Oh, the seeds of hope
From lost or old vegetable varieties, to plates made from recycled plant waste, green entrepreneurs are enabling Karnataka farmers to be commercially viable and innovative.
About 35 years ago, when Dr Prabhakar Rao completed his PhD in plant breeding and genetics at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Hebbal, India was at the height of the Green Revolution – a period when agriculture in the country increased its yields due to improved agronomic technology, the use of fertilisers, and hybrid varieties of wheat and rice, among other cash crops. As a plant geneticist, it would have been an exciting and busy time for Rao but he felt disillusioned. “There were inherent problems with what we had propagated at that time in terms of the use of agro-chemicals. Now, I realise that there are many more sustainable methods of chemical-free farming which I practice and teach farmers today,” says the 60-year-old founder of Hariyalee Seeds, a bank of endangered and heirloom seed species he set up in Bengaluru in 2011.
The idea is to wean farmers and home gardeners off hybrid or GM seeds and propagate the use of native or indigenous seeds stored at a 2.5-acre farm in Kagglipura. Rao says the reliance on hybrid or GM seeds is killing off nearly 100 varieties of vegetables each year globally, compromising biodiversity. The reason? “Most seed companies propagate only certain plant varieties that will push profits but they may not necessarily protect all the old varieties.”
In his quest to procure lost seeds, Rao travelled across the globe – from Southeast Asia to South America as well as Eastern Europe. Before Hariyalee Seeds, he was in Dubai where he ran a successful consultancy as a landscape architect focusing on sustainable environment and ecology. “In the past 25 years, I collected more than 560 seeds of which I managed to multiply about 140 old varieties of vegetables using Vedic or natural farming techniques.” One such quest led him to Peru where he looked for quinoa seeds. To his surprise, Rao found seeds for an old Karnataka favourite: dantin soppu or amaranthus, a leafy plant with a thick stem. “The varieties of dantin soppu that you find today have big leaves but not a thick stem. I had been hunting for seeds of the old variety locally but didn’t have any luck.” Apparently, it belongs to the same amaranth plant family as quinoa.
Another discovery that excites Rao is the Bangladeshi eggplant. “About 20-25 years ago, this variety of brinjal was used extensively in biryanis, etc. I managed to find a farmer in Purulia (a border district in West Bengal) who gave me half a ripe brinjal from which I cultivated the seeds. It’s a peculiar-looking but tasty vegetable and a lot of people who have bought the seed from us have appreciated it.” So far, Rao has accumulated six types of brinjal seeds. Other interesting finds include Tuleo Strawberry Corn, Blauhilde Beans from Germany and 19 varieties of tomato. While Hariyalee Seeds started out as a passion project for Rao, his son Varun, a mechanical engineer, returned to India from the US a year ago. They now aim to reach larger audiences of both consumers and farmers. “Varun was living the quintessential American dream so we were surprised when he decided to return. While he initially planned on building a start-up in the IT space, he was intrigued by the work we were doing at our farm.”
Currently, the 27-year-old has leased greenhouses to grow plants from native seeds in order to demonstrate cost-effective ways to cultivate organic vegetables for farmers in Nelamangala. Rao (junior) wishes to diversify the produce, enabling farmers to cultivate rarer fruit and vegetables. And unlike in hybrid plants that produce no seeds and compel farmers to return to GM, these vegetables, naturally, grow with seeds. Right now, Varun is selling vegetables through online partner healthybuddha.in, and the seeds on hariyaleeseeds.com. Acknowledging they are still in a bootstrapping phase, he says they have promoted their venture mainly through word-of-mouth and Facebook. Curated farming workshops for city folk at Aditi Farms where Hariyalee Seeds is based have helped, too. Going forward, Varun plans to build a hyper-local network where he hopes to work with local farmers to supply native vegetables to customers directly.
Rao’s story is not unique. In the last five years other corporate professionals have dived into farming, too. Madhuchandan SC gave up his job as a software professional in the US and gave Karnataka district Mandya’s farmers a new lease of life. He, along with a group of 300 active farmers, formed the Mandya Organic Farmers Cooperative Society where they not only grow organic food, but also aim to make it easily accessible to urban consumers. “I consulted Narayana A, a professor at Azim Premji University. He suggested that I form a cooperative society in order to source, grow, and market organic produce. I think it is one of the best business models for this industry,” he says. The integrated organic zone near the Bengaluru-Mysuru State Highway is where to find Madhuchandan's 2.5 acre-farm home to coconut trees, sugarcane, vegetables, oil seeds and a 1200sqft. supermarket that enables people to buy produce directly from them. One may also order their produce on their online store (organicmandya.com). “I would like to, see Mandya turn into a completely organic farming zone by 2020,” he adds.
Farm to shelf
When it comes to aggressive promotion of farm-to-shelf produce, one could learn a thing or two from 54-year-old Arun Kumar Khannur. Farming, he claims, runs in his veins. “My father used to scold me because I would spend most of my time farming, and he’d say how I am supposed to focus on studies. I went on to do my MTech, and worked as an IT consultant for 28 years. But my true calling lay in serving the people of my hometown,” he says. Khannur completed a professional course in solving business problems, and in 2011, began his journey as a social entrepreneur. He works with farmers, artisans, home and cottage industries, helping them customise products and align them with the needs of modern customers. “I train farmers to develop skills such as how to use natural ingredients instead of harmful chemicals for pesticides. I also teach them better packaging skills, and how to sell their products,” Khannur explains. He currently owns a mango farm in Dharwad, and a six-acre organic farm in Haveri district in North Karnataka. Apart from that he works with farmers in Gadag, Haveri, Belgaum, Dharwad and Yadagir districts.
In 2016 he also began Khannur’s North Karnataka Stores, which stocks more than 650 direct-from-farm products. From plates and bowls made with recycled plant waste to seeds that work as natural painkillers – this store is a treasure trove. Their other ventures include garden cultivation and management, hygienic food grade packaging, and a training centre that's currently under construction. These initiatives are connected with 80+ cooperatives, home and cottage industries, and artisans.
First published on Bangalore Mirror