3,500-Rs 4,000 per quintal.

If you’re a wannabe Moringa grower you either settle for Periyakulam (PKM)2 or ODC3  overlooking Periyakulam (PKM) 1 which has longish pods (3to 4ft) and thus unacceptable to the market. While the former is an annual variety the latter is a perennial one.

Most are unaware that there are other much lesser-known Moringa varieties which are super yielders. Both have one thing in common, Karnataka.  

Let us begin with Bhagya KDM, developed by Dr B M Madalgeri and Dr Ravindra Mulge while at KRC College of Horticulture, Arabhavi in Belagavi Distt.  I reached out to Dr Madalgeri, now retired and in Australia, to know more. Says he, “When it was released its demand for cultivation was high as is evident from the number of seeds sold in the State from the university-held shows. Probably, the lack of extension activities in showcasing the variety outside the State and insufficient seed production and supply chain may be the cause for not being known beyond Karnataka.”

Suited for high-density planting which can be maintained at a height of 2 to 4 meters by pruning and training, Bhagya KDM is an institute-developed variety released at the State level and not a farmers variety. Its parental material was PKM 3 selection carried out since from 1998 and released during 2011.

Sarpan SD2 Moringa Variety

It flowers after 100 to 110 days, following planting. The fruit length is advantageous as its  60 cm medium length plus or minus 15 cm. One can start harvesting the fruits after 160 to 180 days post-planting. It gives 350 to 400 fruits per plant in the first year and 800 to 1000 fruits in the second year. Informs Dr Mulge: “It can be maintained for 15 years. Its yield reduces due to infection of borer or poor management necessitating replanting after 8 to 10 years.”

Dr Mulge calls it a ‘breeders’ baby’ and stresses that it needs to popularize which is not happening. The seeds of Bhagya KDM is presently being produced by the Arabhavi-based  Kittur Rani Chennamma College Of Horticulture. But lacks adequate supply.  “Though popular among Karnataka farmers, the supply of seeds in quantity and quality is an issue for further expansion,” adds Dr Mulge.

The another variety is thanks to an individual’s effort. In this case a prolific plant breeder and the “Chilliman of India” Dr Nijagunadev Gaddagimath of  Dharwad’s  Sarpan Agri Horticultural Research Center and Sarpan Hybrid Seeds.

Called Sarpan SD-2, it’s a semi-tall perennial variety. With fruit size ranging between 15-18 inches, it’s fleshy, pulpier and is soft-seeded. A very high-yielding hybrid its bearing ability is very high. A fully-grown matured tree yields between 300-500 fruits per plant.  The variety needs shallow pruning every alternate year to the extent of 10-20% canopy.  It has two flushes of fruits, namely between December- March with heavy fruiting and followed by June-July with a shy crop.

Suggests Dr Gaddagimath, “We advise pruning above 5′ -6′ every alternate year in order to manage the canopy spread and for easy harvesting of fruits.”

From 8 Cuttings This Farmer Has A Dragon Fruit Orchard Spread on 6 Acres

It was sometime in 2012 that a friend gifted me a Dragon Fruit plant after I had shared with him a bunch of freshly harvested dates,” says Rajendra Deshmukh of Barshi village in Solapur. “Then a sapling would come at a princely sum of Rs 250.”

A follower of multi crop pattern Deshmukh’s 32-acre farm, few kilometres from Barshi station, has custard apples, date palms, jamuns, guavas and dragon fruits—all prospering  in this arid zone which barely receives 350 mm of rain.  

A visit to dragon fruit farms in Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam in 2018 along with a group of farmers from Pune, Satara , Sangli, Aurangabad and Solapur gave Deshmukh the confidence to take up dragon fruit farming seriously. Presently, he has six acre devoted to the fruit.

“Having I got some eight cuttings from Vietnam I multiplied it and have around 2400 plants which grow supported by cement pillars,” says Deshmukh whose 200-odd date palm orchard  brings in farmers from drought prone and arid zones namely, Gulbarga in Karnataka, Adilabad in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra’s Osmanabad, Beed, Amravati, Wardha, Yavatmal, Jalna and Nagar, all trying to emulate his example.

Deshmukh in his dragon fruit orchard

From the eight cuttings acquired in 2018 Deshmukh has developed 1200 plants which populate his sprawling orchard. He also has hundreds of them in his nursery.

The Vietnamese call dragon fruit “thanh long”. Native to Mexico, it’s the French settlers who imported it to Vietnam and called it “pitaya”. The dragon fruit (Hylocereus undatus) is a tropical fruit that belongs to the climbing cacti (Cactaceae) family that grows in arid areas. Widely cultivated in Vietnam, the fruit is popular in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate. Broadly speaking, the weather in Vietnam is dictated by two seasons — the southwest monsoon from April to September and the northeast monsoon from October to late March or early April.

This fruit of a vine-like cactus has white flesh peppered with tiny edible black seeds. Its popularity is growing beyond metros to other cities, particularly in south India. Its import is  rising multifold while farmers in India too start growing it large numbers. “Imports of dragon fruits have increased by almost 20 times in past two months, bringing down the wholesale prices from Rs 350 per kg to Rs 100,” said Dinesh Shinde, a leading importer of fruits from Vashi APMC in Mumbai.

There is a general belief that dragon fruit doesn’t do well in rain-fed areas. Says Deshmukh. “One should visit Vietnam to know that’s not true.”

The Cactus-like plant growing without the chakra on the top

The mean annual rainfall in Vietnam ranges from 700 to 5,000 mm (28 to 197 in) although most places in Vietnam receive between 1,400 to 2,400 mm (55 to 94 in). The majority of rainfall occurs during the rainy season, which is responsible for 80%–90% of the annual precipitation. Today dragon fruit are the leading fruit export of Vietnam and clever Asian marketing may have had something to do with the emergence of the fruit from obscurity.

The colour of dragon fruit flesh varies in variety from white, to red, or deep magenta.Like tomatoes, the red fleshed varieties contain lycopene – a natural antioxidant known to fight cancer, heart disease, and lower blood pressure. Lycopene is the focus of much recent research for its connection with anti ageing and UV skin protection.

Most dragon fruit growers grow it alongside the four sides of a squarish concrete pole with a circular frame—known as chakra—on the top to hold the extending branches. Though Deshmukh initially erected a a traditional  but has now abandoned it going for just a pole which has brought down the cost of the same to Rs 700.

Come the rain showers of July dragon fruits start flowering and the fruit is harvested every 15 days which continues till November. What’s the agronomic practice does he follow growing it on a six-acre plot?

Ready for the market

“The orchard is drip irrigated. But in February I stop irrigating it till June,” says he. “The only fertiliser given is composted cow dung. For pest prevention, one needs to drench the soil with Chlorpyrifos (1ltr for an acre.)”

He receives 400 fruits per acre which attract a price between Rs 40 to Rs 150 per kg depending on the size and quality of the fruit.

Ask him if there is a secret for a good yield?

”More branches mean more fruits,” he signs off.

Sagar Island Farmers Get PPR for Aromatic Rice. Cease Growing It In Absence of Rice Huller

I feel I’m in the seventh heaven… as if I’m floating among the clouds,” says a beaming Pradip Kumar Ray on the mobile from Kolkata while the rains lash outside my home in Thane. “I’m happy that our work in conserving an extinct rice variety has been recognised. I’ve just received confirmation of Harina Khuri being granted PPR (Protection of Plant Right).”

Though the authorities at the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Right Authorities had granted the PPR to Sagar Krishnanagar Swami Vivekananda Youth Cultural Society of  South 24 Parganas (West Bengal) for conserving  Harina Khuri in June they were intimated in the last week of July. Incidentally, Ray, a former banker is a mentor and resident agronomist to the Society which comprises of 37 farmer-members, residing in 15 villages.

Harina Khuri has been traditionally cultivated paddy in the lower Gangetic plains, particularly in the coastal saline zone of West Bengal since a long time. With the quick adoption of high-yielding rice varieties during the last 4-5 decades, Harina Khuri like other landraces was almost eroded except in few villages of coastal saline tracts of West Bengal, where it is under localized cultivation. The last mention of it was in the Handbook of Agriculture (1901).

Ray transplanting paddy saplings

Expecting no pecuniary benefits and six years into superannuation, Ray has been visiting Sagar Islands every week for the last one-decade boarding a train at Sealdah to reach Krishna Nagar in Sagar Island —a distance of 135km covered by train, bus, ferry and bike taking close to six hours.

How did Ray, a Kolkattan come in contact with South 24 Pargana farmers?

“I was then working as a manager of State Bank of India’s Rudranagar Branch in Sagar Island. One fine morning the farmers while visiting our branch told me about their effort to conserve an indigenous paddy variety which had become extinct,” he says.

The villagers had accidentally recovered some obscure seeds of paddy when an almost century-old kucha hut was being refurbished. Wrapped in a red-coloured shawl the seeds were stashed in a wooden box kept under a tin roof.  Sown in a tiny patch of land and following harvest, the farmers realised that the seeds belonged to an aromatic variety of rice.

Following Ray’s advice, the villagers contacted the Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya and the latter verified the paddy variety in question.  “We were told that the paddy variety has not been cultivated for some 75 years. The University having sowed and harvested it for six seasons found it to be a lost variety of paddy and named it Harina Khuri, basing it on documentary evidence,” remembers Ray.

Lush field of standing crop

Sagar Island, one of the 54 islands inhabited, experiences a subtropical monsoonal climate with an annual rainfall of 1,600 to 1,800 mm. and receives about four to six severe cyclonic storms per year between August and November. Surrounded by the Bay of Bengal on one side and the Hooghly and Muriganga rivers on the other two, much of the soil here is composed of silt. Salinity gradients change over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. Sagar Island is characterized by mangrove swamps, waterways and small rivers. It also shares the risk of coastal flooding and coastal erosion with other islands. Embankment breaches caused by river and sea, tidal surges, salinity, disappearing mangroves—the ill effects of climate change is all happening here.

“The rising sea level is like a demon to us. We grapple with it every day besides we are also exposed to increasing high-intensity cyclones and storms,” says farmer Sukhdev Nath who grows paddy on his one-acre plot in Krishnagar and is the secretary of Swami Vivekananda Youth Cultural Society. “The rising sea has already submerged Lohachara island in Sagar block, eaten nearly three-fourths of Ghoramara island and severely affected the bigger Sagar island,”

Sukhdev with a bowl of Harina Khuri paddy

Officials from New Delhi’s Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) came calling to Sagar Island and met the farmer-members of the Society to check out on the technique adopted for the conservation of the indigenous paddy variety.  In December 2016 the members of the Society along with farmers from other parts of the country were invited to a day-long seminar organised by the Ministry of Agriculture wherein the Swami Vivekananda Youth Cultural Society was adjudged the best performer for agricultural activities and awarded a cash award of Rs 10 lakhs. With the award money, the Society acquired a three bigha (0.33 acre) plot of land to further its conservation activities.

Harina Khuri is small-grained aromatic rice.  Sown in the Kharif season it’s a 140-day long paddy variety. The unique feature of this variety is its yield.  While the yield of aromatic paddy varieties grown in the North-Eastern Region is three and a half to four quintals per bigha, Harina Khuri’s yield is much more than that. In fact, a member of Swami Vivekananda Youth Cultural Society has harvested seven quintals in a bigha. Most farmers grow the variety the organic way using vermicompost and decomposed cow-dung. An all-purpose rive Harinakhuri is grown here mainly for individual consumption, especially for making of payesh (sweetened rice boiled in milk), khichuri (pulse-mixed rice), puffed rice and flattened rice.

Being an aromatic variety Harina Khuri has good demand in Kolkata and its suburbs but the Society is encountering serious hurdles to process the same. Elaborates Ray: “In order to retain its aromatic properties, it’s generally par-boiled.  As Kakdwip and Diamond Harbour, the places closest to Sagar  Island  after one has crossed  the  estuary of Bay of Bengal  which takes over an hour there is no special huller-fitted rice-milling machine to process unbroken rice.”

In the last several years the Society has made several representations to both State and Central Govt. to address the issue but failed to receive any assistance.  “The growers of Harina Khuri are happy that they were granted the PPR but feel depressed as there are no processing facilities and so we’ve stopped growing it,” concludes Nath.

It’s time the authorities paid heed to the pleas of paddy growers of Sagar Island and not let Harina Khuri, revived after seven decades, not vanish into obscurity.  

Updated and edited on August 20, 2020.

900 Plants & 8 tonnes of Mangoes from an Acre. Miraj Farmer Does It

With ‘bliss’ in your name, it’s hardly unexpected for someone to say: I’m blessed to be a farmer. Moreso in a State which has witnessed high incidences of suicides of farmers in the country.

However, sixty-one-year-old Parmanand Gavane has overriding reasons to feel blessed. First, his experiment with an ultra-high-density plantation (UHDP) has been successful and secondly, he is able to share his experiences with wannabe mango growers visiting his farm in Belanki, a village 25 km from Miraj town in Sangli district. His popularity has spread thanks to the several write-ups in newspapers and the YouTube videos.

As I caught up with this celebrity mango grower on a July noon, he told me that he has harvested eight tonnes of the fruit from an acre of the Kesar variety, weighing 250g to 400g, which has been picked by buyers from Delhi, Hyderabad,Kolkata, Bangalore and Raipur.

Madhanand with freshly harvested Kesar mangoes

From three tonnes in 2015, his maiden harvest, to 7.5 tonnes in 2020 Gavane believes that with proper management of the orchards he can achieve 10 tonnes per acre!

Instructing his farmhands on making rings around the trunks of the trees for fertilizer application, he says, “I’ve sold 4000 petis totalling 16 tonnes.”

Traditionally a grape grower, Gavane having seen a farmer in Lingnur village follow the high-density plantation planted 900 saplings each on two acres in 2012.

 “Initially, the farmer showed me around his orchard but later refused me entry despite several entreaties,” says Gavane. “I realised then that I was on my own and decided if I ever become successful  I will keep my orchard open to all and share my experiences too.”

Each month he receives close to 50 farmers and this year he has already notched 2,000 despite the pandemic. In the months of May and June when the trees are heavy with fruits the number of visitors peak.

Kesar mangoes hanging from a tree

Gavane’s is a rare case because most UHDPs in India do not go beyond 700 trees, compared to the traditional technique of 40 trees per acre. UHDP has been practised since long in Israel and South Africa and is now being followed by a handful of daring and enterprising farmers, of them Gavane is a shining example.

UHDP can yield up to 200% more crop than the traditional method of cultivation; ensures a uniform shape and colour of the fruit while maintaining its flavour and freshness; the tree is not allowed to grow beyond 7 feet in height by regularly pruning it, and leads to mango orchards attaining their full potential in 3-4 years which  is in contrast to the 7-8 years taken by traditional methods of cultivation.

According to Gavane the method, while improving per acre productivity, simultaneously reduces the usage of water. This leads to optimal use of Gavane arrives in his orchard early morning with a copy of much-thumbed Dāsbodh only to return home at sunset.

Dāsbodh, loosely meaning “advice to the disciple” in Marathi, is a 17th-century Advaita Vedanta spiritual text. Orally narrated by saint Samarth Ramdas to his disciple, Kalyan Swami it’s a sort of a tutorial  providing readers with spiritual guidance on matters such as devotion and acquiring knowledge.  “I browse through it whenever I’m idle and alone. The book provides me with guidance on my spiritual journey,” he informs.

Monsoon is a month-old and the ground I wet too and the air is cool too. The mangoes trees planted in neat rows with the black-coloured drip pipes snaking all around. “I administer a mix of organic and chemical fertiliser, 70 and 30 per cent respectively including a the use of a fungicide which inhibits growth but hastens flowering,” he volunteers.”In this method, fertilizer intake is very high.”

Gavane spends close to Rs 100,000 per acre which includes fertiliser and labour costs ending up with a profit of Rs 600,000 per acre.

This system warrants adoption of certain important technologies like formative pruning in the initial years so as to have desirable plant architecture, proper canopy management annually to encourage vegetative growth immediately after harvest, stopping of the vegetative growth during September to favour fruit bud initiation and differentiation.

Adoption of drip irrigation system in order to replenish the loss of moisture and providing nutrients with required quantity at appropriate doses through fertigation technique are highly essential to get a higher yield with quality fruits.

Saplings in the nursery

A year after the plantation he harvested three tonnes of the fruit which has slowly risen to eight tonnes per acre. According to Gavane several farmers in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are following his pattern and are spread in 200 acres.

Besides Kesar he has few of Rumani, picked from Karnataka and grown for making pickles, Benishan and the purple beauty which a friend gifted. “Tommy Atkins of Florida (US) which a nursery owner has shared. It’s very sweet,” he says.

Assisted by his sons, Shivanand, a Civil Engineer who quit his job in a Kirloskarwadi-based firm and Madhavanand, an Arts Graduate Gavane continues to grow the Sonaka and SS varieties of grapes on nine acres and also runs a plant nursery. “I sell around 40,000 saplings of Kesar every year,” he concludes.

Tommy Atkins growing in Gavane’s orchard

Reach Gavane on +91 74482 31351

Sonchampa That Flowers 365 Days Of The Year

Visit the flower market at Pune’s Gul Tekdi or Mumbai’s Dadar and you’re likely to come across heaps and heaps of Rose, Mogra, Marigold, Shevanti, and also plastic boxes filled with Sonchafa (Sonchampa)—incidentally, available all throughout the year. At traffic junctions, street urchins hawking garlands of Sonchafa is a common sight all the year-round.  Since long I’ve been intrigued as to where do this golden-coloured and extremely fragrant flower comes from. More so because my lone Sonchafa (Magnolia champaka) tree which I planted a decade back in my farm flowers only during the monsoon months and that too putting forth one or two, a week.

I began with Google but it was of not much help but Facebook was.  And I ended up in a village called, Vetal-bambarde—off the Mumbai-Goa Highway—in Kudal Taluka in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district and came face to face with Uday Gopinath Velankar. The Sonchafa he grows, and which he has been doing it for three decades now is known as ‘Velankar Chafa’.

Close-up of Velankar Chafa

If there is one flower which has ushered prosperity among its growers, it’s Velankar Chafa. Be it the farmers in the villages of Vasai and Virar, Palghar, Pune and Nashik all have secured their livelihood due to this variety of Sonchafa, originating from Velankar Krishi Farm. Besides Maharashtra, the fame of this variety has taken roots in the gardens of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala too. In fact, the flower has emerged as the favourite flower of Lord Ganesha, thanks to the growers in Vasai-Virar who supply it to Mumbai and its suburbs.

If you grow Sonchafa from the seeds you’re likely to end up with a shrub which flowers only during the shravan and that’s what makes Velankar Chafa popular among growers and in great demand.

A medium-size climbing shrub 8-10 ft, Sonchafa produces flowers that are greenish in colour and fade to yellow with age, and are extremely fragrant. Once picked they are long-lasting and retain their scent for days if kept in water. When young, this climber grows just like a regular shrub but at 5-6 ft starts to vine.

Rows of saplings

Velankar’s Sonchafa flowers 365 days a year. In months between March and October, each shrub offers 150 to 200 flowers each. During the winter months, flowering witnessed a slight drop. Sonchafa is easy to grow and allowed to spread horizontally so that the flowers can be reached and picked easily.

The popularity of the unique Sonchafa has created a market of fakes, as is usual with anything which catches people’s imagination. “I sell directly to growers and you’re unlikely to find Velankar Chafa in any nursery,” volunteers Velankar (59). “Though many claim it to be so.”

 Spread on a 20-acre plot the nursery has rows and rows of Sonchafa saplings of varied height and age growing in black nursery bags, sitting on the red soil, typical of Konkan. Visit it during shravan you’re likely to see flowers hidden among the rain-soaked leaves. Pick a flower, hold it in the palm of your hand and experience its heady scent.

“I have around 3,000 mother plants from which every year I make around 10,000 grafts,” says Velankar who following his father’s demise in 1980 discontinued his studies to take care of the family nursery which had mango, cashew, coconut, jackfruit, love apple, guava etc. But he began concentrating on Sonchafa following a chance meeting with an acquaintance who was looking for the same.

Uday Gopinath Velankar

Sonchafa has seven varieties, of which saffron, pale yellow, bright yellow, pure white and dense yellow are grown. Interestingly, neither of them gives flowers the entire year. Velankar worked on the dense yellow variety and having grafted with the mother plant developed a variety which presently is known as the Velankar Chafa. The grafted variety starts yielding flowers from the second year which continues for another 35 to 40 years while the seedling plant gives flowers after 12 long years and interestingly has a much longer life. A year-old plant is priced at Rs 150 and Velankar assures “we will deliver it  free if it is within 500 km radius of our nursery.”

According to Velankar Sonchafa is a very adaptive plant and can be grown in any type of soil and needs minimum care. However, it doesn’t do well in waterlogged areas. Most growers in Vasai-Virar and Palghar grow it using drip and use dry cow dung to fertilise it. One can plant  Sonchafa any time of the year.

“I began reaching out to prospective  growers taking my saplings along  to places like Palghar, Vasai, Pune, Nashik, Kolhapur, Sangli, Tasgaon, Parbhani, Aurangabad and others,” says Velankar choosing the villages which were close to the cities so that growers have a ready market. His efforts have yielded fruits in building a brand identity for Velankar Sonchafa.

Velankar Chafa is unique because it flowers 365 days a year and is unique in the world of floriculture. Can you think of a flower or a fruit which gives yield throughout the year?

Newly harvested Sonchafa

Velankar is an innovator like Solapur’s Navnath Kaspate who has developed a custard apple variety, like Nashik’s Sudhakar Kshirsagar who has developed high-yielding seedless grape variety and like Kota’s Srikrisan Suman who has developed a mango variety which fruits four times a year. It’s time the authorities of Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth authenticates Velankar’s claims and assist him to acquire an Intellectual Property Right under the Plant Protection Varieties Registration Act which awards farmer-innovators with IPRs.

That will be a true reward for Velankar: for innovating a flower variety and not just hailing him for developing a market and creating a brand.

Reach Velankar on +91 94223 73720

School Kids Growing Crops. Its Happening in This Coimbatore School

I’m a student of Physics and never in my dream did I think that one day I would end up running a Higher Secondary school. And our students growing paddy and get a good harvest too.

That was Aravinthan, a post-grad in optics and photonics from Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology who runs Coimbatore’s St. John’s Matriculation Higher Secondary School.

I came to know of this 35-year-old Tamilian with a genial smile while searching for a native variety of vegetable seeds on Facebook. I was taken by his passion for ‘growing our vegetables the organic way’ and impressing young minds at Indian Organic School, Aravinthan prefers to call it.

Over to Aravinthan, in his own words:

We’ve been running the school since 2015, having acquired it from the earlier management. It was on the insistence of my father who also ran a school that I left my job as a college lecturer. I’m presently the chief admin of this co-ed school spread on four acres. We have 800 plus students on our rolls—from kindergarten to Higher Secondary.

Aravinthan among the turmeric crop

My interest in introducing the school kids to growing vegetables was spurred following a ninth standard student reply when asked where the tomatoes came from. He said: from the trees.

We began with growing vegetables in grow bags on the school’s terrace and also gifted grow bags to our students along with fenugreek seeds.  They are Nitrogen fixers, take only a month to grow and harvest. Reason: We didn’t want the kids to wait for a long time to harvest. Normally, most vegetables take almost 3 months to make it to the first harvest. The long wait, we thought might kill the curiosity and patience of the kids. Having watched the lifecycle of fenugreek they gradually learnt to be patient.

But much before that, I experimented with growing vegetables on the terrace of my rented apartment. This was following a friend’s remark that vegetables grown in grow bags were very juicy and tender. Though what he said did not make any sense to me but it surely made me curious. Though I belong to an agricultural family, my involvement in agriculture has been very limited. Eager to learn the basics of gardening I began with 5 grow bags and ended up with 75! Growing your vegetables can be really addictive. The greens I grew cooked amazingly fast and tasted way better than the ones we bought from the vendor.  All these were a huge motivation and I decided to introduce school kids to the world of farming practices.

It was in 2016 that we started gardening on our school’s terrace. On birthdays we used to gift kids a small grow bag with radish sown in it. We regularly made them visit the terrace and let them observe the colour of the flowers of each vegetable, feel the texture of the leaves, caress them and experience their scent and differentiate whether the plant was a herb/shrub/creeper/climber.

School kids with radish grown in grow bags

Meanwhile, I happened to accompany a friend to a seminar on native seeds and realised their importance having been ushered into the world of seeds. Into conserving and promoting native seeds. I began visiting seed festivals and connecting with farmers and seed savers on Facebook, all in an effort to collect native seeds and conserve them.

It was through FB that we came in contact with a lot of like-minded people who believed in preserving and sharing heirloom seeds.

Organic farming is not just about getting healthy and nutritious food. It’s more about caring for nature and the environment too.

Although we harvested a lot of vegetables it was not sufficient for our daily needs. Soon we started growing vegetables in the patch of land around the school building. We also introduced an Agriculture course for our HSc students.

Between 2016 and 2019 (September), the school harvested over 3850 kg of vegetables.

We didn’t stop and dreamt bigger and leased a 12-cent plot in the neighbourhood and involved our HSc students to grow paddy. From tilling the land to sowing and harvesting everything was done by the students. We did something no school in India may have attempted: in January 2020 we harvested 200kg of rice. 

Organic farming is complete only when the heirloom seeds are conserved. Presently, the school’s seed bank has 15 varieties of okra, 20 varieties of brinjal, 45 varieties of bottle gourd, 5 varieties of cowpea, 7 varieties of chillies and 15 varieties of pumpkin. With each day we add more seeds to our bank.

Varieties of bottle gourd grown in the school

Seeds are our common wealth, our heritage. We have reached out to home gardeners all over the country sharing seeds from our collection. Unlike other seed savers, this venture is totally non-commercial. Anyone who believes in propagating and sharing can reach out to us.

Varieties of chilli grown in the school campus

Apart from focusing on heirloom seeds, the primary backbone of organic farming is the use of natural fertilizers. Some of the fertilizers we use are cow and goat manure, green manure, fish amino acid, amirtha karaisal, jeevaamritham, and panchakavya that acts as both a fertilizer and an insect/pest repellant. In addition to the natural fertilizers, we extensively mulch our field with dried up groundnut plant, coconut coir, wood chips, chopped banana plant (of course, after harvesting the banana) and sun hemp that acts as live mulch.

Over the past few years, we have seen a growing interest among our kids in gardening activities even in their home. Even our teachers and parents of our school kids have started growing their own food.

Our initiative to interest kids in growing vegetables was to instil memories that they could recollect in their adulthood. We believe gardening holds the keys to unlocking important life skills like responsibility, confidence, creativity, tolerance, health and a greater understanding of the world in which we reside.

Visit www.facebook.com/organicschoolind  & http://www.facebook.com/stjohnsschoolcbe

 Message Aravinthan on 7639555088

Confessions of a Balcony Gardener During a Pandemic

Hiren Kumar Bose

As soon as the lockdown was announced, some of us went back to reading books or watching movies besides attending to our household chores. Some learnt new skills and others shot videos of themselves and their kids. I, for one, besides catching up on reading the books that had been lying untouched on my bookshelf for ages – started greening my balcony, despite knowing that our housing society is very inimical when it comes to having plants.

Yes, you heard that right.

The society has penalised residents for keeping tulsi plants, money plants and even an aloe vera in their balcony – on the grounds that they stain the building’s exteriors.

Regardless, I have been spending most of my time growing leafy vegetables and tending to the ornamentals (flower pots) in my balcony – the size of a suburban local seat with grills attached. For me, a weekend farmer, the experience has been like Messi dribbling on a field the size of a carom board. But I’m enjoying every moment of it though my play area has been drastically reduced.

At a time, when the residents are staying indoors for most of the time, I thought they won’t come to know of my indiscretion and hence, I started populating my balcony with planters and pots – made out of empty edible oil plastic containers, muesli jars, ice cream trays, and PET bottles.

However, as soon as I started, my wife warned, “I will not let you pay a single rupee more than the mandatory maintenance fee,” hinting at the society’s penalty clause.

I didn’t budge.

In the last four months, beginning March, I have grown green leafy vegetables like mint, spinach, coriander, fenugreek, sweet basil, lemongrass, wheatgrass, and chilli. I have also tried my hand growing microgreens like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, mustard, chia, and sunflower.

As I began, getting soil was the easiest thing – it was from the society’s park which also serves as an outdoor gym with its exercising equipment, a feature common in Thane.

Thanks to the seeds which I had earlier procured to sow in my farm, and thus I started turning my balcony green. Years of working with soil and making its yield its bounty, has taught me that the food we eat contains organic chemical compounds, which can also be used to cultivate the plant kingdom.

Hence, what we have in our kitchen is enough to nurture plants, and I used them too for my balcony garden. For example, coffee grounds for nitrogen, eggshells for calcium, banana and potato peel for potassium and so on. At times, I have stealthily used my pee which is nothing but urea – plants are hungry for it and respond with vigorous growth.

Balcony garden

Did you know that onion skins, which we consider as waste and throw in the bin, are a great fertiliser and contains calcium, iron, magnesium and copper? Its use increases the plant’s disease resistance capacity, enables growth, strengthens the stems, and ultimately assures productivity. Leave the onion skins in water for three days at a stretch in a container and your fertiliser is ready.

I wondered if the vitamin supplements can usher well being and health in humans, why not in plants? Hence, I have also used multivitamin capsules to revive my drooping betel (paan) vine, the maghai variety which has been accorded a geographical Index tag. Two leaves of maghai paan with gulkand and saunf has been our post-lunch indulgence for months now.

In the last three months, the mint plant has occupied a large space in my balcony. Growing it from stem cuttings is easy provided you know what horticulturists call rooting hormone (RH). If you don’t, simply make a paste with a teaspoon of honey and cinnamon powder and your RH is ready.

From the fruit peels which includes chickoo, banana, papaya, peach mango, custard apple, jackfruit I have made what we call garbage enzyme (GE). Yes, you read it right. It is very simple to make. Fill a plastic jar with fruit peels, add jaggery and water and leave it capped for three months and your GE is ready. You can not only use it as fertiliser but an organic cleaner for toilet and bathroom. Also called eco-enzyme, it’s a multipurpose liquid that is produced from the fermentation of organic waste. The idea is to cultivate enzymes into organic cleaners, from organic waste that normally goes into the garbage bins.

Like a conscientious citizen, I’ve substantially reduced my carbon footprints as less and less volume of garbage leaves my home for the landfills. By the end of the day, we are only left with non-recyclable stuff namely plastic wrappers, milk pouches, aluminium foil bags, used toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes and so on.

I believe the ornamentals – madhu malati, passionflower, syngonium, ice cream creeper, shankhapushpi – have helped usher an ecosystem bringing in bees, butterflies and even birds to my balcony. Who knew that in a pandemic my balcony’s window grille will host sunbirds, starlings and house sparrows?

Although their appearance is brief, they have surely brought joy in the lives of self-incarcerated individuals like me.

My piece published in livewire on July 09.2020

15 Kinds of Okra And More

It was a chance visit to Anna University organised seed festival in 2018 that made Pavan Kumar become a seed collector and distributor. So much so that he resigned his job at Renault Nissan to promote and popularise traditional vegetable seeds. As he says “to make a difference” and make a living too.

“I was among thousands who worked at the automobile plant and didn’t feel will be able to make any difference,” says Pavan, a mechanical engineer by education.

Pavan monkeying with Elephant Okra

At the seed festival, there were farmers from Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka beside Tamil Nadu displaying their collection of seeds. “I am familiar with Telugu, Kannada and Marathi so could converse with them and gather a lot of information including their contact details,” says the 24-year-old.

Tamil Nadu has a tradition of seed collection. Like Yoganathan, a farmer of Thinnakonam village, near Musiri in Tiruchirapalli who started collecting the seeds in 2008 with the objective of preserving native breeds of vegetables, fruits, millets and pulses. After a decade, he is now providing tonnes of seeds to farms and kitchen gardens through Agathiyar Farmers Producer Company, supported by NABARD. Then there is  S. Sultan Ahamed Kabir of Tirumalairayar Pattinam in Karaikal of the Union Territory of Puducherry. He has transformed agriculture from a vocation to feed people into a mission to conserve seeds of traditional paddy varieties for posterity. In the last 12 years, he has grown about 80 varieties of traditional paddy.

But what makes Pavan different is that he is a non-farmer and also he sells the seeds online.

Pavan with his seed collection

He has had a Facebook page devoted to selling  ‘eco gifts’ since 2016 and soon started sharing details about native seeds too. He has reached out farmers in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chattisgarh and Sri Lanka from whom he sources the seeds. According to him, there are lots of Tamil farmers in North Jaffna part of Sri Lanka who has shared seeds with him.

India, home to Moringa, has its traditional varieties and the introduced ones, like ODC 3, PMK 1 and 2, Rohit 1 and others. With his FB page, Pavan has introduced the Indian farmers to three native and one Sri Lankan Moringa variety.

Since he began in 2018 he has collected 130 varieties of seeds including leafy green vegetables, gourds, grounds, beans, climbers, fruits. His bouquet of seeds includes 15 types of okras, medicinals, nine types of brinjals, four types of moringa, maize and chillies each and 12 types of flowering seeds.

He shares seeds with farmers for multiplication entering into a buyback agreement. At times a farmer or two insists on advance payments. Which he gives. He advises farmers to multiply the seeds in a 100 sq ft plot and buys the processed seeds for a fee ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000. “They are willing to grow it because they too benefit from the deal,” says Pavan. He stores the seeds in plastic containers having treated them with cow dung ash.

At times people have offered him seeds without any pecuniary benefit, like a Mumbai couple who gave him a kg of Purple Sword Beans.

He has reached out to farmers in the North Eastern States too. “I have interacted with them using Google Translate and have been amply rewarded due to the biodiversity of seeds these States offer,” says the Chennai-based teenager.

Asked does he make a decent livelihood being a seed distributor and selling eco gifts. He answers: “Much better than what I was earning at Renault. More importantly,  I’m making a difference promoting country’s native seeds.”

You can reach Pavan  at Instamojo.com/pkrgreensandconsultants or 8754445850