Millets of Uttarakhand (Photo: Varsha Singh)

Barahnaja: Himalayan farmers hold on to their roots and seeds as agriculture crisis rages

When crops of different varieties are continuously grown in the fields, food security and a nutritious diet are assured for the whole year, including for animals. Moreover, they nourish the soil.

Read Part 1 of this story here

Dehradun, Uttarakhand: While the farmers of Jardhar village in Tehri district of Uttarakhand are still sowing traditional 12-grain crops in their fields, hill agriculture is facing a crisis. 

“Agriculture here is hit by the changes in weather conditions and straying of wild animals into the fields due to deforestation. Farming only provides food for the family, but not enough as an income,” said Tejpal Singh, who was visiting his native along with his family from his workplace in Pune.

Youth from most of the farming families in Jardhar are working in metropolitan cities. While Saula Devi and her son Jagveer Singh still farm together, Agni Devi’s two sons, whom she raised through farming, work in a hotel in Mumbai. 

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The system of exchanging seeds in the hills (Photo: Varsha Singh)

Also, no well-developed markets for traditional crops are present in the region. The surplus produce is sold locally, sometimes through bartering.

However, according to Anjani Kumar Upadhyay, Joint Agriculture Director (Organic), Uttarakhand Agriculture Department, farmers are being encouraged to produce traditional pulses, oil seeds and millets. They are also being trained and connected with buyers through Buyers Sellers Meet.

He claimed that opening up of the market increased the demand for traditional grains, leading to a fixed minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 25 to 33 per kg for finger millet, against the Rs 10 to 12 some four years ago. 

“If our farmers take their produce to the fairs, it will get sold within the first day or two,” he added.

Ironically, the Uttarakhand Government is yet to fix the MSP of traditional crops other than finger millets. 

A return to traditional ways

In a bid to promote natural farming (traditional farming), the Indian Government has started the Indian Natural Farming System campaignunder the Traditional Agriculture Development Scheme. 

Natural farming methods will also be included in the course curriculum of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Sunita Pandey, a member of the national committee preparing the syllabus, said, “We have to return to natural farming as it has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the agricultural sector.”

According to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the agriculture sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions(24%) after energy production (25%). Changing agricultural practices alone can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 0.6 GtCO2e per year. 

NABARD Deputy Managing Director PVS Suryakumar emphasised the need for agroecology, which is “an ecological approach to agriculture,” citing the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

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Millets of Uttarakhand (Photo: Varsha Singh) 

According to the UNEP, agroecology allows farmers to adapt to climate change via sustainable use and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity and by empowering them through changing social relations, adding value locally and privileging short value chains.

Debal Deb, a farmer and ecologist, agreed that “zero emission is possible only with agroecology.” “Its base principle is zero external input. It involves all plants and animals (including insects, spiders, worms and weeds) in enhancing ecosystem complexity so that soil fertility is maintained, if not revived. Besides, the population of natural enemies of crop pests also gets a boost.” 

According to him, “this emancipates the farmer from reliance on agrochemical industry and eliminates all costs of crop protection.” 

Saving and exchanging seeds

The Barahnaja system will not be complete without the practice of saving seeds. 

Sharda Devi, an elderly farmer in Jardhar, has been using glass bottles to store seeds. Her forefathers taught her how to identify the best seeds from the harvested crop. 

“Passing this knowledge to my children and daughter-in-law is a gift from my side,” Sharda Devi said. 

Deb, who has preserved 1,420 traditional rice varieties in Odisha, said until 1970, as many as 1.1 lakh species of paddy were present in the country. Now, only 6,000 were left. 

He claimed farm organisations and even the Ministry of Agriculture have shied away from protecting the traditional varieties as they were inclined towards genetically modified crops.

According to the UN-FAO, 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost since 1970 because farmers stopped growing their variegated local species and replaced them with high-yielding, genetically identical seed varieties.

Vijay Jardhari, who has been running the Save Seeds campaign since 1986, explained: “During the Green Revolution, the government provided farmers with free monocrop seeds like wheat, rice and soybean, to be used with chemical fertilisers and pesticides.”

They gave a good yield in the first year, but did not produce good quality seeds. “So, new seeds had to be bought from the market every year.” 

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Sharda Devi with her grandson and her best seeds, the knowledge of choosing which she hopes to pass down to the new generation (Photo: Varsha Singh)

The new farming system took away the freedom of farmers. “Our traditional seeds started getting extinct. That is when we started going around farms to collect seeds and secure copies of them for future exchange and use,” Vijay added.

He asserted that when crops of different varieties were continuously grown in the fields, food security and a nutritious diet were assured for the whole year, including for animals. Moreover, they nourish the soil, as against the exploitative nature of a monocrop. 

“Our method is no less than scientific agriculture and can withstand the impacts of extreme weather,” he claimed. 

As a 2021 article put it, “better utilisation of locally grown crop varieties in diversified cropping systems can be an important first step towards food security for uncertain conditions… but much more needs to be studied as a whole system than individual crops.”

The Barahnaja include growing crops with nitrogen-fixing abilities to return nutrients into the soil for other crops to use; grain roots holding the soil to prevent erosion; and cereal stems acting as a natural support for legumes.

“The selection of different crops, crop diversification and placement of crops in different terraces is the key to success,” the article said.

This story was produced with the support of Solutions Journalism Network through the 2022 LEDE Fellowship and developed in collaboration with Climate Tracker.