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Tuesday, July 07, 2020

The Karnataka farmer who runs a museum to preserve traditional seeds

A farmer in rural Karnataka tries to combat agricultural distress through seed conservation.

Written by Arathi Menon | Updated: June 30, 2019 5:15:31 am
karnataka farmers, indian farming, paddy cultivation, paddy farming, indian monsoon, paddy varieties india Seeding an idea: Syed Ghani Khan on his farm. (Photo: Abhishek Chinnappa)

As the country braces itself for yet another bad monsoon, Syed Ghani Khan, a farmer in Karnataka’s Mandya district, is hoping to fight it with traditional farming techniques like multi-cropping and minor millet cultivation. These are the two techniques that helped the farmer from the remote village of Kirugavalu navigate the water crisis during the last three kharif seasons. Largely a paddy farmer in a dryland area, Khan was able to feed his family of 15 and also make a profit of Rs 2 lakh.

Khan, 42, isn’t just another organic farmer, though. He’s a collector and conservationist of traditional seeds, which are housed in a seed museum that he runs. So far, he has conserved 120 traditional mango varieties, over a thousand paddy varieties from all over the world and hundreds of millet seed varieties.

“From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, our biodiversity changes every 20 km. There is a traditional variety of paddy in every state,” he says. He collects paddy seeds from farmers all over the country and tries the varieties on a one-acre area of his farm that he has set aside for research purposes. He does this to not only conserve the rice varieties that are better suited to our climate and are more financially viable to cultivate, but to disseminate the know-how on how to make traditional farming profitable. “The IR varieties of rice developed in Manila are distributed to our farmers. They don’t sustain here and farmers are troubled. Why would we depend on Manila when we have thousands of traditional paddy varieties in our own country?” he says.

karnataka farmers, indian farming, paddy cultivation, paddy farming, indian monsoon, paddy varieties india Paddy varieties in Syed Ghani Khan’s museum. (Photo: Abhishek Chinnappa)

Just outside his godown, at the edge of his 16 acre farm, is the Sultan road, the only road that connected Bengaluru and Srirangapatna during Tipu Sultan’s time. Anticipating an attack from the British army anytime, Tipu had set up a small army camp at this village. Kiri-kavalu — which translates to “a small army camp” — over time, became Kirugavalu. As the soldiers settled down in the area, they were given parcels of land and mango seeds by Tipu, so that they could begin farming. Like many others in the village, Khan is a descendant of one of these soldiers. The mango trees grown here six generations ago are still preserved by him.

For nearly two centuries, it was largely mango that was grown in the area. When Krishna Raja Sagara or the KRS dam opened in 1932, farmers switched to monocropping of paddy. Khan joined his father in the farm in the early ’90s at a time when hybrid paddy was being cultivated via chemical farming. One day while he was spraying pesticides on the farm, Khan felt dizzy. He began thinking about the effect of chemicals. “A farmer is called the annadaata (provider of food) and here I was spraying harmful chemicals on the food,” he says. Slowly, he switched to organic farming.

“Biodiversity is important for a healthy ecosystem. Earlier, there were no birds on the farm. Now the farm is abuzz with them,” he says. What Khan finds challenging, however, is the lack of farmhands. “It is difficult to find labour because villagers are migrating to cities. We are forced to mechanise farming,” he adds.

For his contribution to the farming sector, Khan has been awarded the Krishi Pandita award (2008-2009) as well as the Biodiversity Award (2010-2011) from the Karnataka Government. He has also received the Plant Genome Saviour Award (2012) from the central government and Innovative Rice Farmer award (2011) from the Indian Institute of Rice Research in Hyderabad. He, however, gets no government support for conservation work. “I do this research with my own money to conserve these varieties for the future generation. Somebody has to do it,” he says.

Arathi Menon is a Mysuru-based writer and yoga practitioner. This headline appeared in the print edition with the headline: Sowing Hope

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