Kerala man conserves 650 rice varieties in 25-cent plot

As an 18-year-old boy, he fell in love with the tiny grains of Rajakayame rice.
Kerala man conserves 650 rice varieties in 25-cent plot

KASARAGOD: As an 18-year-old boy, he fell in love with the tiny grains of Rajakayame rice. He used to glean the paddy field and the pathway on which reapers carried the harvested paddy bundles. Today, Sathyanarayana Beleri is a one-man paddy gene bank conserving 650 traditional rice varieties.

He has varieties from Japan and the Philippines and from far-flung states of Assam and Manipur and neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; he has paddies that grow as tall as 13 feet; he has rice varieties which are black, purple, white, red, and light green; he has varieties which give good yield in saline soil, and also in the water-scarce field. 

On November 11, Union Minister for Agriculture Narendra Singh Tomar honoured him with the ‘Plant Genome Saviour Farmer Reward’ in Delhi for his efforts in conserving traditional varieties of rice. Sathyanarayana — whose income comes from rubber, nutmeg and arecanut — said he grows all the 650 varieties of rice in a 25-cent artificially created paddy field because his land is not conducive for paddy cultivation. “Of the 25 cents, I grow one variety in 10 cents just for the birds and the rats,” says Sathyanarayana, a resident of Nettenige village in Belloor panchayat of Kasaragod.

Sathyanarayana Beleri
Sathyanarayana Beleri

The rest of the varieties he breeds in grow-bags and protects them with nets. He has developed his own methods to conserve the different landraces of rice. “I use paper cups and grow-bags,” for best results.
He sows around 20 seeds in a paper cup with a potting mixture. After 10 days, he shifts seedlings to the grow-bags. Once the paddy blooms, he shifts the grow-bags to a 30-metre-square plot where he has laid tarpaulin. “The tarpaulin helps me save water and ensure there is optimum moisture in the grow-bags,” he said. He repeats these steps for all the 650 varieties of rice every year. 

The technique impressed the National Gene Bank in Delhi that it gave Sathyanarayana 30 varieties of rice to conserve. The Kerala Agricultural University in Thrissur and the University of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences in Shivamogga have used paddy varieties from him in their breeding programmes.

In 2006, Sathyanarayana read about Ramachandra Rao, a Gandhian and organic farmer at Cherkady in Udupi, giving away seeds of Rajakayame rice variety. “The news report took me back to my younger days. Back then there was no phone in our house. So I wrote a letter to him asking for Rajakayame seeds,” he said. Rao, who advocated self-sufficiency in food production, couriered him 100gm of Rajakayame rice. 

Gene bank: ‘My days as gleaner taught me value of each grain’

He graduated as a rice conservationist in 2009 when he visited the father-son duo B K Devaraya and B K Parameshwara Rao in Belthangady in Dakshina Kannada. “They had 150 varieties of rice and they gave me 100 varieties,” he said. Through exchanging and bartering, he grew his genebank. Last year, he got another 100 varieties to take the collection to 650 varieties.

Most of the varieties with him are sourced from Shivamogga, Davanagere, Mandya, Mysuru. He had travelled to Wayanad, Pattambi, Kuttanad and Rajasthan in search of rice. The Kagga variety grows in saline water; Edikkuni rice does not rot even if it is submerged in water for 20 days; Vellathovan from Kerala and Puttabatta varieties do well in water-scarce fields; Karigajavali from Belgaum is known as the black basmati for its strong aroma and colour.

“It is rich in iron and gruel from Karigajavali is served to pregnant women and new mothers,” he said. He has rice varieties ready to be harvested in 60 days and also in 180 days. “I’m looking for a variety which takes 210 days to ripen,” he said. He says his days as a gleaner taught him the importance of each grain. “One grain when sowed gives us 100 grains.

A hundred grains give 500gm of rice and when 500gm of grains is sowed, we get 10kg and 10kg gives us one quintal of rice. All this within two years,” he said. Between all this, Sathyanarayana cleared the class 12 equivalency course last week. “I had to drop out after 10th,” he said. But the zest for learning was ingrained in him.

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