When Pavithra A was working as a Human Resources (HR) generalist in a consultancy firm in Mumbai, she felt a constant longing to go back home to Kerala. Working for society and living a sustainable life was all she thought of while commuting to and from her office in the City of Dreams. But her own dreams centred around the farms of Kerala.
“I worked in Mumbai for 1.5 years but always felt an urge to live a life in harmony with nature even if it meant earning less money than what the corporate job offered me,” she says.
Her husband, Mohammed Rinas Mundakkal, a mechanical engineer who worked in an oil and gas field in Mumbai at that time, agreed with Pavithra and encouraged her to follow her heart.
Sowing the seeds
In 2015, one of Pavithra’s friends introduced her to environmentalist Dr V S Vijayan, the chairman of the Salim Ali Foundation in Kerala. “He told me that there was a vacancy for a project coordinator but the salary wasn’t too much. I was more interested in working in nature than money. So I left the job and joined the Salim Ali Foundation in January 2016,” Pavithra says.
For her work, she began interacting with farmers in Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala. “I spent time working in the field to understand the problems of farmers. My friend Iliyas, working with organic farmers, also taught me about farming. We began helping the farmers in marketing their produce and converting chemical farmers to organic farmers,” she says.
Pavithra also learned about native seeds, which are naturally pest-resistant, and the rice is rich in antioxidants, minerals and micronutrients. “We began providing native paddy varieties to farmers to help them cut costs on chemicals and pesticides as these native crops grow well with simple organic inputs, which can be prepared on the farm,” she says.
Cultivating organic paddy on barren land
Enthused with her work, Mohammed also quit his job in 2017, and the duo decided to start an organic paddy farm.
“We took 15 acres of barren land on lease in Vellangallur panchayat in Thrissur, Kerala. It was a tough time for us financially, and we pawned my mother-in-law’s jewellery to raise money for investing in the farm,” she says.
The land had been lying unused for 35 years. The first few days on the farm involved picking plastic, glass and other non-biodegradable items from the land. “We would start early in the morning, pack our food, and spend the day clearing the land. Since it was close to a canal, a lot of waste which came with water got deposited on the land,” Pavithra says.
The couple used a tractor to prepare the land and then made the bunds, which retain moisture on sloped ground and provide access to fields. “We purchased native seeds of Rakthashali and Kuruva varieties, cultivated the saplings and then transplanted them on the farm with the help of local labour. With them, we also learned about paddy plantation,” Pavithra says.
They harvested the crop after four months. “The first yield in 2017 was around 1,200 kg per acre despite the soil quality not being good,” she recollects.
The average paddy yield in Kerala is 2,557 kg per hectare or 1035 kg per acre. Pavithra and Mohammed managed better-than-average yields due to the organic farming methods.
The couple uses organic inputs for farming. They buy cow dung of native cow breed Vechur from farmers associated with the Salim Ali Foundation and prepare other inputs on the farm. “Before preparing saplings, we treat the seeds with beejamrutam (also beejamrit), which protects young roots from fungus,” she says.
After plantation, they apply jeevamrit (also jeevamrutam), prepared by fermenting cow dung, cow urine, jaggery and organic soil with water. Both the inputs use cow dung and urine from indigenous cow breeds.
Pavithra and Mohammed also prepare a pesticide using fish and jaggery, which ensures a good yield.
“We have to hire labour for plantation, making bunds, cutting grass, removing weeds etc. The manpower costs are high in Kerala, and climate change is also hurting farmers,” she says.
Saving and promoting indigenous paddy
Yet, the couple is expanding its farm because it is a source of conserving native varieties of seeds and provides employment to labour.
“We are now cultivating six varieties of indigenous paddy over 25 acres. These are Rakthashali, Kuruva, Thavalakannan, Navara, Kodukanni and Pattambi. Among them, Kuruva and Kodukanni have been the most yielding, even giving about 1500 kg per acre,” she says.
Rakthashali, an iron-rich red variety of rice, gives a yield of only 600 to 800 kg per acre. It is a rare variety now being cultivated only by a few passionate organic farmers in Kerala like Pavithra and Mohammed. Known for its anti-oxidant properties, this red rice variety improves blood circulation and is also recommended for boosting the immunity system and has a high market demand.
“The yield per acre for Rakthashali is 800 kg per acre at the most. We sell this rice for Rs225 per kg. We get only 60 percent rice from paddy, which means that processing 1.6 kg Rakthashali yields only 1 kg of rice,” Pavithra says.
Other varieties like Kuruva and Kodukanni are sold for Rs 90 per kg and the couple gives discounts for bulk orders. They realised that selling only rice makes it vulnerable to chemical contamination at the stage of processing.
“Bulk buyers and retailers making flour with our rice could add preservatives to prolong the shelf life of the products. So we decided to start our own processing to ensure that the value-added products also remain organic,” she says.
They process rice into flour and flakes, which are bought by wholesalers as well as individual buyers through social media and word-of-mouth publicity. “We sell Kuruva rice for Rs 90 per kg and its flour and flakes for Rs 140 per kg. Similar products are made using other rice varieties and promoted through social media,” Pavithra says.
Apart from processing and selling their own produce, Pavithra and Mohammed are also selling products of other farmers who are not able to access the market on their own. “We also give native seeds of paddy for free to farmers associated with the Salim Ali Foundation. From others, we charge a nominal rate of Rs 35 per kg,” she points out.
The next aim of the couple is to create their own brand for selling the products. “Right now, we sell our produce without any brand name,” Pavithra says, adding that the real success of their venture lies in being of help to hundreds of other organic farmers in Thrissur.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)