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Native rice varieties of Tamil Nadu seems to be everywhere yet actually only somewhere.

Rice has been closely associated with the cultural life of people since the Sangam era. Tamil Nadu had a great collection of native landraces (varieties) of rice, but they all lost their importance with the arrival of the ‘high-yield’ ones introduced as part of the Green Revolution in the country in the 1960s. Even though many tried to revive the lost native landraces of rice, it was the seed collection drive that ‘Nel’ Jayaraman started with green crusader G Nammalvar in 2004 which eventually gained momentum.

Jayaraman could revive more than 173 native rice varieties until he died of cancer in 2018. To popularise the native paddy seeds, he initiated an annual paddy festival in his native village Adirangam in Tiruvarur in 2006. The festival got a good response from farmers and agricultural experts. The initiative helped many farmers experiment with the native paddy seeds. Despite knowing the benefits of the native rice varieties, 90% farmers in Tamil Nadu prefer to cultivate high-yield paddy varieties. Why?

‘Nel’ Jayaraman revived more than 173 native rice varieties. To popularise the native paddy seeds, he initiated an annual paddy festival in his native village Adirangam in Tiruvarur in 2006.

Ganapathi Thamizhselvan, who has been distributing native paddy seeds to poor farmers in Kancheepuram, said even though farmers come forward to cultivate native landraces of rice, they don’t find it a viable option. “There is no proper channel for marketing the native rice varieties. So many farmers return to the high-yield varieties. It is difficult for a small-scale farmer to compete with big producers in the field. So no farmers will take the risk,” said Thamizhselvan, a natural farmer, who has been cultivating native landraces on his four-acre paddy field in Thiruputkuzhi in Kancheepuram for the last ten years.

Thamizhselvan, a BSc (microbiology) graduate, has experimented with more than 100 native rice varieties including “Kattuyanam”, “Mappilai Samba”, Kichilisamba” and “Rathasalli”. “I have been distributing native rice varieties to poor farmers for the last six years. Many were willing to cultivate the native seeds in the beginning but they shifted to the high-yield ones later because they couldn’t market the native landraces of rice that they produced,” he said.

Thamizhselvan said one should understand the condition of the soil and climate before sowing a native paddy seed. “Our native landraces of rice are  climate-resistant and nutritional. But each one is unique in its own way. A seed that grows in Kanyakumari may not grow in Kancheepuram. The conditions of the soil matter a lot. The same theory is applicable to climate. So a farmer should know what seed is suitable for where. This is not happening today and I think lack of knowledge also contributes to the issue,” he said.

Another reason, according to K Jayakumar, a farmer in Tirunelveli, is the availability of the white rice at a cheaper rate compared to the red ones. “There are many popular brands selling white rice at a cheaper rate compared to the red ones. The native native varieties of rice are quite expensive. We all know they are good for our health but the laymen will always look for cheaper options available,” said Jayakumar.

“The farmers should try to develop their own clients, say a gated community near their place,” says MJ Prabu, agriculture journalist-turned-farmer

Agriculture journalist-turned-farmer M J Prabu said no government has been able to address or solve marketing issues so far. “The farmers should try to develop their own clients, say a gated community near their place. They can go, meet the people there and introduce themselves. People are ready and open to accept and buy good organic produce and also know their growers. So know your farmers and know your buyers. If these two are addressed, then the marketing problem is solved,” he said.

Prabhu said it’s time the farmers took responsibility among themselves to address this and solve it for their own good. “There is no point in asking a scientist from a state university to help us in marketing. They are technologists but they won’t be able to find a solution to this issue. The tiny departmental stores near your house are the best example. There will be two or three in a street. Have you ever seen them closing down due to loss?,” asked Prabu.

Till 2019, Prabu said, he tried a pilot business model with the help of some organisations through which at least 502 farmers were able to sell their produce. “What’s the use of growing if you can’t sell it for a good price? So we need to form similar business models to sell the product. Creating awareness among people about the benefits of native paddy seeds is just one side of the coin, we need to find a good business model ourselves to sell our produce,” he said.

Seed festivals attract a huge crowd but do they bring in any practical solution to farmers on how to sell the native rice that they cultivated? S Rajiv, nephew of Nel Jayaraman, who has been conducting the annual paddy seed festival since his uncle’s death, said the upcoming paddy festival will find solutions to the marketing issues among farmers.

At least 174 varieties of traditional paddy seeds will be exhibited at the annual National Paddy Festival 2022, to be held from May 21 to 22 at Thiruthuraipoondi in Tiruvarur district. “We know marketing is a big issue. We have organised interactive sections for farmers where they can explore the possibilities of exporting their produce. This is the first time such a session is going to be organised,” said Rajiv, state coordinator of the National Paddy Festival-2022. A two-kg pack of native rice varieties will be distributed (free) to 15000 farmers as part of the event, which will also witness display of various agricultural equipment and products made by traditional materials. To promote traditional farming, awards in the name of Nammalvar and Nel Jayaramam will be distributed to the farmers. The National Paddy Festival is organised by the Nel Jayaraman Traditional Rice Saviour Centre, Adhirangam.

Rajiv said this is the first time in the history of the annual paddy festival that native paddy seeds are being distributed freely to 15,000 farmers. “We are not just distributing the seeds randomly. We have experts from the National Institute of Food Technology, Entrepreneurship and Management, Thanjavur and the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), Chennai to talk to farmers on how to sell and export their products themselves,” he said.

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