The Hariyalee Seed Farm on Kanakpura Road on the outskirts of Bengaluru is not just another farm growing exotic vegetables for sale in urban households. The 2.5-acre farm is home to 516 varieties of native vegetables, many of which have been brought back from the brink of extinction.
Black tomatoes, pink ladyfingers, mace-shaped gourd, blue and black corn, dark brown capsicum and clove beans are all part of the indigenous vegetables grown on the farm to ensure their conservation for future generations.
Hariyalee is the brainchild of architect and agriculturist Dr Prabhakar Rao, who has been closely monitoring India’s farming landscape since the 1970s when the Green Revolution had swept the country. Rao, now 66, was among the scientists who pushed farmers to use hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides for industrial agriculture.
However, while pursuing higher studies in agriculture in the US in the late 1970s, Rao developed serious misgivings about chemicals-based farming and decided to study architecture instead. He specialised in landscape architecture from the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, USA and set up his practice in Dubai.
After working on prestigious projects across the world, in 2011, Rao decided to come back home. “That is when I started to get back to agriculture. I wanted to do farming in a way that was completely different from what I had studied,” he says.
“I wanted to do chemical-free agriculture and found that the key to its success was native seeds,” he says.
“However, I found that we were losing our native seeds at an alarming rate. Most of the varieties of vegetables were already extinct and it was crucial for us to save the rest. That’s how my journey with native seed conservation began,” he says.
Rao began collecting heirloom seeds by visiting remote and tribal areas where chemical farming had not yet made inroads. He travelled to Manipur, Tripura, Bodoland and then to Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh where biodiversity was relatively untouched. The other areas he visited included Malnad in Karnataka, Aurangabad in Maharashtra and the hilly regions of Tamil Nadu.
“Wherever I heard about farmers using native or heirloom seeds and not using chemicals, I went there. However, once you go there, there is no guarantee that you will get seeds. It is about taking a chance and speaking to the older generation of farmers who might be having some seeds,” he says.
Conserving native seeds
“The farmers are also not very open to seed-sharing unless they are convinced that you are serious about biodiversity conservation,” he adds.
Indigenous seeds flourish without the use of any chemicals, require less water, and maintain their strength of germination for many years if properly dried and stored.
In contrast, hybrid seeds require a lot of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and water (lowering the water table), and cannot be reused in future. Farmers have to buy seeds afresh from the market every season.
“I collected around 1500 types of seeds from farmers. Of these, I have been able to stabilize only 516 varieties genetically and environmentally (ability to grow over large areas),” Rao says.
The other seeds did not germinate or multiply either because they were old or because of environmental challenges. “The hit ratio is 1:3. Many of the seeds could not germinate as they could be very old or might not be genuine seeds. Then it is difficult to stabilize seeds that have cross-pollinated and we can’t give them to the market,” Rao explains.
Since Rao studied plant building and genetics in agriculture and was a wheat breeder earlier, he is familiar with the process of stabilizing a seed variety. “What I learned during my study of agriculture came in handy. We have to ensure that the variety remains pure and is environmentally stable. The process takes four to five years,” he says.
Rao has set up net houses to ensure that there is no cross-pollination.
“We hand-pollinate them to ensure that we get the same plants every time. It’s not easy."
Rao specialises only in vegetables. He has more than 30 varieties of tomatoes, over 20 types of eggplants, eight okra varieties, eight types of chillies, many types of gourds, beans and peppers etc.
“There is this clove bean which had almost got extinct but I stabilized it and shared the seeds with other kitchen gardeners. Now, many people are putting it on the market and it has been saved from extinction.
Storing and sharing heirloom seeds
For saving the seeds, Rao first soaks them to remove any gelatinous matter and then washes them. The seed is then soaked in ‘beejamrutha’ – an agriculture formulation made from cow dung, cow urine, jaggery and chickpeas powder. After the beejamrutha treatment, the seeds are dried in the sun.
“I put some heeng (asafetida) and two neem leaves in the container with seeds to ensure they remain uninfected,” he says.
Hariyalee seeds buyers are mostly urban gardeners as many of these vegetables are not common in the market. “So people don’t recognize these varieties and are reluctant to buy them,” he says, adding that black tomato or pink lady's finger is not a common buyers’ delight as yet.
“A buyer won’t realise that this vegetable is part of our culture or is native to the region. So someone must first create awareness about these native vegetable varieties. Farmers will start to buy the seeds only when there is a commercial demand for it,” Rao explains.
In 2016, he introduced purple okra in the market and now, there is awareness around it. “People are buying it and supermarkets are stocking it,” he says
Farmers can grow native vegetables on a large scale only when there is awareness and demand for them.
“When urban gardeners grow them and share the pictures on their social media handles, then awareness spreads and people accept it. Only then can we reach the stage where we can get farmers to cultivate them,” says Rao.
People from across India place orders for Hariyalee seeds on the portal. Rao shares ten seeds of a variety and the packets are dispatched every Thursday by India Post, which has a pan-India reach. “You need to buy them one time and then you can make your own seeds from seeds and no company can patent them,” he says.
Interestingly, a lot of tribal people, who have lost their indigenous vegetable varieties, are now approaching Rao for buying seeds. “We saved a variety of Bhoot Jolokia (Ghost Pepper), which is native to Assam. And now, people from Assam order it from us,” Rao says.
He recollects an interesting incident when he was in a remote area near the Indo-Bangladesh border in the Purulia district in 2014. “I had gone there to train farmers in Vedic agriculture. There, I heard about a special variety of eggplant, called Bangladeshi Long. When I saw it, I got very interested in it and kept asking farmers for its seeds. Then one farmer shared the seeds with me and I stabilized them at Hariyalee. Today, the variety is cultivated by many gardeners,” he says.
“The peculiarity of this brinjal lies in its texture and flavour, which is like meat. So in Purulia, which is a poor district, people add it to biryani,” he says. The variety had almost disappeared before Rao shared its seeds with others. Having spent years conserving seeds, Rao now wants the younger generation to go back to the roots and save the native seeds for posterity.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)