For 45-year-old Durjyadhana Jani, a resident of a tiny hamlet, Raisar, about 150-km west of Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar, the last three years have been a déjà vu of sorts. As a child, he had seen his family practise organic farming, but it was replaced by chemical farming when he took up the task over two decades back. For the last three years, he has shunned the use of chemicals and returned to organic farming.
Jani is not alone; the 27 households in the hamlet in Daspalla block in Nayagarh district, dominated by the Kondh tribe, have taken up organic farming. At the centre of this change is a seed bank.
As the name suggests, a “bank” of seeds – at the village level – stores different varieties of indigenous seeds, and farmers can borrow these seeds promising to return the same amount at the end of the harvest. These seed banks have become instrumental in diversifying the crops grown, as well as in re-introducing chemical-free farming in the area, our reporting found.
Over 70% of Odisha’s population is engaged in agriculture and allied sectors, making it primarily an agrarian economy. Organic farming in the state first got a push through the Odisha Organic Policy 2018.
Now the aim of the state government’s Odisha Agriculture Policy 2020, named Samrudhi (which means progress) is to increase organic farmland in the state from 20,800 hectares in 2020 to 2,00,000 hectares in 2025. A senior official in the Odisha agricultural department said that they were on track to meet this goal, but did not share data on the current farmland area under organic farming.
In this fifth part of our Natural Farming series, we explore the seed banks of Odisha and the experience of farmers in moving from hybrid to indigenous seed varieties and chemical-free farming. You can read the rest of the stories in our series here.
A seed bank
Seeds in earthen pots, and some in plastic boxes, adorn the shelves of a seed bank.
To achieve a diversity of seeds initially, a “bihan mela” or a seed festival was organised in Gambharikhola village in the same district. Farmers from different areas were invited to come with indigenous seeds and exchange it with others.
The seed bank works like a typical bank, except that seeds replace money.
Every “transaction” is recorded. “We maintain a register in the seed bank. If we give a farmer 1 kg of seeds, he has to return the same amount after harvest,” Behera said. “If he is unable to do so for some reason, he has to return double the quantity as interest the next year.”
From 12 varieties in 2019, Raisar villages’ seed bank now has 52 types of rice seeds, four types of millets and various vegetables.
Indigenous varieties of rice at the seed bank include Karpurakeli, Kalajeera and Tulasi, several varieties of gram seeds and some local crops such as Janha, Guruchi and Kangu.
Back to roots
The concept of using indigenous seeds was not new to most farmers, who had traditional farming knowledge passed down to them for generations. But it was the promise of high yield from chemical farming that made them move away from traditional farming methods.
“Chemical farming promised more yield, and it was obvious that our previous generation farmers opted for it. We were continuing the trend,” said Jani. “Who doesn’t like more money?”
When a nonprofit, Nirman, which works towards promoting a sustainable ecosystem, introduced the concept of a “seed bank” in Raisar in 2019, villagers were reluctant to change their farming methods. “When they came to us with the concept of seed bank, we were apprehensive of the yield and rejected the idea,” said Jani.
“When asked about the yield, we questioned the villagers whether they had ever calculated the input cost [of chemical farming],” said Kailash Sahoo, who represents Nirman in the area. He said he highlighted the input costs of chemical farming–hybrid seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and sources of irrigation – and asked farmers to compare that to chemical-free farming in which the seeds were local, manure prepared at home and seeds were naturally climate-resistant, meaning they could bear climate vagaries too.
This worked, Sahoo said, and a few farmers agreed to give it a try.
Farmers are now profiting more from traditional farming than chemical-farming, they say. Jani, who would earlier sell his paddy for as low as Rs 1,200 per quintal, is now selling a traditional rice variety for Rs 2,000 a quintal.
“There is a fixed minimum support price for paddy, but most farmers used to sell it to the agents at whatever price they would quote due to a lack of awareness. The mandi system instituted by the administration had a cumbersome process – registration, a token system through which the farmer is given a time-frame of one month to sell his produce in a nearby mandi at the Minimum Support Price – and so the farmers would prefer quick money even if it was less than the minimum price,” explained Sahoo. “After switching over to organic farming, for which the demand is high, they sell the crops at a better margin.”
Self-consumption has also gone up as villagers are able to grow a variety of vegetables and fruits along with paddy.
“For the hybrid seeds, we were using urea and potash, due to which the soil had lost its porosity. The fertility had also gone down,” says Kanchan Behera, a farmer and an active member of the seed bank, who says they now grow local crops as well as gram with the main crop paddy. “Now we are using manure which we prepare ourselves. The soil has become soft and the soil microbes are improving the crop health.”
Indigenous seeds coupled with improved soil health also means less maintenance, and traditional varieties need less water than hybrid ones.
“For the last few years, the weather has been fluctuating a lot. Erratic monsoon, unseasonal rain often damages our crops,” said Anita Mallick, a farmer. “But the traditional seeds are climate-resilient. If the monsoon is delayed, the crops are not damaged easily. They can survive even with less water.”
Figures by Oxfam India suggest that around 85% of “economically active” Indian women are engaged in agriculture; yet only 13% own land, making them invisible in the sector. Seed banks in Odisha are trying to bring back women to the fore and become part of decision-making in farming.
“When we invited them to the meetings while setting up the seed bank in the village, only a few would turn up and sit silently behind the men,” said Sahoo. “But in the last three years, the women are first to respond when called for a meeting. They sit in the front while the male members have taken a backseat.”
The women agree. “Earlier, the male members would go to the Panchayat office and bring the hybrid seeds for cultivation. Our work was limited to labour-intensive work, such as harvesting and weeding. But now, we tell them what seeds to use and the manure we should put,” says Anita of Raisar village.
In 2019, the New Indian Express reported that the Directorate of Horticulture, Odisha had drafted a guideline to allocate 250 hectares of land for organic farming in eight districts of the state, including in Nayagarh, with a budgetary allocation of Rs 178 crore in five years.
“In Odisha, seeds are associated with culture,” says Dinesh Balam, associate director of WASSAN, a network of civil society organisations, which works with the government, civil societies, researchers and communities to provide ecological security to rainfed areas. For instance, he explained, in the Kalahandi and Rayagada belt, people used to consume little millets, a specific millet variety, during the Nuakhai (agriculture-related festival in Odisha). “Now that the crop is out, people don’t use it. So, you are not just conserving a bank, but the culture around it.”
Balam says the predominant crop in coastal areas is rice and in the tribal areas, millets, pulses and vegetables, with greater diversity in the rainfed areas. He adds that though there are more seed banks in tribal areas, as various organisations, along with the government, run programmes there, the concept is soon gaining ground. “Several individuals and groups have taken over organic farming in their farmlands.”
One of the oldest practitioners of organic farming in the state is a father-daughter duo, who have created a ‘food forest’ in Odagaon, Nayagarh on a barren land.
The father, late professor Radhammohan, a former information commissioner with the Odisha government, was deeply concerned by the degeneration of the environment and wanted to reverse the trend. In the late 1980s, he began working on the idea of creating a ‘food forest’ on barren land.
“There was no point he could prove if he tried regenerating a forest on fertile land. So he chose a land which was totally barren–without any grass or trees,” says Sabarmatee, his daughter, who now manages the forest. “People said it was an ‘asambhav’ [impossible] task, but my father wanted to make it ‘sambhav’ [possible].” He started Sambhav, a nonprofit, which is now a knowledge resource centre for organic farming.
The duo brought every seed they could find from the local farmers, including varieties of grass and used to broadcast [scatter] them on land by hand. To meet their water needs, they opted for gully plugging (small check dams to restrict the flow of water) structures and rainwater-harvesting pits. For soil binding, they used vegetative bunds and contour bunding watershed techniques – to stop the overflow of water and improve the soil infiltration. They also store seeds and exchange with farmers and researchers who visit them.
Together, the two of them regenerated almost 90 acres of land, over 11 years, says Sabarmatee, and were conferred with the fourth highest civilian award – the Padma Shri in 2020.
“Now we have around 1,000 species and it is not only inter-species, but also intra-species conservation. So, if I say tomato – you can see tiny tomatoes, chilly tomatoes and black tomatoes. There are 12 to 13 varieties of chilies, lemon varieties which weigh 50 gm and also 2.5 kg. We grow more than 550 varieties of rice, exotic fruits like passion fruit and dragon fruits,” says Sabarmatee. “The entire system regenerated ecologically and we never used any chemicals.”
Sudam Sahu, a farmer from Bargarh district in Odisha, has conserved over 1,000 varieties of seeds for over two decades. In Balasore district, a couple has set up the largest private seed bank and are conserving over 1,000 varieties of seeds. IndiaSpend had also interviewed ecologist Debal Deb in October, who runs Vrihi, an open folk rice seed bank, and has conserved over 1,400 landraces and shared the seeds with nearly 8,000 farmers for free.
Several challenges remain with chemical-free farming.
Schemes like Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, to “produce agricultural products free from chemicals and pesticides by adopting eco-friendly, low-cost technologies”, and the National Food Security Mission, which subsidises bio-fertilisers for organic farming, and provides funding to Farmer Producer Organisations for organic certification, are not enough, say experts.
In the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, which promotes cluster-based organic farming, individual farmers get financial assistance of Rs 50,000 per hectare for three years along with training, certification and marketing benefits. But there is a catch.
“Since the green revolution in the 1960s, the government has extended support to chemical inputs, high-yielding and hybrid seeds and machines,” says Sabarmatee. “But when you talk about schemes for organic farming, you say it is for three years? For the last 70 years or so, you have been promoting one concept, but now you want a change in three years. How is it possible?”
She adds, “The schemes have been introduced very recently, so the intention is good but the implementation is key because you are asking the people to do the complete opposite.”
The administration says the switch might be gradual but is headed in a positive direction.
“In Odisha, we are working with the farmers closely and encouraging them to adopt organic methods,” said Arabinda Padhee, Principal Secretary in the Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment and Department of Handloom, Textiles and Handicrafts, for the Odisha state government.
He said that the government propagates diversification of the cropping system and asks the farmers to incorporate “Rice Fallow Management” in which farmers are encouraged to grow short-duration pulses or nitrogen-fixing crops after the paddy harvest. He added: “When you switch over from chemical farming, it is expected that there will be loss in yield for at least three years and then become as usual. So, the schemes are designed in such a way.”
Sabarmatee also suggests making consumers aware about what is safe for eating to grow the demand for chemical-free food, as well as developing a “proper market” for organic products, from the grassroot to cosmopolitan cities. “Our educational institutions, like agricultural universities should introduce a very good curriculum with good understanding so that we prepare a human resource base which will take it [chemical-free farming] forward.”
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.