On a mission to conserve heritage rice varieties, Spirit of the Earth has collected over 260 varieties of heirloom seeds.
How many varieties of rice do you eat at home regularly? Our conversations with Spirit of the Earth—a not-for-profit organisation in Manjakkudi, Tamil Nadu—has gotten us to examine how much diversity exists even within rice, and why it is vital to protect this. With a focus on conserving heritage rice varieties from across India, Spirit of the Earth began as part of AIM for Seva’s larger mission to support this local community.
It was in Manjakkudi that Sheela Balaji—chairperson and managing trustee of AIM for Seva—started a seed bank in an attempt to move away from a few varieties that dominated our fields and plates, as well as to collect indigenous rice varieties that had declined in production and consumption. To preserve these varieties, carefully sourced seeds were planted, and grown on a single farm. They were then stored and distributed to farmers, along with adequate training to encourage the production of these heritage rice through organic practices.
Catch our conversation with Priyanka Navneet from Spirit of the Earth to understand why eating diversely matters both to us and the soil. Excerpts from our conversation:
We see rice from across India on your website. What is the process of collecting, preserving, and growing these regionally-diverse varieties?
Over time, we have collected quality heirloom seeds, and maintained a network of trusted farmers who work with us to exchange quality seeds. Our seed bank is our wealth! The terms heirloom or heritage in the context of rice varieties refers to open-pollinated seeds that have been handed down from generation to generation—generally, a variety that is at least 40-50 years old. Some like Kala Namak date back to Gautam Buddha’s time. All these varieties need to be cultivated year on year, and can’t just be stored as they will dry out.
The next step is to ensure that our soil is rich in nutrients. Our vermicompost is live, meaning that it is rich in nutrients which is reflected in the quality of paddy grown. We harvest one or two times a year to maintain the quality of the soil.
How many varieties of rice does Spirit of the Earth currently have? Which are some of the ones that you think stand out?
At present, we have over 260 varieties of heritage rice from different regions cultivated at our farm in Manjakkudi. Nearly 52 of these varieties are retailed at our immersion center and store in Mylapore, Chennai.
While we always encourage customers to try at least half a kilo of a new rice with their usual purchase, our favourites are Gobindobhog, Ambe Mohar, Sukhdas, Ajara Ghansal, Jeera Phool, Kala Namak, Kerala Sundari, Neelam Champa, Kichili Champa, Katarni, Thooyamalli, Kamini Bhog, Shah Pasand, Acharmati, and Chak Hao Poireiton!
What is the impact that growing different types of rice will have on our diets, and the environment?
Each variety we have is indigenous to a particular region, and has a very unique shape, taste, and fragrance. Brown, red and black rice bring the value of health benefits too as some varieties like Poongkar, Neelam Champa, Navara, and Rakthashali are low GI (Glycaemic Index), and suited for people with high blood sugar. Laicha is one of the few heritage rice to have anti-cancer properties. There are also certain varieties that aid in digestion, are good for cholesterol, and so on.
Spirit of the Earth is based out of Manjakkudi in Tamil Nadu. How would you describe the town, and its people?
A lovely little town with around 300 families, Manjakkudi has received the status of a rural development project. It has evolved from a village to a town hosting schools, a university, an organic farm, and even a BPO unit. The village attrition rate is hardly 3%, and residents are proud of all the significant achievements made here.
Do farmers benefit from growing heritage rice? What are some of the challenges that they face while growing conventional varieties of rice?
Farmers primarily benefit from cultivating heritage rice because we aren’t just maintaining a relationship with them for growing the produce, but we are also training them in best practices. We oversee and take care of various steps including cultivation, processing, sales, and are looking for markets for the produce to eliminate middlemen.
Farmers get fixed prices, and we attempt to give them more structure to enable them to be a part of the larger picture, beyond cultivation. Usually, if they cultivate conventional rice, it is a 180-day grueling and monotonous cycle, done 3-4 times a year, yielding lower quality, and wages. We follow an alternative school of thought where we focus on the quality of rice— cultivated fewer times a year—and community development.
What does a good week at Spirit of the Earth look like?
Walk-ins at the store, numerous orders, events, and most importantly, interactions! We encourage conversations about heritage rice—its origins, maintenance, the diverse varieties available, health benefits, and novel ways to cook these.
We like to connect with our customers, know their preferences, and share suitable recommendations with them based on their needs. Some have taste preferences, some are looking for specific health reasons, and some others are looking to experiment with a new recipe. It’s always interesting to learn their perspective, and share ours.
In terms of conserving heritage rice varieties, are there any good government initiatives that have helped you in your work?
We get all our rice varieties evaluated by the National Agro Society to learn the nutritive value of each. Upon testing, we get the protein, carb, iron, magnesium, iron, and phosphorus value per 100 gms of each variety. This allows us to provide factual information to customers.
How do you suggest that someone begins eating diverse types of rice? What is a good ‘beginner’ rice to try while switching from white polished rice?
For any change to be sustainable, it needs to be done slowly. It is also advisable to keep changing the rice you consume as each variety brings with it its own flavour and nutritive value.
If you are a long-time consumer of polished white rice, and wish to opt for a healthier eating pattern to include organic and semi-polished heritage rice in your regular diet, our brown rice is suited to make the switch. We normally suggest varieties like Katarni from Bihar, Ajara Ghansal and Ambe Mohar from Maharashtra, Gobinda Bhog, Khudi Khas, Kerala Sundari from West Bengal, Kala Namak and Sukhdas from Uttar Pradesh, as these varieties are suitable for everyday rice consumption, and complement festive preparations for special occasions.
What do you aspire to do as Spirit of the Earth in the years to come?
As a project, we hope to continue discovering new varieties that add to the richness of our culture. We are also hopeful for urban consumers to make the shift, and embrace consuming heritage rice more regularly. We also hope to introduce value-added products with heritage rice as the core ingredient.