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Until a few years ago, I knew only two varieties of wheat. Now, I have 11 in my collection,” says Kalmesh Mallad, a farmer, who has recently joined the band of seed conservers in Belagavi district. Visiting the farm of Kalmesh Mallad in Betsur village of Savadatti taluk in Belagavi district can be a revelation to many farmers in the region who have limited knowledge about heritage wheat varieties.
Kalmesh’s family is traditionally engaged in farming. They grow cotton, sorghum, onion, chilli and wheat in 25 acres of land. It is a common practice here to grow wheat in rabi season. Kalmesh’s family grew local Savadatti wheat variety in about two acres of land. The family took up organic farming three years ago when organic farming village project was initiated in the village.
Kalmesh’s interest in varietal conservation grew deep after he saw his friend Praveen Hebballi conserving 13 varieties of foxtail millet on the farm. When Kalmesh was searching for a proper crop, he came in contact with Sahaja Samrudha farmers organisation, which helped him source 10 wheat varieties from different parts of the country. Another organisation called Society for Promoting Rural Education and Development (SPREAD) supported him in developing sustainable farming methods.
Along with the 10 varieties provided by Sahaja Samrudha, Kalmesh also sowed the local variety he had in his collection. This year, he hadn’t grown wheat due to lack of rain. So, when he took up wheat conservation in 0.75 acres of land, he decided to follow a method that requires less water. Interestingly, Kalmesh followed SRI (System of Root Intensification) method, generally followed for paddy cultivation. In this method, more spacing is provided between seedlings facilitating better aeration. While conventional methods follow line sowing method with flood irrigation, this method stresses on maintaining soil moisture. Consequently, this method requires less water, while the yield is normally high compared to conventional methods of cultivation.
Once Kalmesh decided on the method, he ploughed the land, applied vermicompost to the soil and prepared the land for sowing. In a locally-designed sowing tool called koorige, two seeds were sown at each pit with a spacing of nine inches. Each variety was sown in 10 rows.
A spacing of two feet was provided between the patches of two varieties. Since the rains failed completely, Kalmesh had to depend on borewell for irrigation. He watered the crop four times. Weeding was done twice. Since sufficient spacing was provided between the rows, the ability of the roots to absorb nutrition improved. "It has been a learning process for us too, and we are happy to see such a healthy crop in this method,” says Shridevi Bhootapalli of SPREAD.
Each variety of wheat grown in the farm has unique characteristics. For instance, kudrat (which means nature in Hindi), an improved variety developed by Prakash Singh Raghuvanshi of Varanasi, is known for its high-yielding properties.
Another variety called paigambari (sourced from Punjab) is known for its low sugar content and other medicinal properties. It’s grass is considered as a nutritious fodder for the cattle. It is said that rotis prepared from paigambari wheat retain their freshness and remain smooth for eight to 10 days. In some regions, this variety wheat is soaked overnight and milk is extracted in the morning for consumption.
The origins of paigambari is traced to the Indus Valley civilisation and hence, it is believed to be India’s first wheat variety. Saipuri, which has more grains in the spike, kalibal, known for its dark red grains are other varieties that attract one’s attention here. Both these varieties are sourced from Madhya Pradesh. Kapali wheat (Kalaburagi), red wheat (Chikkamagaluru), red wheat (wetland), Rajkot wheat (Gujarat), two types of bansi wheat, jawari wheat (Savadatti) are other wheat varieties grown here.
"We have been growing wheat for more than three decades now. I have not seen such a diversity before,” says Kalmesh’s father Irappa Mallad. "Heritage wheat varieties are good for human and environmental health. It is not good to neglect them in the efforts to popularise millets and native rice varieties,” says Somesh, chief executive officer of Sahaja Organics.
Be it high yield, pest resistance, drought resistance, taste, flavour or medicinal properties - each wheat variety grown here has unique properties.
Kalmesh has evaluated these varieties with help from fellow farmers and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad. He plans to develop these varieties through simple selection based on specific character features of the crop. In fact, he wants to expand the area under wheat cultivation in the coming years. Many more farmers in the region seem to have got inspiration from this effort to save heritage varieties.
(Translated by Anitha Pailoor)