Advantages of cultivating indigenous crops… instead of indigenous crop cultivation…CSBs as central points for village activities…
When Nagrathnamma first approached GREEN, she says, it was in the hopes that the Foundation would help empower the local Self Help Groups (SHGs) in her village; at that time she had no idea of organic farming or sustainable agriculture.
“It was only after I spoke to them that I understood what they were doing,” adds the 30 year old. “When they explained their work to me, my first impression was that this will be beneficial to the people in my village. And even though I had gone for some other purpose, I wanted to help them in their work.” She soon decided to champion the cause of sustainable agriculture, despite the fact that her own family did not cultivate any crops in their small landholding of ¼ acre. She began working with GREEN as an animator and started to approach farmers in her village of Kulumedoddi to convince them of the advantages of indigenous crop cultivation and sustainable agriculture. “GREEN gave us a lot of training on sustainable practices and took us on exposure visits to different places to show us how other farmers were doing this,” she says.
She soon discovered, however, that persuading people to give up the cultivation of hybrid varieties was no easy task. This was one of the biggest hurdles that needed to be overcome. Farmers were set in their belief that yields would reduce drastically and their income would be severely affected if they switched to indigenous varieties and sustainable practices.
“We wanted farmers to try the SRI method, but there was little interest from people,” says the enterprising mother of two.
After a lot of persuasion, 3 women farmers in her village agreed to try and cultivate some ragi (millet) and paddy varieties in small sections of their land. With a sum total of just ¼ acre of land set aside by these farmers, Nagrathnamma and one or two members from her village took their first steps towards a more sustainable future. People were so sure that there would be no benefits from this type of agriculture, that even the 3 women farmers who had given their land for experimentation provided little help.
“I remember, I went to the fields myself to sow the seeds and tend to the crops,” she says.
A blessing in disguise finally gave them the break they needed. A transformer in the village broke down and the electricity supply to village water pumps was cut off. The water problem which followed adversely affected the hybrid varieties. Farmers suffered because of the drastic decline in yields. But the one observation everyone made was how well the local varieties thrived despite the sudden water problem.
“That’s how people realized the advantages of these indigenous varieties,” says Nagrathnamma. That realization took nearly 2 years in the making.
Along with a few women farmers from her village, Nagrathnamma then started the Devaralamma Samudhaya Community Seed Bank (CSB) in a small room of her own home.
“Back then, we didn’t know anything about book-keeping or seed storage or checking for seed quality,” she says. “GREEN taught us how to do these things. They trained us on how to manage the seed bank. And they taught us about managing finances for our Self Help Group. Our SHG was not functioning properly at all. Through their support, it became more structured and stable. ”
The CSB in her village soon became a very important part of the community. Before its establishment, says Nagrathnamma, farmers had to wait in long queues to buy seeds. At times, supply could not meet demand and farmers would be without seeds during the crucial period of sowing. And when seeds did become available, rains would not coincide. “Everything starts with the seed. It is a tragedy if even one farmer cannot get seeds during sowing season. The seed bank gives them free access to seeds when they need it most,” she says. The CSB also provided a platform through which the message of sustainable practices could be spread throughout the community. Fellow CSB member Lakshmamma says it was only after she joined the seed bank that she started to cut down on the use of chemical fertilizers.
As awareness in the village increased, more farmers came forward to request indigenous seeds from the seed bank. But even then, there were challenges to be overcome.
“In a seed bank, farmers must return twice the amount of seeds they borrow. But the seeds they used to give us back after harvesting were of very poor quality. We had to explain to them that we would distribute their seeds to other farmers just like them, and it was important that the quality was good.” The CSB became a Fellow CSB member Lakshmamma says it was only after she joined the seed bank that she started to cut down on the use of chemical fertilizers.
With continued intervention, she says village members themselves started to come forward for training sessions provided by GREEN. They began to realize the advantages of low cost, organic inputs. “Our input costs have reduced by around 50% since we started using these practices,” says Narasimaiah, fellow village member.
Regular meetings at the Community Seed Bank were also beneficial as they gave farmers an opportunity to discuss problems and find solutions to their concerns. This was especially useful for women farmers, says Nagrathnamma, who face many challenges in the agrarian world. According to her, more than 75% of all work, including sowing and harvesting is done by women. Even traditionally, she adds, it was the women who were responsible for seed storage and collection. “If a woman who has to go to work in the fields everyday needs spending money, it’s not easy for her to get it. She has to ask her husband and he may not have any. If her children need money for a class trip, she may not be able to send them,” she adds.
However, things are slowly changing for women in her village. “GREEN has trained us to make handicrafts,” Here too, the CSB played an important role. Training sessions on handicraft making were easily initiated thanks to the networking and information sharing that took place through the CSB. “This extra income gives the women spending money. They can help out with household expenses, pay their debts and give their children money when they need it most.” Income generation programs have helped farmers in her village become more economically secure. They provide them with a security net, in case of bad harvests. “There have been no farmer suicides in my village because people have alternate sources of income to fall back on. Many people have taken up sericulture and handicraft making and this has helped them greatly.”
There are many other changes that Nagrathnamma has witnessed since she began working with GREEN more than 4 years ago. Of the 50 homes in the village of Kulumedoddi, 40 are now cultivating indigenous seed varieties and have taken up sustainable practices. Eighteen farmers have signed up for organic certification through the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS). This tremendous change is being felt not only in her own village, but in the surrounding villages too. The Deveralamma Community Seed Bank now supplies seeds to more than 7 villages and farmers in Kulumedoddi have taken up seed production to meet this demand. This seed production has become alternate source of income for the farmers, thereby strengthening their economic security. Seed procurement is done through Janadhanya, the farmer’s society initiated by GREEN. The SHGs in the village are a part of this society, which provides support for the farmers.
“When people give us back the seeds they took from the seed bank, it is in their minds now that seed quality must be good because other farmers just like them are going to need them. Women in our SHGs know how to go to a bank and draw money; they are so much more confident.” It gives her a great deal of satisfaction, says Nagrathnamma, to see the progress that has been made. And despite the fact that she gets no monetary compensation for her efforts, she wants to continue her work with GREEN. In fact, she says, people in her village want to continue the work even without GREEN’s support.
“Even if GREEN Foundation leaves tomorrow, we want to keep the seed bank functioning. We want to stand on our own.”