It was wifey’s idea. In fact, she has been asking me to give it a try. The idea of growing paddy. I’ve been dissuading her on the pretext that it’s a tough thing. Needs more time, lots of involvement etc. But when KM, who has 10 times more acreage at her disposal and has been farming at Kamshet, near Pune suggested that I try sowing paddy, I thought that it was time to graduate from being a horticulturist to becoming a farmer. Incidentally, it was KM who shared her olfactory experience—of moving around her paddy field while Ambemohar ripened! That was enough to persuade me. Growing fruit-bearing trees and vegetables has given me enough experience as to how’s and why’s of soil, the changing season’s, fertilizers, pesticides etc. and so I went headlong.
As it was a whole new obsession, I began with the basics—by talking to the locals who have been growing paddy for ages and collecting information about the suitability of the rice variety to my geographical location. City dwellers’ knowledge about rice varieties is very limited that includes me too. In most cases their world is either made of Sona Masuri , Surti Kolam or Basmati. My father, though not a farmer but one who grew up in a remote village in West Bengal’s Howrah district could rattle names of hundred-odd varieties. For us names like Annapurna, Bharathi, Archana, Rasi, Manoharsali, Triveni, Taiching Native and China etc. of species Oryza sativa could be historical characters and we thought father was just making it up. In fact, whenever we moved from one Air Force cantonment to another—he being a ground engineer with the Indian Air Force — father would expose us to the local varieties by bringing kilos home. It is another story that Ma who did most of the cooking was not appreciative of his ‘there is life beyond Kolam’ antics. For us rice whatever be its name was something you had in the meal—beginning with a big spoonful of ghee on mound of rice followed by sukhto, bhaja moonger dal, karela fry, fish curry and ending it with tomato chutney.
My search for the suitable rice variety began with me quizzing Ashok, a resident of Aghanwadi and a farmhand in my neighbour’s plot. Giving me names like Ratna, Kamal, Karjat 3 etc. he said that once he his brother had gifted him couple of kilos of an aromatic rice variety which was not much liked by the family as “bas aito (smelled a lot)” even when they made bhakhri (chappati made of rice flour).
A major tribal district of Maharashtra, Thane’s northern part has conserved 28 land races of rice on farm by traditional methods of cultivation. Sadly, the traditional varieties are no more grown. It was my painter friend Santosh Bhoir of Bhiwandi who suggested that I plant Murbad Jhini, the seeds of which he would acquire. The grains of Murbad Jhini are as small as jeera (cumin seeds) and considered a delicacy due to its aroma but rarely grown nowadays. I’m told that till the Eighties it was a preferred choice in Bombay’s five star hotels.
My decision to grow paddy was sudden impulse, sometimes in late May. It was already second week of June second and the monsoon just a week away. I was desperate but that didn’t help. I could neither lay my hands on Murbad Jhini nor Ambemohar which was a suggestion from KM.
It was on a spur one day I called up Rajendra Bhat, an organic farmer of Bendshil village in Badlapur East with whom I had an acquaintance with as he had conducted a workshop, years back on mango growing, for us in Chon village. “Yes I‘ve a two kilos to spare,” Bhat, felicitated by the Maharashtra Govt. told me while giving me directions to his farm.
On a Saturday morning I reached Bhat’s farm in an autorickshaw and picked up two kgs of Pusa Sugandhi 3, an aromatic variety, for Rs 160. The up and down auto fare had burnt a hole in my pocket: Rs 200. A classic example of spices being more dear than the meal!
“It’s ready for harvest after 120 days,” said Bhat, who has been growing this variety for couple of years now suggesting that I adopt the SRI (system of rice intensification) method as it gave a better harvest than the traditional method followed by most paddy growers. By the time I had reached home I had read and watched DIY videos about SRI on my mobile.
I came to know that a Tamil Nadu farmer S Sethumadhavan of Alanganallur village had harvested a record yield of nearly 24 tonnes of paddy rice per hectare using the SRI. Two years ago, Bihari farmer Sumant Kumar set what was thought to be a world record for rice growing then, harvesting 22.4 tonnes of paddy rice per hectare using the same method. The system is more labour-intensive but has generated extraordinary results. I was convinced.
SRI involves significantly reducing the number of rice seeds planted, transplanting them on the field when they are much younger than usual, using different amounts of water at critical times of their growth cycle, and improving soil conditions with organic manure.
Next day being Sunday I hired a pair of bullock for half a day to plough my field but before doing that I had scattered vermicompost, bone and flesh meal and leaves of gliricidia all over. As the hull pulled by the bullocks ploughed the soil it got blended thoroughly with the manure.
As suggested by the SRI method, I prepared a nursery and 12 days later transplanted the saplings on the field. Now my paddy is nearly two months old.