This 70-year Old Farmer's Lifelong Mission is to Save Kerala's Traditional Rice Varieties

  March 19, 2020

The cultivation of rice has occupied the pride of place in Kerala’s agriculture. Unending lush green paddy fields are a sight for sore eyes. But Paddy cultivation is declining in Kerala at an alarming rate. In the past 30 years, the state lost more than 70 per cent of its paddy fields. Rice producing districts like Wayanad once had 160 varieties of paddy. 55 of these varieties are now extinct.

There are people in the state who are trying to preserve this paddy biodiversity. Down To Earth met one such person, Cheruvayal Raman (70), a farmer who spends his own money to collect and propagate the traditional rice varieties grown in his state. Cheruvyal Raman won the National Plant Genome Award and Kerala Biodiversity board's Green Award for his lifetime efforts for conservation of traditional rice varieties. Raman belongs to the Kurichya community. They are a group of tribals living in the highlands of Wayanad. They have knowledge of farming from centuries and their life revolves around farming. Kurichyas settled down on these lands between the first and third centuries CE.

Raman started farming with his uncle from his childhood days. He decided to carry on his uncle’s farming legacy even after his death. He did this by preserving the 6 paddy varieties that his uncle grew. But slowly Raman understood that paddy varieties were disappearing quickly and there was an urgent need to collect and save them. From 2000 onwards, he started collecting paddy seeds from different parts of Wayanad. He realised that because of the green revolution, traditional materials are getting lost.

Wayanad was also known as Vayalnadu - The land of Paddy fields. Of the 164 varieties of paddy that was once grown here, now only 104 remain. Raman is now desperately trying to save the remaining varieties. He spends a lot of money and effort to collect these seeds not just from his own district Wayanad, but across the state of Kerala. To collect these seeds, Raman has travelled to different parts of Wayanad. "It takes months or sometimes a year to collect some seeds," says Raman. He does not take any money or donations for his effort but instead spends about Rs 50,000 from his own pocket. 

Raman has 54 different types of paddy varieties on his farm. These include paddy’s which have medicinal properties, smell and aroma, varieties which can be grown in normal land, varieties which can withstand floods. He owns three acres of land. In this plot, he is trying to preserve the varieties by growing them together in small patches. Each variety is given about 1200 to 1500 square feet to grow. I have paddy seeds with different maturity. Some of my seeds need 180 days to mature, some need 90 days and some 50 days. So I calculate the difference and sow them accordingly. This helps me to harvest them together, Raman added.

Raman follows a traditional and time tested method to cultivate and preserve this paddy. Before sowing, he first spreads the seed out in the sun for about 10 days. He says that by doing this it helps the plants resist extreme weather conditions. All his seeds are stored in specially designed bamboo baskets. He cultivates paddy by regulating the soil, water and time. "We harvest our paddy in December. We check the date, day, and yield of the paddy before harvesting. The whole process is done with precision. After the harvest, the paddy is thrashed and rice is separated," says Raman.

Raman has resisted moving to chemical-based farming and using hybrid seeds, even though his friends and fellow farmers have egged him to do so. He says that chemical inputs will kill the biodiversity in his field. "I took all these efforts to feed the people with healthy and nutritious food. My focus is on good food, water and soil. My mind hasn’t allowed me to lead a luxurious life," says Raman. 

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