Unique to the Himalayan region, Barahnaja is a traditional cultivation that involves the sowing of 12 grains in rainfed fields. They can adapt to droughts and their residues serve as cattle fodder, but with an increased capacity to reduce nitrogen emission.

Dehradun, Uttarakhand: After a long wait for rains, Saula Devi (73) was back in the fields by June. With relentless enthusiasm, she spread a variety of traditional seeds into the land ploughed with oxen by her son Jagveer Singh (56).

Though rain never showed up in March and April, relief came in May, which helped Jagveer to ready the fields in the first week of June. With the onset of the southwest monsoon by the month-end, the seeds of mixed crops began to grow luxuriantly.   

Saula and Jagveer are among the 375 farmers in Jardhar village of Uttarakhand, where Barahnaja system of traditional cultivation involving 12 grains is practised. In fact, Barahnaja is unique to the Himalayan region.

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Seeds used in barahnaja method

Jardhar comes under Tehri district of Uttarakhand, where most of the fields are rainfed. According to Jagveer, he cultivated over an acre of land, if his small and fragmented landholdings were jointly taken into account. “Every year, half of these fields are used to grow staple crops such as paddy and wheat, while the rest is for traditional crops such as finger millet and amaranth plants.”

This time, Saula has used 15 to 20 varieties of grain—finger millet as main crop, along with other cereals, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables, spices and fibre crops—which would be ready for harvest in September and  October. 

Every year, Saula and Jagveer manage to harvest two to three quintals (200-300 kg) of finger millet and up to 50 kg of pulses. “Our traditional crops will not disappoint even during heavy rains or drought, and always provide enough for us,” Jagveer said, adding that “the cost is just our hard work.” 

On the other hand, Jagveer could harvest up to three to four quintals of wheat “only if the weather is fine”. “Otherwise, I have to buy it from the market for consumption,” he said. 

Climate-proofed

Out of Uttarakhand’s 13 districts, nine have hilly features. Moreover, only about 10% of the agricultural lands in Uttarakhand could be irrigated.

As most places were difficult to access, the Barahnaja system protected the farmers’ crops from erratic weather conditions and crop failure, and assured them of access to multiple food options and nutrition even during unprecedented conditions such as COVID-19. 

Although climate conditions are usually stable across the Himalayan mountains, both temperature and rainfall have been increasing over the last 20 years. The Indian Meteorological Department’s data said the mountainous areas registered temperatures ranging from one to three degrees Celsius above normal this year, especially in the months of April and May.

According to NABARD Deputy Managing Director PVS Suryakumar, rainfed areas were important for major production of millets, oilseeds and pulses, as well as for supporting cotton production and raising livestock. However, such areas remain ecologically fragile and were inhabited by poorer farmers.

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Agni Devi preparing her field (Photo: Varsha Singh)

The Barahnaja cultivation has been mostly followed in the hills, not the plains. “These facts present our existing vulnerability to ensuing climate change, against which we have to stay prepared,” he said.

Barahnaja system not only helped in crop diversification, but also ensured maximal use of land, nutrients and water.  A 2021 study said it involved “a mixture of different groups of crops planted together on the same terraced fields in the rainy (kharif) season… and grow in harmony with each other”.

Geographical and climatic conditions, eating habits and culture of the area influenced the seed choices, but the goal was the same: to achieve year-round “self-sustainability without any commercial interest”. 

Near the fields where Saula worked, Agni Devi (50), her mother-in-law and daughter-in-law had also prepared the fields using spades, and burnt the thorny bushes around the fields to control weeds and increase soil fertility.  

“With our traditional grains, only one-third of the crop will be spoiled, while only one-third of our wheat and paddy crops will be left under the present heat conditions,” Agni said, adding that the crop residues “serve as fodder for our animals”.

Progressive farmer Vijay Jardhari said most of the 12-grain crops, including finger millets, have the capacity to tolerate drought. “These grains grow up once it rains. But when there is no rain, they can adapt to such a level that they shrink and become dormant. But they bloom again when it rains. We saw it happen during the 2009-10 drought,” he informed. 

Curbing agri emissions

With almost half of India’s 1.4-billion population dependent on farming, it has also contributed immensely to the emission of greenhouse gases and pollution, according to the World Economic Forum.

Methane from livestock and cultivation accounts for 74% of its carbon emissions, and “another 17.5% is derived from rice cultivation”, according to WeForum, citing a report

In its study that mapped agricultural emissions, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) emphasised that livestock should be given a special focus when studying India’s agricultural contributions to climate change. 

The same study said that approximately 63% of its total agricultural emissions came from livestock — through nitrous oxide and methane from manure, nitrogen from urine and faeces, and methane as a by-product of feed digestion.

The IFPRI recommended consuming more plant-based protein sources — because they required less nitrogen than animal-based protein — as one of the strategies for achieving climate-smart agriculture in India.

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Farmer Vijay Jardhari maintains a seed bank of the 12 grains; (below) His mixed grains collection (Photo: Varsha Singh)

“For instance, protein-rich pulses are highly water efficient, have nitrogen-fixing properties, and can supplement finger millet to further improve their protein quality. Their residues as animal fodder are also of better quality than most commercial animal feeds.”

Likewise, WeForum highlighted that soil carbon sequestration opened up new possibilities for climate-positive agriculture by reducing fertiliser use and restoring degraded and disused lands.

Nitrous oxide can trap heat in the atmosphere 300 times more than carbon dioxide, and is mostly formed by the application of fertilisers, according to the IFPRI’s study citing several sources, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

Another study said finger millet, being organic by default, can “thrive on almost no nitrogen inputs, yet accumulates high-quality proteins enriched with essential amino acids in their grains”.

These hills of Uttarakhand are emerging as a laboratory for the concept of climate-smart agriculture and, serendipitously, it doesn’t involve trying something new but rather going back to the old ways. Jardhari says that monoculture farming exploits the soil and the earth, but many species of traditional pulses included in the Barahnaja give nourishment back to the mother earth. This method, which strengthens the ecological balance of the earth, is no less than scientific agriculture, he says. “Our rich tradition has centuries-old roots.”

To read more about how climate-smart agriculture and indigenous seeds are saving hill farmers, please click here for Part 2 of this story

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