The Magic of a Fistful Seeds

A father-daughter duo’s regenerative agriculture and seed-saving efforts are helping small scale farmers in India break the cycle of debt.

As the eastern sky brightens, Sabarmatee walks towards the vegetable garden on her farm in the south-eastern Indian state of Odisha. She moves around, checking the plants for bugs and shooing away a few monkeys who have been milling around, the day’s work after the farmworkers come in.

Sabarmatee (center) gives a tour of Sambhav, the organic forest farm she and her father created. The farm is a resource center for farmers all over India where they can come to exchange seeds and learn organic farming. All photos courtesy of Sambhav.

It is hard to believe that what, three decades ago, was a patch hopelessly barren land with no topsoil, today yields more than 100 varieties of vegetables and more than 50 varieties of fruits. It was more than three decades ago that Sabarmatee’s father, Radhamohan, a former professor of economics, came up with what many thought was an impossible dream — turn a patch of degraded land into an organic food forest that would also be a habitat for plants, insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and other animals. (Both father and daughter go by their first names.)

It was with that dream in mind that Radhamohan, who was also formerly Odisha information commissioner, and Sabarmatee bought 90 acres of degraded farmland in Odisha’s Nayagarh district in 1989 and took up the challenge to rejuvenate it through organic farming and soil and water conservation. To that effect, they founded Sambhav, a nonprofit which focuses on regenerative agriculture and gender justice.

The father and daughter duo started by creating a bio-fence by planting bamboo on the edges of the property. The land had no topsoil left to sustain farming and most locals believed that it was impossible to grow anything on the property. But the duo set about reviving the soil by planting specific species like bamboo, hill broom, and Sabai grass (Eulaliopsis binate or Chinese Alpine Rush) to arrest the topsoil, and protected whatever grew on the land naturally in order to prevent soil erosion. They also planted legumes to fix soil nitrogen and used mulch to rebuild the soil. They relied on ants and other insects that bore tunnels under the soil to aerate it and help it absorb water better.

In two years, once sprigs of grass made their appearance, they started their project to grow rice, fruits, and vegetables. Of the 90 acres, they put only 2 acres of land under paddy cultivation and allocated half an acre for growing vegetables. On the rest they planted fruit trees like mango, lychee, coconut, and lemon. They also allowed the seeds of local tree species that had been dispersed by birds across the property to take root, thus allowing a native forest to regenerate on a portion of the land.

Today, Sambhav, which means “possible” in Sanskrit, Hindi, and several Indian languages, is a resource center for farmers all over India where they can come to exchange seeds and learn organic farming.

The nonprofit has successfully grown vanishing crops like clove bean, jack bean, black rice, sword bean, and more. The regenerated forest has over 1,000 species of plants, and the farm uses System of Rice Intensification (SRI) techniques, which use less water, to grow 500 varieties of rice and supports a seed bank with 700 indigenous rice varieties. Many of these seeds were hardy varieties adapted to harsh climate conditions like drought or flooding.

Regenerating a barren piece of wasteland on ecological principles and seeing it turn into a rich, biodiverse landscape was an achievement. But Sabarmatee and Radhamohan soon realized that it was not enough in the face of increasing climatic challenges, declining crop diversity from fields/plates, and miseries of farmers and the environment.

“All these varieties have been conserved by many farmers’ fields, but the question was how to take the crop varieties back to more farmers again?” Sabarmatee says.

“We did not have the money to conserve in ways huge institutions conserve the diversity,” she says, pointing to places like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. However, she says, such institutions that preserve farmer-saved seeds often make it difficult for them to access those seeds again.

A group of Indigenous women farmers tour the rice fields at Sambhav. The farm uses System of Rice Intensification (SRI) techniques, which use less water, to grow 500 varieties of rice and supports a seed bank with 700 indigenous rice varieties.

Sabarmatee chats with farmers at a local village in Odisha. To bring in more participation in seed-saving programs, Sambhav came up with an “Adopt a Seed” initiative that provides region-specific seed varieties to farmers for free.

Farmer Kailas Jani stands in her rice field in a village in Odhisha’s Nayagarh district. Jani started cultivating the drought-tolerant Mugajai rice variety on her two-acre, rain-fed farmland with seeds provided by Sambhav. Now she share the seeds with other farmers.

Seeds that were always exchanged among farmers in the past today have become a commodity to be purchased. Over the past century or so, changing food habits have marginalized many traditional foods, and farmers were not encouraged to cultivate crops associated with them. This led to the loss of seeds and culinary skills that adversely affected nutrition. The combined effect of these factors led to empty purses and debt. People not only lost their seed diversity, but knowledge, skills, and sovereignty as well.

To bring in more participation and reclaim the lost heritage in a decentralized manner, Sambhav came up with the “Adopt a Seed” initiative that provides region-specific seed varieties to farmers for free and helps in conserving, protecting, and propagating seeds.

Once people started adopting the seeds from Sambhav, that was when what Sabarmatee calls “the magic of handful of seeds” happened. Here are some examples of the magic.

Dr. Anupam Paul, an agricultural scientist who works for the West Bengal government collected some 20 to 25 varieties of rice from Sambhav in 2008, and later a few more. He started cultivating these varieties at the Agri Training center in the neighboring state of West Bengal. “We got amazing success with these varieties,” he shares. “People collected the seeds from our training centers, especially the Kalabhat, a beautiful variety of purple-black rice grain, and had amazing success. From 50 grams [of rice seeds] we have nearly grown 100 ton across the state.”

Paul now conducts workshops and training for farmers with demonstrations on growing indigenous rice varieties with organic inputs. “This has demonstrated both aspects to the farmers and helped them to judge the economic and ecological impact of this kind of cultivation and conservation,” he explains. Some government farms in West Bengal started cultivating and conserving these varieties and they are now supplying seeds to those farmers who are willing to grow them.

Soumik Banerjee, a researcher associated with the Association for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, a nonprofit network that campaigns for promotion of agroecological farm practices, came to know about Sabarmatee’s work in 2011 while researching indigenous paddy varieties. He now organizes events for seed farmers engaged in conserving the indigenous varieties and conducts workshops that teach farmers about seed conservation, permaculture techniques, horticulture, and forestry through discussions and training. “We exchange seeds, it is a barter system,” Banerjee says.

Piabas Nayak a farmer from Kumpapada in Odisha’s Ganjam district, took 500 grams of seeds of a rice variety called HMT from Sambhav, which he has cultivated on his farm for the past six years. He has shared the seeds from his HMT crop with 40 farmers and sold about 400 kilograms of seeds to others. Nayak and other farmers prefer this variety because it is drought-tolerant, has a high yield of about 1,400 kg per acre, and wild boars, who often damage their crop, don’t eat it. And it is fine rice that is appreciated by consumers and fetches a good price ($29.30/ 100 kg) in the local market.

Farmer Kailas Jani from a village in Odhisha’s Nayagarh district, who has two acres of farmland that’s entirely rainfed, started cultivating the drought-tolerant Mugajai rice variety from seeds provided by Sambhav. She sowed 50 gm in one corner of her field in the first year and got a yield of 7 kgs. In the second year her yield in an area of about 435 square feet was 35 kgs. In the third year on a 8,700-sq-ft area, it was 78 kg. This variety tolerates drought and thrives even when there is no standing water in the fields. During these three years, she was distributing seeds to 18 farmers in the region. Prior to this, Jani would never have believed that a fistful of seeds could yield so much without access to irrigation and while facing a drought.

Anyone can be a seed-savior, Sabarmatee says, “whether you live on the fourteenth floor in an urban apartment or in a remote tribal area.”

The propagation and sharing of these seeds, as farmers used to do in the past, has also helped reduce the cost of farming

In the past farmers never purchased seeds to sow, Sabarmatee says. They stored a portion of seeds from their harvest for the next year. But with the popularization of high-yielding, hybrid seeds in the 1960s that usually don’t reproduce, purchasing seeds became a recurring expense every year for a farmer.

The indigenous seeds do not require a lot of fertilizers or chemicals, making them inexpensive. “You can store these seeds for the next two years so there is zero expense for the next two years,” she explains. “We have shared this in our meetings, emphasizing the fact that farmers suffer while companies make a profit both from the farmers and the government.”

The money for the hybrid seeds goes to companies while for indigenous seeds goes to farmers. “The recommendation to buy hybrid seeds only emphasizes the quantity of yield but never shares the expense in terms of climate change, nutrition, health, economic factors, and farmers sovereignty,” she elaborates. “We want to bring back these varieties again. [But] it is difficult to get into the mainstream as it is not designed to handle diversity but to handle uniformity. If we can handle diversity well the basic difference in cost of the seed alone has a huge difference as to how the financial loss of the farmers can be avoided.”

In 2020, Radhamohan and Sabarmatee were conferred the Padma Shree, India’s fourth-highest civilian award, in recognition of their decades-long promotion of conservation and organic farming. Unfortunately, Radhamohan passed away from health complications in June 2021.

In his absence, Sabarmatee is keeping Sambhav going with the help of the organization’s general and governing body member as well as coworkers.

“My father visualized Sambhav. He was the driving force, friend, philosopher, and guide. But we had all the freedom to carry out our day-to-day activities,” she says. But, she adds, “I personally feel his absence very much like any other daughter could have felt.”

Nature has already rung the warning bells about what the future holds in store, but Sabarmatee says “the stories from our ancient texts” such as the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark, where Noah and his family save the two of each animal species from a world-destroying flood, and the Indian lore of Maha Pralay (“Great Destruction,” also brought on by a flood), show us the way forward.

Anyone can be a seed-savior, she says. “Whether you live on the fourteenth floor in an urban apartment or in a remote tribal area, you can adopt a seed of your interest: It could be a seed or even a breed. If 1,000 people adopt 1,000 varieties, then 1,000 varieties can be conserved.”

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