When Neelam Dutta was studying in class eleven, his father passed away. The late Dr Hemen Dutta was a medical practitioner-turned-farmer who cultivated paddy and reared fish on his farm in Pabhoi in the Sonitpur district of Assam.
“My father had started farming in 1976. He passed away in 2001 when I was in class eleven. So I took over the farm when I was still in school,” says Neelam, now 37. At around the same time, he read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which documents the environmental harm caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides.
Shifting to organic farming
“It took me two years to learn about organic farming. In 2003, I decided to switch to organic cultivation after seeing the degradation of the natural ecosystem due to conventional agriculture,” he says.
Neelam continued to farm paddy and fish on the six hectares (around 12 acres) of his family land but also realised that the farm lacked diversity. “While we grew paddy, we had to buy vegetables every day,” he says.
Moreover, mono-cropping reduces soil fertility over time and the lack of crop diversity reduces predator populations necessary to fight pests. So Neelam decided to grow vegetables as well.
“The backbone of organic farming is organic seeds,” Neelam says.
“In 2008, I realised that the heirloom seeds (a plant whose seeds have been saved in a region for at least 50 years) were disappearing due to the rising use of genetically modified or hybrid seeds,” he says.
So he decided to collect as many indigenous seeds as possible. “I collected many varieties of aubergines and chillies from villagers and some elderly farmers. I also purchased some organic seeds from companies, which imported them,” he says.
Neelam travelled widely across the country to collect as many heirloom seeds as possible. Today, to conserve them, he cultivates them every year.
“We undertake maintenance breeding, which means that we, along with around 30 women farmers, grow them every year,” he says. Maintenance breeding is done on the farm where a seed’s purity and genetic quality are maintained and pure lines are developed.
“Some are self-pollinated and some are cross-pollinated,” Neelam says.
Pabhoi Greens has also set up self-help groups (SHGs) in Arunachal Pradesh’s Thembang village and Khonoma village, about 20 km from Kohima in Nagaland. “Women farmers grow native herbs and vegetables for direct selling in the market and also to produce seeds for conservation. We follow ethical pricing while procuring seeds,” he says.
So far, Neelam’s work has helped save over 800 varieties of native vegetables and 200 types of indigenous paddy. His company, Pabhoi Greens, sells native seeds throughout the country.
Pabhoi Greens is the first seed conservation company in the Northeast where the farmers are propagating the organic seeds themselves. “Pabhoi Green’s objective is to safeguard the old indigenous seed varieties and take them back to the farmers, which were lost due to the Green Revolution and the introduction of hybrids,” Neelam says.
“We have over 200 types of tomatoes, a hundred varieties each of capsicum and chillies, eggplants, lettuces, cabbages, cauliflowers and many other vegetables,” he points out. Each variety has a distinctive colour, taste, texture, shape and size. The seeds are adaptable to the diverse Indian climatic zones.
Annually, Pabhoi Greens sells around 8,000 packets of heirloom seeds, each priced at Rs99.
“A packet can contain anywhere between 50 to 500 indigenous seeds depending on their size. They are sold online through Amazon as well as our website,” Neelam says.
Pabhoi Greens is different from other companies which simply procure seeds from indigenous farmers and sell them. “We are breeding, conducting research, distributing and selling seeds, and also pursuing organic farming,” he adds.
The company has successfully propagated more than 800 varieties of organic high-yielding native seeds that are locally adaptable and climate-resilient. Continuous R&D of climate-resilient seeds across different agro-climatic regions is crucial to providing high-quality and adaptable seeds to the smallholder farmers of the North-Eastern Region.
“We also train farmers on regenerative farming techniques to save the sovereignty of these seeds. We get them to our farm and provide free training,” he says.
“We have trained around 20,000 people in seed conservation so far,” he adds.
This training in seed saving empowers the farmers as they become self-reliant instead of buying hybrid seeds and related pesticides every season. It also creates a local market for their organic produce, Neelam says.
Organic farming of paddy and vegetables
Neelam, a seed conservationist is also an organic farmer. “We are trying to balance conservation and commercialization,” he says.
He cultivates native varieties of organic rice and vegetables including tomatoes, chillies, brassicas, leafy vegetables, beans and tubers. The fruits include papaya, guavas and lemons. “These, we sell directly to the local markets and to a farmer’s cooperative,” he says.
For farming, organic vermicompost manure is made on the farm. They also prepare panchagavya, jeevaamrut, sashyagavya, amrutpani etc. besides cow urine and neem-based biopesticides. “We also make anaerobic and aerobic compost and Trichoderma-based enhanced compost and biofertilizers,” Neelam adds.
Pabhoi Greens has a gene pool of around 200 varieties of rice, which are indigenous to India and Southeast Asia.
The varieties grown include the aromatic Nanyya rice, Madhuri, and Joha, which is notable for its aroma and excellent taste. The repertoire also has sticky gum rice, black rice, soft rice etc. “We cultivate paddy on around 20 acres (half of which is leased) from June till November,” he says.
The paddy is sold at between Rs 45 to Rs 120 per kg depending on the variety, he adds.
“Around 40 percent of the native rice produced is sold, 30 percent is used for seed production, 10 percent for research purposes and the rest 20 percent is for on-farm consumption,” Neelam says.
He also practices fish-cum-paddy cultivation where the two are cultivated together along with ducks. Azolla is also released in the paddy fields for enhancing nitrogen content, he adds.
(Riya Singh is a Ranchi-based journalist who writes on environment, sustainability, education & women empowerment)