Reviving native seeds in India is an uphill task. But recognising the importance of preserving indigenous knowledge, OOO Farms works closely with local communities in Gujarat and Maharashtra to return heirloom seeds to their homelands.
“But, how much is this for?” farmers at an indigenous settlement in south Gujarat asked Shailesh Awate, who was offering to give them heirloom seeds—in this case, the Krishna Kamod—during the second wave of the covid-19 pandemic.
Shikha Kansagara and Shailesh, co-founders of OOO Farms, were also distributing Sahyadri Black, Raktashali and 30-odd other varities of native paddy seeds.
“The communities, especially in Gujarat, are so used to exploitation that they find it easier to believe that you’re there to loot than help,” says Shailesh whose mission it is, through the farmer producer company, to revive native varietals of grains, fruits, and vegetables. Supporting communities as they transition back from hybrid ones, the farmer-producer company is keen to tap into the local communities’ understanding of the terroir—cultivating what the land will nurture in a region, rather than a crop that is not as suited to its conditions.
“Rice, for instance, is the most laborious crop to cultivate in a lot of terrains. First domesticated in India and China, it structurally got converted into community farming because of its very nature terminating the one-by-one transplantation method,” Shailesh tells us.
Based on the needs on ground, OOO Farms also hopes to help improve financial literacy in and around the settlements they work with, and have roped in a teacher to address this. Several communities, particularly the ones in southern Gujarat, place greater importance on the number of grains per pod over the weight of the yield, even though most produce is sold by weight. On the basis of this, the farming hamlets often reject the idea of gradually transitioning back to native varietals. “This is in spite of the farmers admitting that native varietals taste better, and are more pest-and climate change-resistant,” says Shailesh.
While technological advancements in the agro space ensures less human effort, some current practices are leading to wiping away of communities, and loss of biodiversity. Maharashtra’s Mahadev-Koli community ploughs its lands by tapping the fields with wood from the babul tree to aerate the soil; this way, the biodiversity in the soil is preserved better than when tractors are used to plough. The higher the horsepower of the tractor, Shailesh speculates, the greater the loss of organisms in the soil.
OOO Farms works to return heirloom seeds to their homelands, where they grow best, gathering first-hand knowledge that has, until the past century or so, been passed down for generations. This is harder than it looks on paper: a lot of this wisdom held by the indigeneous communities who dwell amid Western Ghats of Gujarat and Maharashtra is fading with the communities’ oldest members.
Tribal farming typically focuses on cultivation for community consumption, following handed-down wisdom. Teams from OOO Farms visit and interact with these communities in gram sabha discussions to start conversations around and re-implement ancestral practices.
Entrusting each farmer with the freedom to follow their family’s near-forgotten farming practices, OOO Farms enables collective learning and cultural preservation, while also documenting these processes. And while challenges are plenty, there are reasons to be hopeful too—OOO Farms has, by working with local farmers, revived native varietals of rice, wheat, toor, corn, beans, and cotton among other crops.
Not only does OOO Farms give tribal communities seeds for free, but often also pays them to grow the crops, keep the produce, and purchases excesses for higher-than-market rates to create seed banks. And yet, community engagement is often the biggest challenge, Shailesh shares. But while the struggle of building—and then, with many peoples, rebuilding—trust continues to be real, it only makes OOO Farms keep at it harder. “I feel that our bigger successes are harder earned,” he says, “and we feel equal to the challenge.”
In southern Gujarat, where only the oldest generation recalled Kehari—a variety of corn once native to the region—the seed has been revived after much effort on OOO Farms’ part. Bodhubhai and his wife planted these alongside hybrid varieties that are popular now last year, when the monsoon played truant, with unseasonal showers. While the native varietals germinated months later than expected, the crop turned out better than the hybrid ones, which began to dry up while still smaller than usual.
To read more about OOO Farms and their practices and efforts, check out our producer page here. This is a paid partnership with OOO Farms. We strive to keep the practices of a producer transparent and honest across all forms of partnerships.