When V Priya Rajarayanan got married in 2005, she moved to Nallur in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, where her husband was working with an apparel firm. A farmer’s daughter, Priya never had to buy vegetables at her parents’ place in the Pilathu village of Dindigul district. But in Tirupur, when she bought vegetables from the market, she could smell chemicals in green leafy vegetables.
Not happy with what she was feeding her family, Priya bought some seeds from the local market in 2007 and started growing brinjal, spinach and other vegetables in her rental home.
The next time she visited her parents, she brought seeds of tomato, chilli and some brinjal varieties. “After that, I actively started searching for desi or native seeds for growing in my kitchen garden,” says Priya, an MBA (Finance) who quit her job in 2020 to work full-time for the conservation and propagation of native or heirloom seeds.
Native or traditional seeds have a history of being cultivated in a particular location and can grow in their natural habitat without chemical inputs. They are naturally pest-resistant, can be saved and stored for the next season unlike hybrid varieties, and require less water for survival and growth.
Seeds of change
Priya says food grown naturally with traditional seeds is more nutritious, improves health and does not hurt the soil or environment. “My quest for saving desi seeds started in 2007 as I was hooked to their taste and health benefits. I visited Kerala in 2008 and in 2009 for attending weddings and went to Thrissur, Mallapuram and other places. From there, I got many types of seeds including Kanthari chilli, vengeri brinjal, okra, spinach varieties and others,” she recollects.
In 2008, Priya’s family moved to their own home and that’s when she had a bigger area for growing desi vegetables. She set up her terrace garden of over 1200 sq ft for propagating the seeds she was collecting.
In 2009, a friend also sent her some seeds of beans and brinjal by courier from Kerala and as Priya’s collection grew, she started sharing seeds with others. Initially, she shared them with her friends and then with others interested in home gardening in Nallur. Gradually, as the word spread, people began to ask her for seeds.
She went to Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and other states. “My friends working in various states would also send me photos of native seeds they found and then courier them to me,” she says.
Conservation of native seeds
Priya says she always asks the people, from whom she takes the seeds, about the seed’s history and for how many years have they been maintaining its purity (avoiding cross-pollination).
For example, if a red and a green variety of okra are planted nearby, then insects are very likely to deposit the pollen from one flower onto the other variety, resulting in green okra with possibly red lines. That takes away the essence of seed conservation.
“I have 38 varieties of okra. If I grow them close to each other, they can easily cross-pollinate through insects. To maintain the purity, I don’t plant similar vegetables close to each other and if I do, I cover their flowers to avoid cross breeding,” Priya explains.
Today, she has more than 500 varieties of vegetable seeds.
Besides, she has seeds of more than 30 varieties of spinach, and 50 types of tubers including 10 varieties of potato and 15 varieties of sweet potato among other vegetables.
“I never plant all the varieties together. In one season, I plant one or two plants of a few varieties to save their seeds and in the next season, I change them all,” she says.
For seed conservation, say in the case of tomato and brinjal, she takes the ready vegetable from the plant and ferments them. The seeds are then removed, washed and shadow-dried for 10 to 15 days. “Earlier, people used to put seeds in ash to protect them from insects. I use ziplock pouches and label them with the seed’s name, date of packaging, and other details. I keep them in refrigerator doors and don’t freeze them,” she says.
Even after two years, the seed will germinate with a 97 percent success rate. Post that, the germination success rate goes down. In contrast, seeds of hybrid varieties cannot be used even the very next year, increasing farming costs as well as the farmer’s dependence on the market.
Heirloom seeds for free
Priya, however, does not sell her seeds but gives them for free to farmers, home gardeners and anyone else interested in heirloom seeds. “I send them through India Post to Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Odisha, and other states. Overseas, they are sent to gardeners in the USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand among other countries,” she points out.
Some of the friends she has made overseas have also sent their native varieties in return. One of them is Mexico’s Mayan Spinach, which is drought-resistant, pest-resistant, rich in nutrients and has medicinal properties. “From one stem I received from Mexico in 2011, the spinach variety is now with over 5,000 growers in India with whom I shared it,” she says.
Priya regular conducts training and awareness workshops with farmers and other institutions interested in native seeds. “Many farmers are now growing my varieties and use them for household consumption and also sell in the market,” she says, adding that desi seeds grow well only with natural farming.
“In organic farming, farmers can use lab-made biosynthetic fertilisers. But natural farming doesn’t use anything except cow dung,” she says.
“I encourage farmers to opt for natural farming as it creates a natural ecosystem for plants and other micro-organisms to flourish, resulting in naturally healthy crops,” she says.
Food forest and more
Priya has not restricted her farming skills to her terrace. She took permission from the owner of a 1500 sq ft plot lying vacant next to her house to use it for cultivation in 2013. “I asked the owner if I could make a food forest there and they agreed. I believe that we have to create a food forest for micro-organisms and that will, in turn, create a food forest for us,” she says.
She cleared the patch of land of thorny bushes without hiring any help and then began dumping biodegradable and compostable waste inside the plot. “On the way back from the office, I used to collect waste vegetables from hawkers and also sugarcane bagasse and put it on that plot. All this made the soil fertile over a period of time and it now looks like a forest,” she says.
There, she has planted traditional seeds of herbs, brinjal, red guava, custard apple, banana, pomegranate, papaya, chillis and other fruits and vegetables, which are used for her household consumption.
With the savings she made while working as a senior merchandiser, she has purchased 3 acres of land in Pilathu, her birthplace. Her brother’s land is nearby.
"Here, on my terrace, I am unable to propagate beyond a limit due to paucity of space,” she says.
There were already around 80 coconut trees on the border of the land when she purchased it. “Inside that, I am growing castor oil plants of ten varieties and groundnut. We can feed groundnut leaves to our cattle and sell oil in the market. My brother helps me since I am busy collecting seeds and offering training to farmers,” she says.
Due to natural farming without chemicals, this land is also full of natural microorganisms. “I use only cow dung while initial ploughing. Then I practice no-till farming. I am getting a good yield here without putting in any outside labour. I do everything myself,” she says, adding that she is also safeguarding seven indigenous varieties of cotton on this land.
Priya’s aim is to preserve and propagate heirloom seeds as much as possible. She is happily providing her services for free. “I talk to plants; they give me peace. That’s my earning and that’s my reward,” she says.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)