CHENNAI: The stall at the recent Panai Kanavu Thiruvizha at Narasinganur was adorned with a thoranam of paddy and corn. Several kinds of brinjal, okra, gourds, and yams filled the table. Pictures around the stall announced the presence of far more varieties. Rows and rows of neatly folded paper packets holding seeds of native, indigenous food crops sourced from across the state patiently awaited the curious consumer.
Dreams of the likes of Nammalvar to return the wealth of seed to the farmer himself and allow for the continued use of indigenous food that had been wiped out by mass production needs were being realised right there, in such humble settings. And behind the table sat four unassuming men whose years of work have been making this happen. Thus was born Tamilnadu Seed Savers Network.
The goal is to return agriculture as a way of life to the farmer, begins Sundar, one of the core team members. “The idea is to make sure the farmer’s seeds stay with him. He shouldn’t have to depend on the government or corporate for it, for the next cultivation. Now, he is having to source it for every season. Take watermelon for example, a farmer spends nearly Rs 15,000 just on seeds.
These seeds won’t be good for more than four crop cycles, so he has to buy again. Imagine how much he would have to spend on it every time. Farmers in a region are exploited of Rs 2- Rs 3 crore in the process by seed corporates. Besides, none of these seeds would take without chemical inputs from start to finish. Even where the produce is sold, farmers have to depend on the rates fixed by traders. So, all of farming works under a lot of control. But farming is a lifestyle and we need to find our way back to it,” he reasons.
Of local wisdom
With this purpose in mind, this ragtag group of people came together. Bearing the combined experience of over two decades among them, Chandrasekar, Pradeep, Priya, Sennammaal, Yuvaraj, Rajasekar, Pradeep Kumar, and Sundar got to work, bringing together farmers from different parts of the state and the wealth of local food crops they had to offer. It was a documentary project about farming that drew in Sundar, the VisCom student. For Yuvaraj, active participation in the jallikattu protests proved to be a good entry point.
The likes of Chandrasekar and Pradeep have been working alongside farmers for years. Priya of Tirupur brings over 12 years of first-hand experience in seed conservation to the table. Banking on such rich resources and the practical knowledge of farmers from every region who have held on to local varieties for personal preferences or sentimental values or simply for the love of its taste the team has set an active and thriving seed sharing/selling network across the state. With about 25 farmers contributing to the cultivation of these native varieties, the network has brought to common use over 40 kinds of avarakkai, 60 of tomato and sorakkai, over 100 of brinjal, and much more.
While regular seed markets in different districts have helped them take their work to hundreds of farmers, making this system more effective is the setting up of seed banks in each district. Yuvaraj has been manning the one at Vellore for six months now to great results. It also doubles as a space to train farmers and help them find success with native varieties. “With one of these in every region, farmers will have the freedom to produce the varieties of food crops they require.
Otherwise, these seeds will be confined to home gardens. We need to be able to bring them to the market. That’s the big goal,” he explains. After such work, Yuvaraj wants to dispel the notion that native seeds are not suitable for mass production. “We can produce enough to supply to the market. All it takes is the right seed in the right season,” he points out.
The network would like to target schools to this knowledge and practice to the next generation. “Taking it to farmers who have been weighed down by toil is difficult. But school kids have shown a lot of interest after watching our YouTube videos. So, we’ve been trying to work with them. We established a vegetable garden at a school in Jawadhu Hills for their noon meal needs.
It went well but they haven’t been able to sustain it after the pandemic. We would like to continue this work. Such gardens would also make for a good lesson plan in their curriculum. If you teach them about indigenous food and agriculture practices right there, they will take the work forward into adulthood,” suggests Sundar. All in good time.
In the basket
The network has brought to common use over 40 kinds of avarakkai, 60 of tomato and sorakkai, over 100 of brinjal, and much more.