Welcoming The Hummingbird Tree

Come rains, sorry monsoon because it’s a season, we, farmer colleagues, ask each other: What are you planting this time?

HadgaThough our plot sizes are limited we all look forward to the monsoon to take care of the vacant spots. Besides we want to create a biodiverse universe of our own. Either we plant a sapling which we acquired some time back or grow our own saplings. Last year I had acquired seeds of Hadga (Sesbania grandiflora) from a group in Bangalore, specialising in heirloom seeds. They are called Sahaja Seeds. I had sowed the seeds in the bag when the monsoon in peak. They sprouted; the seedlings were around six inches but were soon eaten away by a pest.

So this time I sowed the seeds a fortnight prior to the rains. Interestingly, all the saplings survived. After they were feet in height I planted them. Most have survived.

I’m told it will take nearly a year to flower. The flower made into fritters is a delicacy among Bongs. In fact, a Bong will pay a handsome amount to acquire flowers of Hadga, called Bak Phool in Bangla.

Among ruminants such as cattle and goats, Hadga leaves are a favourite. The leaves are a good source of green manure too. The reason, I planted them in the first place.


My Article on Safflower

Healthy Oil

Safflower cultivation sees drastic fall despite benefits

Despite its many health advantages, the cultivation of safflower for its oil is declining across India because farmers are not finding a ready market and are discouraged by the low prices it fetches


Vijay Jagtap discontinued sowing safflower (kardi) last year on his one-hectare plot in Baramati Pandhare village, 12 km from Baramati town in Maharashtra. “The price we get for kardi is not at all attractive. A mere Rs 2500 per quintal,” says the 51-year-old farmer. “Besides, engaging labor to harvest kardi is more expensive than other crops due to its spines.”

Safflower has the highest percentage of good fat and second-lowest content of bad fat. Rich in linoleic acid, it helps greatly in reducing cholesterol levels. Sadly, the urban middle class, its kitchen narrative influenced by TV cookery shows, newspaper columns penned by nutritionists and the aggressive media campaign by FMCG companies is totally unaware of the real heart-friendly oil, safflower oil.

A study, unveiled in January this year by the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition, which took into account the total polyunsaturated fatty acids (TPFA), total mono-saturated fatty acids (TMFA) and total saturated fatty acids (TSFA) in as many as 13 edible oils found safflower (kardi in Marathi, kusubi in Kannada) oil as the best cooking medium followed by sunflower oil, mustard oil and soya bean oil.

Falling cultivation

While India has emerged as the largest importer of edible oil, its farmers are abandoning the cultivation of safflower, thanks to low market demand and unattractive price offered to the growers.

In the neighboring state of Karnataka, the state that leads in safflower cultivation, a similar story unfolds. Veera Reddy (61), who owns 15 acres of land in Markunda village, off National Highway No. 65 on the way to Bidar, told VillageSquare.in, “I have been growing kusubi for several years now but discontinued it as there are not many takers for its oilseeds. As there are no oil pressers close by, I have had to ferry my crop in a lorry to Bidar, a 30 km drive from my village, to get it pressed. I would rather grow sugarcane, jowar or tur and receive a better price.”

Another farmer, Ram Kumar Prajapati (55), originally from Haryana who migrated to Gujarat’s Kutch about 18 years back and has around 90 acres of farmland in Kanakpur village in Abdasa taluka, explains his reasons for dumping safflower in flawless Gujarati. “I grew kardi on eight acres and made only Rs 8,000 per acre. Now even the ground water level has reduced further and I don’t have any irrigation facilities,” he told VillageSquare.in. “I would rather grow something which fetches more at less expense.”

Ancient crop

One of the oldest oil crops in human history that can withstand drought and low moisture, safflower has been cultivated in Andhra Pradesh as a popular fence crop. Besides the oil, the sharp-needled leaves offer a good defense against the straying cattle. Chevella in Ranga Reddy district and Parigi in Vikarabad district are major centers of safflower cultivation. But here too things have changed.

The family of Siva Kumar of Kurnaguda village who have been cultivating safflower for over three decades on 10 acres, has reduced it to a bare two acres. Explains the 53-year-old farmer: “Now hardly 10% of farmers in our village and neighboring Chevella and Bodempat villages grow safflower. We begin sowing in October end and harvest in January-February but the lack of irrigation or timely rains is the major limitation to our yield. Moreover, we are able to get a mere Rs 3000 for a quintal.”

Low returns

Unable to earn a handsome price, and with village-based ghanis (traditional oil pressers) shutting shop due to the paucity of oilseeds, farmers in the country’s arid zones in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana are discarding the cultivation of safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), a crop which actually doesn’t need much irrigation or care.

At present, safflower occupies the seventh place in the acreage dedicated to oilseeds in India. Maharashtra, Karnataka, along with Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, accounts for 94% of the total acreage and about 99% of the country’s production.

Drastic decline

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the country had 712,500 ha (hectares) under safflower cultivation in 1996-97, but by 2014-15 it had come down to only 174,940 ha. Simultaneously, production has plummeted to 90,120 MT (metric tons) from 450,000 MT in the same period. The area under safflower cultivation has slumped by 64% since 1991, while the production has witnessed a fall by 41% during the same period. Though ranked number one in global safflower production, India produces only 29% and is followed by the US (17%), Argentina (13%), and Kazakhstan (12%).

Dwelling on the lack of enthusiasm among farmers for safflower, A. Vishnuvardhan Reddy, Director, ICAR-Indian Institute of Oilseeds Research, told VillageSquare.in, “The chief factors for the decline of safflower acreage in the country is the preference of the farmer towards gram (chickpea) primarily due to better market price, assured output market and higher farm-level output.’’

Experts opine that the major reasons for the decline are due to higher remuneration from competing for crops such as sorghum and gram, low price realization as compared to other oilseed crops, comparatively low oil content than other oilseed crops, susceptibility to various biotic and abiotic stresses such as aphids and import of cheap palm oil.  Another major cause for its decline is due to the spiny safflower breeds, which involve hiring expensive skilled laborers.

Societal interest

“Farmers need to return to safflower in the larger interests of society and for their own welfare on account of its strength to withstand drought and low moisture,” stresses plant breeder N B Gadagimath of Dharwad -based Sarpan Agri-Horticultural Research Centre, who has to his credit four promising varieties of safflower, both spiny and non-spiny ones which have been commercially tried on large plots on farmers’ field in Karnataka and suitable for mechanical harvesting using combine harvesters. In fact, farmers in Dharwad and Bijapur districts have been successfully making use of Sarpan’s non-spiny safflower varieties.

Interestingly, farmers in rain-deficient Marathwada region of Maharashtra, namely districts like Beed, Osmanabad, Parbhani, Latur, Hingoli, Jalgaon and Ahmednagar, continue to grow safflower despite getting much lesser returns than the Minimum Support Price. Here farmers hire mechanical harvesters to harvest the crop while oil pressers continue to flourish. Beside safflower farmers here grow cotton, jowar, cattle fodder, sunflower, sorghum and green gram. While green gram fetches them Rs 9,000 per quintal safflower a lowly Rs 3,000!

According to Shaji Kakasaheb Shinde, a senior safflower breeder with Mahatma Phule Agriculture University, Sholapur, “Farmers in Marathwada have continued their faith on safflower as it’s easy to grow, needs less irrigation and inputs while additionally fulfilling their need for a cheap and healthy edible oil. But it’s also due to the availability of mechanical harvesters on rent and existence of oil pressers in the neighborhood. ”

While most safflower-growing countries use the oil as a cooking medium, China for centuries has cultivated it as a dual-purpose crop growing it for medicinal purposes too. In Chinese medicine, safflower decoctions are used in combination with various other herbs and additional ingredients to treat menstrual problems, cardiovascular disease, pain and swelling associated with trauma, male sterility etc.

Manifold benefits

Value-added medicinal products from safflower seed, oil, and petals have a great potential in the pharmaceutical industry and are waiting to be tapped. In fact, the ancient Ayurvedic text, BhavaPrakash Nighantu, attributes petals of kusuma of activating the nerve system, treatment for heart arrhythmia, controlling hypertension, providing relief in muscular arthritis and joint pains, regularizing the menstrual period, improving the skin color etc.

“Safflower cultivation can provide a dual income to farmers, as the florets can easily be collected from non-spiny safflower after the crop matures and sold for food and textile dye,” Nandini Nimbkar, president of Phaltan-based, Nimbkar Agriculture Research Institute (NARI), a non-profit R&D institute engaged in the field of agriculture, renewable energy, animal husbandry and sustainable development since 1968, told VillageSquare.in. It has so far developed eight safflower varieties, both spiny and non-spiny. Its NARI 96, released this year, has 31% oil content while NARI 57, released in 2015, has 37%.

Adds Nimbkar, “The average yield of seed and flowers from NARI’s non-spiny hybrid is 2000 and 150 kg/ha, respectively. The income obtained from the flowers at Rs 800 per kg will be Rs 120,000 per hectare while that from seed would be Rs 60,000 at (at Rs 30 per kg).”

Due to the low price it commands for the growers, it’s very unlikely that safflower will ever become a popular crop among farmers but considering its medicinal and nutritional properties, a niche could be created — a fact policymakers need to take into account if the country wants to arrest its continuous decline.

A. Patil, former Director, IARI (Indian Agriculture Research Institute), strikes an interesting note, “We need to lay emphasis on safflower as secondary agriculture crop whereby products and crops residues or even the main crop is used for extraction of high-value bioactive compounds to save this vintage crop from extinction.”

Hiren Kumar Bose is a journalist based in Thane, Maharashtra. He doubles up as a weekend farmer.

Symphony of the Soil

Having been a weekend farmer for over a decade now let me share a secret with you: I know how soil is made.The process begins sometimes in early October when the soil is not moister as the rains are now a memory. The twigs, fallen branches, dead leaves, fruit waste and all have become the food of the termites.Soil in the making

Utter the word ‘termites’ and you’re likely to hear orchard growers curse them. More so those who have a farm in the Konkan belt of Maharashtra where it is considered a menace one need to live with. Every means available are used to them exterminate them but fail miserably. Yes, for a brief period the termites seem to be effaced. But they return: for they share a relationship which is as old as this planet.

Unwilling to be defeated, the farm owner repeats the cycle and it goes on and ends.  But the soil unlike our kidneys which flushes out what the body doesn’t need loses its fertility, eliminated of its most friendly dweller.


What do the termites do to the litter?

It envelopes the litter with soil and within months it disintegrates to become a fine powder, like sawdust.

In the initial years, I too felt that there is something wrong with my soil but I played the game of caution: watching the organic matter turn to soil, as days’ progress to become months and as seasons come and go.  I have been restraining myself from any kind of intervention which will disturb the ecological cycle. Keeping my ear and eyes to the ground. Listening to the symphony of the soil.  We, humans, consider ourselves as a superior species and are unwilling to let Nature be what it has been, for eons. And that has been our failing.

Once the rains come, the termites go into hibernation for moisture is its arch enemy.  But I do take precaution so that termites do not attack my fruit-bearing trees by applying a paste of lime and copper sulfate, beginning with the base of the tree trunk and reaching a height of a metre or so. Also in order to fool the termites, I make it a point is all over the place so that they don’t attack my tree.

Soils deepen with the accumulation of organic matter primarily due to the activities of higher plants. Topsoil deepens through soil mixing. Soils develop layers as organic matter accumulates and leaching takes place. This development of layers is the beginning of the soil profile.  What soil scientists address as “A horizon”.  This humus-rich topsoil where nutrient, organic matter, nd biological activity are highest (i.e. most plant roots, earthworms, insects, and micro-organisms are active). The A horizon is usually darker than other horizons because of the organic materials.

But mine isn’t darker and I’m not complaining.

Dance of The Wings

As the day breaks and a fresh new sun rises colouring the eastern sky they arrive, as if snatches of hues hanging in air. First a stray one, then a couple and soon a swarm flapping their coloured wings flying around the tall plant, deciding on whether to or not to and finally settling to drink the nectar the rattle pod plant offers.

bly 1The herbaceous plant’s common name comes from the fact that once the seeds mature they become loose in the pod and rattle when shaken. There are around 400 species in the Crotalaria genus and the one growing in my farm is Crotalaria retusa. Though considered a weed I let the flowering plant, belonging to the legume family, reside for it provides the much-needed nitrogen to the soil and ushers the flying colour–butterflies to my farm. Isn’t that a double whammy? The Crotalaria species are used as food plants by the larvae. In fact, the toxic alkaloid which the larvae feed on secures its defense from predators.

The butterflies generally arrive mid-September but this year they have come much early. The flowers haven’t blossomed but are likely to, soon. And till the lemon-yellow flowers survive the butterflies will be around providing a sight which we rarely encounter living in urban settlements but would like to savour nonetheless.

Observing the butterflies are a great way to learn about them but also a relaxing experience which I’ve realized having watched them for four seasons now. Most species of butterflies use flower nectar as their main source of food.  The use of the sugary nectar gives the butterflies energy and allows them to fly. Isn’t it a good idea to raise a rattlepod in your garden?

bly2Butterflies are great motion detectors and can be surprisingly fast fliers. They will inevitably fly if you or a predator approaches. Your slightest movement or even your shadow can trigger flight. Males spend most of their time looking for potential mates in one of two ways: perching or patrolling.

The butterflies in my farm are so inebriated having consumed the nectar that I have watched them just a breath way! At times even caught them with my fingers but released them soon after.

Until last year I used to get the Viceroy Butterflies in hordes but it seems the word has gone around, and last Sunday I chanced upon the new arrivals: the Tiger Butterfly. So large are their numbers that they have outnumbered the Viceroys.

The World Of Insects

Being a farmer one’s knowledge of insects goes much beyond the cockroach, the mosquito and the ant et al. One is suddenly thrown into the vast world of insects, beneficial or otherwise. With each day, the change of seasons and years one earns the reputation of being an amateur entomologist of sorts among ordinary mortals. Recognising whether the insect is friendly or inimical makes you an aware-farmer and prepares you to battle them or use them as an ally.


This March I had the opportunity to visit the Dapoli-based Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth while attending an international conference and happened to befriend a genial entomologist, Dr Shekhar Mehendale who not only took me around the city’s neighbourhood showing me what it offers a tourist, like the century-old temple with its huge copper bell and the inviting, languid  beach. But it was the few hours spent in the Entomology Department’s Insect Museum which made the trip memorable. It was my first visit to an insect museum and thousands of insects displayed according to their family made me realise the importance of the critters.

A mentor and guide to a dozen or so doctorates, Dr Mehendale is a storehouse of information when it comes to the world of insects. Here in a chat with Hiraman he dwells on the importance of insects, the farmer-friendly insects,biological control, pest management etc.

On the insect museum

We have the best collection of insects among the four agri universities in Maharashtra. Most of our specimens have been collected by students as part of their study. The Konkan region is rich in biodiversity, thanks to its insects, the vegetation and the  tropical climate. In short, it’s a haven for various types of insects. Insects here are distributed in line with the crops of this region e.g. Mango Hoppers, Rhino Beetle, Red Palm Weevil, Tea Mosquito which affects the cashew crop and some pests of rice, a commonly grown food crop. Here we have about 25-26, out of 29 orders given in Imms’ General Text Book of Entomology. The major orders in the collection are Coleoptera, Lepidoptera, Diptera, Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, Odonata and Orthoptra. Apart from them some others like Neuroptera, Isoptera, Embioptera, Phasmida, Ehemeroptera, Trichoptera, Mecoptera, Dermaptera etc are also in the collection. Specimen brought to the Department usually comes to me first.  My interest in entomology is due to my guru, Dr. Anil Powar, presently vice president of Indofil Chemicals, Mumbai. It was he who aroused my interest in the subject. During my college days I had the opportunity to work under him. Whatever I have achieved in my life I credit it to him.


On the study of insects

Just two lines will explain everything: ‘Battle between man and insects is as old as civilization which was there in the past, is still continuing and will be there in future too’. It’s also said that insects accompanies man from his cradle to grave. Hence to understand them we need to study them. Their numbers are huge compared to the animals and we continue to come across new varieties very other day. The history of insect identification is quite old and dates back to the Vedic period where Prasastapada classified the whole animal kingdom in to two–Ayonija and Yonija. The former was again grouped as Swedaja, Usmaja, Udwija and Andaja (included insects). Aristotle classified insects initially into two groups Haustallets and Mandibulates. He formulated four insect orders as Coleoptera, Dipeta, Hymenoptera and Lepidoptera, even earlier than the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus in his 10th edition of Systema Nature formulated rules of classification and thereafter the binomial names came in to existence. During the British rule in India lot of good work on insects happened. Sir Maxwell Lefroy was appointed as the first government entomologist. He was followed by J.C Fabricius, Koening , Sir Ronald Ross (the man who studied mosquito for malaria parasite) etc. The museum concept was created and enriched by the Britishers and the title curator of museum came in to existence. Dr. Horsefield was the first curator of British Museum at Kolkatta. The Bombay Natural History Society was founded in 1883. The Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), was also founded by the Britishers. They published special monographs on Butterflies and Moths of India, Ants of India, Termites of Thanjawar district etc.

beetleOn insects waiting to be identified

There are still insects waiting to be found, identified and given a name. Identification becomes tricky and difficult as the organism becomes smaller and smaller. Insects abound in huge numbers and in varying number of species, subspecies etc.  We have very few organisms are like them. Take elephants, which is limited to just two species. If you take the example of cockroaches, bees or dragonflies they are at least dozens of them. Hence insect identification is not as easy as compared to the higher animals. It’s an ongoing and continuous process.  Take the case of Mantophasmatidae which is a family of carnivorous insects within the order Notoptera, which was discovered in Africa in 2001.

butterfly1On making insects as allies

Some are pests while some predators. All insects are not harmful. There are many which are useful and beneficial to us. Most of the adult insects need a good source of carbohydrates, amino acids, sterols, fat etc for which they visit the flowers for its nectar resulting in pollination, a win-win situation for both. The list of the flowering plants a farmer should have is vast. I can think of maize, cowpea, surangi, mustard, coriander, fennel, carrot, raddish, castor, sesame etc. Ornamental plants like Kuphia, Gilardia, Cockscomb, Dahlia, Aster, Marigold, etc can be planted in one’s garden or farm plot to derive benefit of pollinators and predators and parasitoids. This concept is called Ecological Engineering or Habitat Manipulation and also forms a part of the ‘push and pull technique’ of pest management.

insect2On biological control of insects

All insects in the distant past lived in a state of harmony, what we call as General Equilibrium Position (GEP), maintained by action of abiotic and biotic factors over a period of time. All insects which do not damage our crops are beneficial to a farmer, namely the scavengers, pollinators and natural enemies of pests. A good example of this is a forest ecosystem undisturbed by human interventions. So long as man was lead a nomadic existence everything was fine. But when he learned to cultivate the land the problem began. The ushering of the Green Revolution changed the concept of agriculture due to crop improvement, fertigation, pesticides, biotechnology etc. which disturbed the balanced ecosystem, thanks to our hunger for more. And that’s when the insects became pests. Bringing back a balance is difficult but not impossible. The answer lies in adoption of IPM (Integrated Pest Management) or INM (Integrated Nutrient Management) etc with judicious use of resources like water, fertlilizers and pesticides. Besides promoting biological control wherever possible. Using some simple tillage operations, use of trap crops, crop rotation, use of crop refuge, maintaining unutilized area, use of plant origin insecticides, light traps, sticky traps, pheromone traps etc can be of immense help. Decreasing our dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, using selective insecticides with proper dose that too only when required, keeping pest residue as food for natural enemies, not mixing two/ three insecticides unless advised–can considerably bring down the damages incurred by the pests. We need to remember: Nobody can completely control the insects and it is not required too. We need to follow the concept called, ETL or Economic Threshold Level. As a Sanskrit saying goes:  ‘Jivo Jivaschya Jivanam.’

On reaching out to farmers

Whatever I’ve gained I’m eager to share. I do contribute articles in newspapers, give talks on radio, pay regular visits to farms  and is active on What’s Up. Beside the queries from farmers in the region I have been receiving queries from farmers in Karad district on certain pest problem. Recently, a farmer sent me images of leaf miner problem on Red Pumpkin in which 50 per cent of the leaves were infested. It was a serious infestation and I advised him to spray Cartap Hydrochloride @ 15 g per 10 lit. He followed the advice, sprayed it and a week later called up to say that about 90 %) larvae were dead. This insecticide is of biological origin synthesized from Marin Annalid- Lumbrinaris heteropoda.

Going Bananas

How does it feel being called a ‘tinpot dictator’ of a banana republic?  I’ve been called one.

In the 70s and 80s ‘tin-pot dictator’ was a commonest term  used by the newspapers to describe sort of individuals who imagined themselves as being an international statesman and/or military genius, and conducted himself in a manner inconsistent with his actual (diminished) prestige outside his small realm of absolute power. They embroiled their country in military escapades outside their borders. Idi Amin of Uganda and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe are good examples.

Though the word ‘Banana Republic’ first appeared in O Henry’s short stories collection, Cabbages and Kings, published in 1904; it was in the mid 50s that it came to mean a country in which foreign enterprises pushed the government around, like it happened in Honduras and Guatemala.

banana skyIn 2013 The Economist reported: “By the end of the 19th century, Americans had grown sick of trying to grow fruit in their own chilly country. It was sweeter and cheaper by far to import it instead from the warmer climes of Central America, where bananas and other fruit grow quickly. Giants such as the United Fruit Company—an ancestor of Chiquita—moved in and built roads, ports and railways in return for land. In 1911 the Cuyamel Fruit Company, another American firm (which was later bought by United), supplied the weapons for a coup against the government of Honduras, and prospered under the newly installed president. In 1954 America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed a coup against the government of Guatemala, which had threatened the interests of United.”

Bananas have been around in South Asia for ages but archeologists are of the opinion that it was first domesticated in the Kuk valley of New Guinea around 8,000 BCE (Before Common Era). But it is probably not the cradle from which all other domesticated species sprang.

All commercially-grown bananas share the ancestry with Chiquita bananas even the Grand Naine variety growing in my farm. And yes, I don’t find it offensive being called a tinpot dictator of a banana republic. First, I don’t suffer from the delusion of being an international statesman and/or military genius and second (albeit sadly) my ‘banana republic’ is a mere 40ft by 30ft wide!

Grown in 135 nations worldwide, the word ‘Banana’ comes from Wolof, the language of the Lebus, the most widely spoken language in Senegal. The word passed into English via Spanish or Portuguese sailors.

Nearer home the Bangla word for banana is kola. It often follows the name of a cultivar. I have grown up on stories told by my father, who grew up in a village named Debipur in Howrah district of West Bengal of Martaman Kola, a highly fragrant variety of banana, now widely grown in the north and western areas of Bangladesh. Also called Malbhog Kola, it is grown in pockets of North Bengal, like Siliguri. Then there is Kantahli Kola (flavour reminiscent of jackfruit) and preferred for treatment of dysentery, Bichi Kola which has soft seeds. Kacha Kola’s fruit is rich in iron and the inflorescence has a good anti-diabetic effect.  Or Chini Champa or Champa, a cultivar similar to Elaichi or Velchi, grown in Vasai, which is fairly resistant to pests and is tallest among  banana trees.

Bird nest in banana

India is home to wide variety of indigenous bananas—the the famous ones being Basrai Dwarf, Malaivazhai, Sirumalai, Bombay Green,  Chevvazhai, French Plantain, Kadali, Karupuravalli, Shrimanti,  Rasthali, Nendran, Poovan, Ney Poovan, Monthan, Udhayam, Pachanadan and Lal Kela,  Among these Poovan is the only widely dispersed variety and found in  Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Sikkim, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andaman and Nicobar Islands,  Interestingly, Poovan bears bunches weighing 20-24 kg each having 150 – 300 fingers and is distinguished from other cultivars by its pink pigmentation.


It’s been a year since I planted suckers of the Grand Naine tissue culture variety in July last on my farm plot which had earlier witnessed turmeric and tur on its body politic but on which now stands my banana republic—a thick banana grove of 200 plus banana plants of various age. Most bananas worldwide are produced as a result of asexual reproduction – meaning they aren’t grown from seeds. As new plants are propagated from shoots at the stem of established banana plants from the initial 160 plants I have a grove of around 200.

Increasingly farmers are preferring tissue culture plants as they mature faster at nine months instead of the usual one year, the fruits and trees grow a minimum of one and half times bigger than those propagated from suckers, the quality of the fruit is better and the starting planting material is free of bunchy top virus, a common virus which affects banana plants.

My purpose in having a banana grove has been three fold: to have a good amount of organic biomass, to create a micro environment and lastly commerce. Last week I sold two bunches, each weighing 18 kgs @ Rs 12 per kg. In July the rates were abysmal: Rs 8 a kg.

banana bunch

In its 11-month life banana yields a sizeable number of leaves. I have not kept a count but I am told it’s between 10 to 20 leaves. Imagine the volume of biomass the grove’s three year life time will achieve!

Banana is rich in moisture which you can see once a mature banana stem is felled. In the beginning months I used to flood the grove every fourth day which has now come down to once-a-week, thanks to the rotting leaves and stems on the ground. Lately, the soil around has become sponge-like with so much mulch around.

velchi banana

Though majority of the plant tissue culture biotech companies in India are engaged in the production of different varieties of Banana seedlings, the Grande Naine occupies the major share. Robusta, Williams, Jahaji, Amritsagar, Red banana, Hill banana (Virupakshi), Elakki and Malbhog from Assam are also grown using tissue culture techniques.

Introduced to India from Israel a decade back, Grand  Naine, true to its French name which means “large dwarf”, is of medium height and produces bunches that is almost three-fourths its size with each having over 200 fruits. Unlike the Robusta, Grand Naine bananas have a better shelf. While the former tend to drop from the bunch in two to three days after ripening, the latter stay intact on the bunch for more than two weeks after ripening, maintaining their peculiar aroma and taste. It is this quality of the Grand Naine which has made them appealing to farmers, markets and consumers. And it’s very likely that within a decade or so Grand Naine will be the only banana variety around.

TAIL PIECE: If you’re one of those who swear by the Musacae family or is a banana junkie do visit the ‘international’ banana market at Darang Guri in Goalpara district of Assam. Here every day bananas from three neighbouring countries, namely Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh arrive to be sold along with those grown in India.

Silk Route

It flew past me; followed by another taking me by surprise while I was busy in the banana grove chopping off the yellowed leaves, raising bamboo support for the growing bunches etc. Yellowish-brown in colour with blotches of black on the wings they moved in a flash leaving me wonder-struck.

Amazed I asked what they were.

Phulphakhru, remarked Mangal, my Man Friday. That’s butterfly in Marathi.

Tussar MothI pursued them but lost them for they settled somewhere in the grove, may be underneath the banana leaves or on the stem. I tried locating them but gave up soon. Mangal’s assertion that they were butterflies seemed unbelievable—for they were pretty large to be one.  If they really were, I had made a discovery worth a mention in the next day’s newspaper, I thought. Only if I could have a selfie with one of them, I sadly hoped.

Later in the day when I what’supped Vineel Bhurke, an agri post graduate whom I have known for years now and who presently teaches in Welingkar’s. Moments later his beaming DP replied: Tussar Silk Moth.

The image on Google confirmed what Vineel had stated. It feels nice to have friends around who know about the insect world unlike us who can’t differentiate between a crow and a coucal (that’s a summer crow, dude).

Tussar is type of silk and the moth derives its name from the same. The Tussar Silk Moth is one of the wild moths from which wild silk is extracted. It’s not commercially reared like the Mulberry silk moths where the silk is extracted by boiling the cocoons, killing the caterpillars inside. The tribals of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, I am told, are adept in extracting Tussar silk from the cocoon after the moth emerges from it. Rich in texture and natural deep gold colour,  Tussar is known as Kosa Silk in Sanskrit.

Inhabitants of wild forest and dwelling in trees belonging to Terminalia species and Shora robusta as well as other food plants like Ber, Asan, Arjun, Jamun and Oak..Tussar Silk Moth eat the leaves of the trees they live on.

Yellowish-brown, the large moth has lovely patterns of maroon and pink. Despite its lovely colours, it is well concealed among the leaves. Each of its wings has eye-like markings, akin to mirrors and is meant to confuse predators. When a bird or reptile intends to attack the moth, having come across the four large eyes is fooled into believing to be larger than it really is, it retreats abandoning its prey.

Member of the Emperor Moth family, they are pretty large, between 4-10 inches, with males having large, feathery antennas’. As they do not have mouth parts they do not feed as adults surviving on the food accumulated by the caterpillars when they are feeding.

Describing the moths, Peter Smetacek, author of Butterflies on the Roof of World, who pioneered the use of Lepidoptera as indicators of climate change in 1994, writes: “A moth has six legs; to see them frantically scrabbling over an uneven surface and falling to find a hold is a remarkably absorbing sight. Sometimes, one claw manages to dig in and arrest the slide. Then the moth dangles in the air for a few minutes before finally gives up the struggle. There is dull thud as it hits the ground. Looking down, one can see it lying on its back, weakly moving one arm in a universal gesture that any bartender would instantly recognise.”

As Tussar Silk Moths generally thrive in the wild, it makes me feel pleased that I have been able to create a ‘wild’ in my humble farm plot which always I have aspired to. That merits a pat.


Flavour of Guavas

A privately-held nursery in Chattisgarh is promoting its guava variety with such fervour that soon VNR-Bihi, thanks to its varied qualities, will be the only preferred guava, writes Hiren Kumar Bose


Having brought to the shores of Goa in the early years of 16th century, the Portuguese explorers called it pera. The locals called it peron (Konkani) and as the fruit travelled inland it gathered new names–peru (in Marathi), pyara (Bangla) and amrood  (Hindi), as it was called in Persian. Mildly sweet and mellow in taste, the word ‘guava’ is derived from the Arawak name for the fruit, guayaba. Rich in Vitamin C, the guava became a favourite among sailors, often victims of scurvy. In the India of yore, a land known for its mangoes, the new fruit was often compared to the sunshine fruit and called saphari aam (journey mango).

In the five centuries since its arrival guava has become naturalised and presently we have around 30 plus varieties grown in the country. Of which, chief of them are Lucknow 49, the fruits of which are large, roundish in shape, its pulp white, very sweet and tasty; Allahabad Safedas which are round in shape, soft, the skin smooth, the flesh white and possessing a pleasant flavour; and the Allahabad Surkha which has uniform pink fruits with deep pink flesh. Then there are others with names like  Anakapalli, Banarasi, Chittidar, Hafshi, Sardar, Smooth Green, Safed Jam, Arka Mridula, Nagpur seedless, Dharwar, Dholka, Kothrud, L-24, L-49, Nasik, Sindh, Allahabad Safeda, Lucknow Safeda, Apple Colour, Red Fleshed, Sardar, Mirzapuri Seedless, CISH-G-1, CISH-G-2 and CISH-G-3.

Joining this babble of Psidium guajava variety in the last couple of years is the ‘jumbo’ guava, called VNR-Bihi. Chances are that you may have seen them being sold by the fruit vendors and even eaten one, having shelled a premium price. In a decade or so it’s very likely that VNR-Bihi might achieve the status what Grand Naine has in the case of bananas, edging out others. The reasons are obvious: it’s relatively large, ranging from 350g to an astounding 1250g (similar to a papaya), has less sugar content than its elder cousins and is sold for Rs 150 a kg!

Narayan Chawda

The man behind VNR-Bihi is Narayan Chawda, a farmer from Gomchi village, situated on the bank of river Kharuna, in Raipur district of Chhattisgarh. A bachelor‘s degree holder in agriculture, he has so far developed over 100 varieties of vegetable and fruit crops in the four and half decade as a farmer. He has several first to his credit: cultivating potato in his region and successfully releasing disease-free potato seed variety; founding Navin Beej Utpadak Sahakari Samiti Maryadit which multiplied acclimatised seeds for Chhattisgarh region and supplying quality seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides at reasonable rates to fellow farmers; introducing farm forestry in Chhattisgarh; a pioneer in adopting drip irrigation and poly houses in Chhattisgarh for vegetable crops;  and performing vegetable grafting for research and later successfully transferring the technology for commercial production. For his immense contribution in the fields of agriculture/horticulture, Narayanbhai was conferred with honoris causa or Doctorate of Science by Pandit Ravishankar Shukla University, Raipur.

During his visit to Thailand in 1970, Narayanbhai came across a good guava fruit in a farmer’s field and then forgot about it. Later having seen imported Thailand guava in Mumbai, he was impressed by its shape, size, crispiness, taste, less number of seeds and long shelf life. It was enough to spur the plant breeder into action. He decided on a breeding program for a guava bearing the characteristics of the Thailand variety while suiting it to Indian agro-climatic conditions and palate in the year 1996. Fourteen years later, he introduced his developed variety to fellow farmers and launched it commercially in 2012. He named it VNR-Bihi. Incidentally, guava is known as Bihi in Chattisgarh.

The flagship company, VNR Seeds Pvt. Ltd. was launched in 1993. Its sister firm, VNR Nursery has one of the largest research land facility in the country, spread across Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Karnataka, totaling 92 acres. In 2006, thanks to its R&D activities VNR Seeds was accorded a DSIR (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) certification by the Indian Government.

The world at large came to know of the ‘jumbo’ sized guava when VNR Nursery participated in the 2011 Kisan Exhibition, held in Pune. “We brought approximately 6 tons of fruit for sampling and tasting and witnessed such huge rush that our 20 staff members had a tough time controlling them,” says Devesh Shukla, national head, VNR Nursery Pvt. Ltd. “The farmers visiting our stall asked for 4 to10 units of planting material for trial but we had to refuse them as we were keen for such small-sized trials because experience told us that if the plant population were below 450 plants on an acre the farmer did not take it seriously thus affecting the management of the plants.”

Presently VNR-Bihi has 1.2 million plants in farmers’ field, spread across 20 states of India,  grown in rain-fed condition, harvested twice a year in the western parts and thrice a year down south, except Kerala.

Most plant breeder or seed companies just provide seeds/plants and leave it to the growers when it comes to deciding on the protocol—from plantation to fruiting stage. But VNR Nursery is unlike others. Asked about the strategy adopted in reaching out to the farmers, Shukla elaborates “Aware that most research benefits do not reach the farmers we have developed a new business model ensuring periodical delivery of technical knowledge and skills to farmers. We have selected fresh horticulture graduates/postgraduates from agri institutions, namely GB Pant Agri Univ, Tamil Nadu Agri Univ and Allahabad Agri Institute and trained them. The orchards under our care with 500 plants or more are assured four free technical visits in the initial two years in order to share latest techniques, providing demonstrations and training.”

In June 2016, staffers of the nursery visited orchards located in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Haryana.

DSCN2008“As the seeds are less it has more pulp. Moreover, its rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, fibres etc and is available in the market for minimum 10 months of the year while the existing varieties are in the market for a bare six months. VNR-Bihi has best keeping quality i.e. 7 – 10 days in normal condition and 20 to a month in the controlled temperature,” claims Shukla quantifying that “if a particular weighed about 500g, one is likely to come across just 20g of seeds.”

Interestingly, the nursery’s website (www.vnrnursery.in) is unlike any others in its genre. It has a package of practices with FAQs and contact details of farmers growing VNR-Bihi facilitating buyer-seller exchange and assisting the search of the local fruit vendor. Farmers growing VNR-Bihi have achieved fruits valued in the range of Rs 2 to 5 lakhs from 450 plants, spread on an acre with 12ft x 8ft spacing, according to Shukla.

The guava orchards are generally attacked by the Mealy Bug which is due to poor hygiene and inefficient weed control beside being struck by the fruit fly. “We insist on the farmers to keep the orchard clean, weed free and use insecticides, only if necessary. The fruits being big we suggest them in order to protect them from birds attacks and fruit fly infestation,” concludes Shukla.


Did You Know: You can induce prolific fruiting in a guava tree by adopting the branch bending technique.  Bending of branches invigorates or activates the dormant lateral buds by means of suppressing the apical dominance. Besides, this technique induces more flowering by maintaining higher C: N ratio and stimulating proline biosynthesis under an episode of stress.

India’s Chilli Man

Dr Gaddagimath has dedicated his life to making your life spicy, by that I mean pungent. A plant breeder of international repute he has ushered a revolution in chilli cultivation writes Hiren Kumar Bose


Curiosity, that’s not the right word. Serendipity would be more appropriate to mention my introduction to the world of Capsicum annum L. The botanical name of Chilli Peppers. Or what we all know as Mirchi.

Having read that one Dr S C Kamte was hoping to make around Rs 3.5 lakhs, two years after he had planted Moringa of a hybrid variety on his one acre land at Hattarawat in Chikkodi taluka of Karnataka, I tracked down the man who had advised the principal of Belgaum-based Shaikh Engineering College to adopt the ‘tree of paradise’ as a crop—Dr Nijagunadev Basayya Gaddagimath, Managing Director, Sarpan Hybrid Seeds and was immediately ushered into the ‘fiery and intriguing’ world of chillies.

“Culturally people are not too accepting of planting Moringa. Ask a farmer to plant them and he is likely to consider you to be a fool,” says the fifty-plus Dr Gaddagimath, a renowned plant breeder internationally known for his extensive research on chilli and capsicum while speaking to me on a late night call from Dharwad, where he resides and also has his laboratory-cum-seed company.

Against the expected 150 to 200 pods per tree, Dr Kamte gets about 400 to 450 pods and the number is likely to increase once the trees attain maturity. With the prevailing basic price of Rs. 25 to Rs. 30 for a kg of drumstick, he expects Rs. 3 lakh to Rs. 3.5 lakh in just one year. The fruits of Sarpan SD-2, a Moringa variety developed by Sarpan seeds are 30-45 cm long. Fleshy, they possess soft seeds and have a unique flavour. Its pith is more and very tasty too. A heavy bearer, its fruiting starts 5-6 months after sowing. Its peak blooming / fruiting season is during December-January while May-July is considered its shy bearing season.

A farmer needs at least 8 acres of land to earn the kind of income from other commercial crop such as sugarcane. Dr. Kamte’s total investment was less than Rs. 15,000, which included his share towards drip irrigation and about Rs. 500 for 250g of drumstick seeds.

…   …  …

Founded in 2004 SHS (Sarpan Hybrid Seeds), the Dharwad-based family-owned company had its initial avatar in Sarpan Agri-Horticultural Research Centre and in the last 25 years has evolved over 500 promising hybrids in the field of vegetable crops, pulses, oil seeds and annual flower crops, both of national and international importance.

But chilli continues to be the muse of Dr Gaddagimath, endearingly called Niju, by friends and family.

It was at SHS that the novel hybrid seed production technology of seeds using male sterile lines was established and later stabilised. Today male sterile lines in all 32 global morpho-groups have been established at SHS which is likely to cater to the needs of future markets. More than 800   diverse male sterile lines have so far been developed here.

“We have attained national and international fame in research in this crop. Large germplasm, genetic stocks amounting to over 14000 are being maintained by us,” says the alumnus of University of Agriculture Sciences, Dharwad.

The few promising chilli breeds of SHS which has found favour among horticulturists are Sarpan 45, 90 and 92 and 92-Super 95,102 and 487, especially for colour oleoresins and are at par with internationally known Byadagi chilli of Dharwad. While Sarpan Dandicut, 246, Redbull and 92 Delux are grown not only for high colour but also capsaicin needs—a maiden attempt of  a true matching F1 hybrid in all quality parameters of Byadagi which fulfills the needs of the market and value addition industries. Research work on high colour oleoresins chillies is of immense value.

Many may not be aware that the pungent component of chili peppers, Capsaicin has long been used as a topically applicable cream for the treatment of diverse neuropathic pain disorders.

“There is a waiting period of 10-12 years to develop and commercialise an F1 hybrid while uncertainty dogs research outcome and results. We have developed F1 hybrid chillies, which are considered best in the world with the highest colouring unit of 502 ASTA (measuring unit of colour – American Spice Trading Association unit),” claims Dr Gaddagimath.

Hybrids with high colour low pungency, high colour high pungency are for industrial high value products, namely capsaicin for pharmaceutical needs and natural colour for commercial use in various food, meat, pharma, confectionary, textile and cosmetic and other allied industries. The most significant determinant of the quality of paprika powder is the content of colouring matter. The extractable colour of paprika is usually expressed in ASTA colour value or in Colour Units while the spiciness or hotness, referred to as pungency by scientists is measured according to the Scoville scale. The pigment content increases as the fruit ripens and continues to sink in the fruit after maturity.

Sarpan Chilli 487 holds the topmost rank in the world for its ASTA colour value of 502 and followed by Sarpan 102 with Sarpan 92Super with 300 and 350 ASTA respectively. Mexican chilli Numex Garmet-1 is nowhere close with a colour value of merely 302!

Chilli being the focus of the company, Dr Gaddagimath says, “We are working on 32 chilli segments namely Paprika, Cayenne, Tabasco-Piri Piri-Bird Eye Chilli, Anaheim, Fresno, Jalapeno, Pimento, Bell Peppers, Santaka, Habanero, Colour Chillies and chillies for canning industries etc. In our chilli varieties, rain-fed yield is around 900 to 1300kgs/acre of quality dry fruits, in irrigated conditions it is 1500-2000 kgs/acre of quality material under Cayenne/Paprika segments and 2500 to 3500 kg/acre dry fruits of high quality under Santaka/ Guntur/Sanam chillies. Moreover, our seeds are tolerant to major pests and diseases, have 90% germination, flower and fruit early (55-60days) and are uniform in size at harvest.”

Its latest cutting-edge product, Sarpan Dandicut is a high value product as the fruits can be harvested without the plant stalk unlike other chilli varieties. SHS is in the process of transferring this character into other varieties like Byadagi and Jalapeno chilli.  Presently grown in Bellary in 5.5 acres Dandicut has received highest appreciation from growers and the market.

De-stemming is a labour intensive procedure performed in industrial yards, as well as in APMC sheds in filthy environment exposing the labourers to heart and lung diseases and even allergies. Sarpan Dandicut is likely to be a boon in this regard. The debris arising from de-stemming, amounting to over 50,000 MT can now go as organic matter into the soil and not to municipal garbage dumps, an attribute which Dr Gaddagimath considers as “the biggest value addition made by technology.”

SHS has identified two regions in North Karnataka, namely Kundagole in Dharwad district and Anthoor and Benthoor in Gadag district which is conducive to growing export quality chillies.

States namely Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are the main markets where Sarpan hybrid chillies are widely grown. The districts in Maharashtra, namely Sangli, Kolhapur, Satara and Pune have found favour with Sarpan Chilli hybrids. Farmers in Golapur of Rajgurunagar, Pune district have been growing Chilli SH 60 in 100 acres since last five years and had a yield totalling 20 tonnes green fresh fruits per acre.

Success stories of farmers like Prakash Mali of Shirol in Kolhapur district who grows the Sarpan Hybrid 92, a Byadgi variety, has had a bumper crop of green chilli (4 tonne per acre) fetching him a price between Rs 10 to 25 per kg while red chilli with an output of 400 kgs fetching Rs 300 per kg has led his neighbouring farms to try their hand in chilli growing.

In 1937, Hungarian scientist, Dr Szent-Gyorgi, won the Nobel Prize for discovering that paprika pods were one of the greatest sources of Vitamin C, even richer than the better-known citrus fruits.  Chillies are an excellent source of Vitamin, A, B, C and E with minerals like molybdenum, manganese, folate, potassium, thiamin, and copper. In fact, chilli contains seven times more vitamin C than the orange. Among the rice eating communities in India chillies are a must as it breaks the carbohydrates and accelerates digestion.

Many are wary of chillies, thanks to its pungency and prefer not to bring it anywhere close to their mouth. Only if chillies could be sweet.

A chilli which a child or your 80-year-old grandparent too could relish? A sweet chilli, perhaps. A paradoxical proposition.

That’s what Sarpan Hybrid Seeds has done. Developed sweet chilli varieties like Sarpan Madhu, Sarpan Kesar, Sarpan Haldi, Sarpan Cherry and Sarpan Bullets which come in various colours. “We have successfully removed the spicy flavour and made it sweet so that all age groups can relish it,” concludes Dr Gaddagimath adding “without  affecting in  any way its inherent nutritional properties.”




Cuckoo’s Nest

Ask me what are the joys associated with farming and you’re likely to be at the receiving end of a verbal volley by an otherwise taciturn individual. I can go on endlessly telling you about watching a seed spring its ears, hearing the chatter of birds come to get their share of mulberry, catching a glimpse of the long-tailed pheasant crow alighting from a tree to settle around a bush to pick an insect, glancing the early morning dew shining as pearls on the broad shoulders of a banana leaf, stepping barefoot on the moist grass on a November dawn, lying on my back on a January noon watching the clouds being chased in the cerulean skies……………..

But during my latest visit, I chanced  on something which I had never witnessed before: a nest settled on a growing banana bunch. On coming across I shouted at Mangal and he told me it was a nest of a bird, called Pavsha or Common Hawk Cuckoo which frequents our mulberry trees. As the bananas mature the chicks will come out and soon fly out deserting the nest.