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How Tamil Nadu Farmers Revitalized Traditional Rice Varieties over The Decades

The demand for heritage rice in the state has increased dramatically during the last two years. This Pongal, we look at the decades-long campaign that has led to this renaissance, as well as the farmers, academics, and entrepreneurs that have influenced change at the grassroots level.

Ayushi Raina
Traditional Rice Varieties
Traditional Rice Varieties

"In the past two years, we sold 100 tonnes of 91 different varieties of heritage rice at the Organic Farmers Market (OFM) Chennai," says Ananthoo, founder of OFM. Radhika Augustus, of the city-based Heritage Essentials, adds that their sales of heritage rice doubled in 2021. 

Despite the pandemic challenges, it has led in individuals making more deliberate food choices. Many traditional farmers are enjoying Tamil Nadu’s rising passion for heritage rice this Pongal. Though this spike of interest has been particularly noticeable in the last two years, stakeholders point out that this movement has been in the works for almost two decades in Tamil Nadu and beyond. 

"The recent shift is due to greater awareness about the benefits of traditional rice, as well as the broader priority placed on healthy living during the epidemic," Ananthoo says. "Farmers are now able to fulfill the soaring demand because they have learned strategies for cultivating these crops, continuously improving the yield per acre," he states, adding that farmers' collectives have played an important role in this resurgence. 

Radhika discusses how Anand Rajarathinam, founder of Heritage Inspired organization, of which Heritage Essentials is a part, persuaded farmers in the Kumbakonam district to adopt traditional farming practices by promising to buy their produce and deliver it directly to dedicated customers. "We've also started organizing native rice cooking lessons and have compiled a recipe book with recipes, so customers can use heritage rice on a regular basis,” she says. 

Soil rejuvenation 

These are not isolated instances. "Around 45,000 farmers switched to natural farming in Thanjavur district alone over the last 15 years," says R Sriram of SVR Organic Way Farm in Kathiramangalam. He gives credit to environmental activist G Nammalvar, who has accelerated the heritage rice revival movement over the last two decades as well as seed saver Nel Jayaraman, who has organized seed festivals around the state. 

"Their efforts resulted in a significant increase in native rice cultivation as well as broadening the area of land that is entirely dedicated to natural farming. 

This transition was made by marginal and mid-sized farmers and more and more are joining the movement across Tamil Nadu to meet growing demand," adds Sriram. 

Sriram has been reviving over 60 distinct types of heritage rice cultivars on his 80-acre farm since 2008. "There were 175 or more varieties in the Thanjavur region, which was known as Nerkalanjiyam and we are attempting to resuscitate all of them," he says. 

In Chennai, Qidhan, a natural farming platform, has collaborated with farmers to resurrect and sell an ancient rice variety known as rakthashali, which was on the edge of extinction in 2018. Harjas Singh, the founder of Qidhan, who procures products from farmers and sells it online, claims they have collaborated with farmers in Kerala's Palakkad district to cultivate local rice varieties such as the GI-tagged Kerala Matta's Chenkazhamajyothi, and chavalakannan. 

"Since we promote parboiled rice, the processing is done on the farm." We've gathered a group of small farmers who cultivate about 20 acres. Right now, many farmers in the region are interested in ecological farming and recovering native rice," adds Harjas. Aside from jeerakasalamappilai samba, and thooyamalli, they currently have six varieties of Kerala Matta rice. 

Adding flavor to every meal 

K Ilayaraja, Tamil Nadu's Odakkanallur village switched to natural farming five years ago focusing on traditional rice. 

"It was a lovely transition. Although it is a labor-intensive technique, the financial expenditure was relatively low. We must cultivate the land thoroughly, spread the seed and maintain a steady flow of water. Then, depending on the paddy variety, it is ready to harvest after two or four months. The yield may be less compared to commercial farming, but the cost is also minimal, therefore it is profitable,” he says. 

According to Ananthoo, the increasing popularity among farmers and consumers stems from a love of tradition and a sense of nostalgia that heritage rice evokes. 

"These types are a gift to farmers since they are resistant to weather, pests, and diseases. For consumers, there is a sense of respect and regard for traditional native rice due to its therapeutic and medicinal properties,” says Ananthoo. 

From Farm to Home 

One significant benefit of this revival is that product is being sold directly to customers, with the assistance of farmers' collectives within every region or cluster. "For the time being, we farmers cultivate based on demand or pre-order.  At the moment, a portion of the area is used for native rice farming and I am certain that more acres will be utilized gradually," adds Ilayaraja. 

Hima Kiran of Namma Village, who cultivates around 80 acres of agricultural land in Kommakambedu village in Thiruvallur district, says that as prices increase, more farmers are adopting traditional rice cultivation. 

"We are gradually adjusting to natural farming and the resurrection of indigenous traditional rice.  We notice how the soil quality improves in few years, the environmental threat of pesticides is eliminated and the biggest advantage of supplying directly to our consumers through our website," Hima Kiran says. 

Jayanth Kaaliappan tells how his ancestors cultivated a traditional rice variety called puzhudhi nel and adopted traditional farming in the region in Bodi, Theni district. 

Restoration and Revival 

"We lost this particular variety and I'm attempting to resurrect it but I can't find the seeds. Since traditional rice is in high demand, I leased five acres of land in Karaikkal five years ago and began cultivating maapplilai samba, thooyamalli, and karuppu kavuni," adds Jayanth, who is also working in the resuscitation of local mango varieties. 

"My favorites are kalanamak often known as Buddha rice and iluppaipoo samba.  This light pink Buddha rice is not only high in antioxidants and nutrition value but it is also flavorful and fragrant and it can be used as table rice or porridge, as well as in South Indian tiffin dishes," Sriram explains. 

"It is really a delight to watch our country being rejuvenated," Ilayaraja says. The quality of the soil steadily increases with natural farming. When we see snails and crabs on the farm, we know the soil is in good condition." 

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