Sahaja Samrudha (Bengaluru) & Dhanya (Tumkur) have published a book on brown top millet recently (Adbhuta siridhanya korale, Kannada, second edition, 2016, Rs. 60/-). Written by the prolific and ever green Mallikarjun Hosapalya, the first thing that stood out about this book were the many and colorful photographs.
Brown top millet (btm) is even lesser known among the already less known small millets. The photographs included in the book helps build a connection between the reader, the millet and the millet farmers at a level that written words cannot. Though, I did flip through the book multiple times looking for two photographs but could not find – an image of the hulled btm rice and a clear photograph of the grains separated from each other so that their full profile can be seen against a contrasting background along with a size bar / ruler to give the reader a visual idea of how small the grains are.
Reading the book I was happy to note that it brought to light some lesser known details of btm – for eg. that it grows even in a tamarind tree’s shade. The nutritional profile of btm is another important information that one cannot find easily even on the internet. Given the importance of the nutritional content of these grains and the lack of reliable information online, I looked for more information on the sample collection, preparation and testing of the samples, including the standard scientific protocol followed. Thanks to the publishers and author, unlike many other books, contact information of different people who know about these grains and can provide information about them have been painstakingly put together. I was able to use this information to contact the researchers cited for the nutritional data. I was informed that the full scientific publication is yet to be published and that once done, it would be shared widely – a very justified reason for not publishing it in this book. Quite a few other readers of this book would, I am sure, join me in looking forward to the full scientific publication, in wishing the researchers luck and in offering our support in whatever way possible to further the cause of promoting btm consumption, production and processing.
There are two important things that I feel were missed in compiling the book. The first is a matter of geography while the second is a critical aspect in promoting the grain.
(1) btm is grown and consumed in reasonable quantity in north central India – the region commonly referred to as Bundelkhand. It is called fikara (ಫಿಕಾರ, फिकार) in the local language and the roti made from these are locally called ‘ghaas ki roti’ or ‘roti made from grass’. When I read about this in the news late last year, this is what caught my attention and I immediately thought, this has to be a millet. Thanks to social media I was able to connect with Ravi Badri working near there. When we received some samples of the grains, we realized that it was indeed a millet and none other than btm. The hardiness of this amazing grain requires no further elaboration when one realizes that these grains had grown in the third successive year of drought in the region ! A quick search online (for urochloa ramosa its current scientific name) reveals that there are published reports of their existence and / or cultivation in Bangladesh; Bhutan; Cambodia; India (Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra); Malawi; Myanmar; Nepal; Senegal; South Africa; Yemen; Zimbabwe.
(2) The other important aspect is a package of practice for the cultivating btm. As highlighted in this book, btm is a prolific plant and it has rightly been pointed out that after one or two seasons of sowing btm seeds, the farmer does not need to sow the field again. Future crops of btm grow with the only effort needed from the farmer being that for harvesting the grains. This is a double edged sword. The hardiness and survival instincts of btm are honed over millennia and are clearly demonstrated in two related characteristics. (i) Each of its nodes, just like its wilder brethren in the grass (poaceae) family, is a source of new roots. As new tillers emerge, the older ones curve out and form a parabolic profile. And as they do so, roots from more and more nodes strike the soil, expanding its resource access, reinvigorating the plant.
This recurring recharging renders its second amazing characteristic – continued flowering and a continued and extended reproductive phase. (ii) At any point in time, a mature btm plant will have panicles in various stages of maturity. So while the farmer would plan harvesting considering the degree of grain ripening across the field, each of the plants would have shed multiple grains onto the soil seeding their next generation. So if necessary on farm practices are not employed from the first season itself, a farmer will start seeing btm as a weed in their land almost from the very next cultivation season. Therefore it is very important to promote btm with a package of practices and necessary trainings and guidance to the farmers where btm cultivation is being introduced.
It is very heartening to read about the efforts of some of the new initiatives including that of the youth from Gopalanahalli in Chikkanayakahalli Taluk, Tumkur Dt. of Karnataka. We need more such initiatives and many more such farmers to start making a shift in the way we treat land, farming, ecology and our own nutrition. The publication of this book is among the first steps in the right direction. Given the ongoing farm crisis and the relief that crops such as btm offer, I request the publishers to go for English, Hindi and other regional language translations of this work at the earliest. Those of us who are working on promoting small millets and can read Kannada now have a very useful aid at hand when talking about and promoting btm.
Neelgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus), are the largest asian antelope, endemic to the gangetic plains in India. Their name literally translates to blue-cow, but neither are they blue nor are they cows or even related to cows.
Large scale deforestation in the gangetic plains and the nearby foothills of the himalayas have forced these majestic beauties to adapt. And adapt they have; a little too well for modern humans.
Having evolved in the grasslands and dry scrub forests in these parts, they now roam freely across agricultural farms merrily grazing. The increase in sugarcane cultivation has provided them with sufficient safe zones to rest during the harsh sunny days. And oh the menu that the farmers fields offer make for sumptuous early lunches and dinners. The depleted forest covers came well after the big carnivores were decimated by hunting and other forms of killing predators that humans have indulged in for many centuries in these parts. Given their misconceived name as an undomesticated relative of the cow, and the Hindu veneration of anything even remotely related to cows, they are not hunted or killed by most people.
So for a few decades now, there has been plenty of food, shelter and barely any predators – a fertile ground for population explosion. And that is exactly what has happened. So far, farmers have silently accepted that this is their fate and swallowed the bitter pill of loosing their primary source of food. The better off sections of society, in both villages and cities, and especially those running the govt., do not see the farmers’ plight and often make fun of their appeals for relief.
In Sitapur, the small and marginal farmers have decided they have had enough and that things have to change. After meetings within the sanghatan in its different blocks, a rally was taken out in Sitapur Town on 8th Aug 2016. A memorandum signed by members of the sanghatan and affected farmers was submitted to the District Magistrate. In typical bureaucratic style, a consultation meeting with all stakeholders has been promised. In the mean time, the sanghatan is planning a series of discussions in villages to build the momentum for a stronger mobilization on the issue.
I was in Sitapur, U.P. for a few days to see how the recently sown mixed crop were faring this year in our friends’ farms.
After two successive failed kharif, everyone was relieved and welcomed the rains. The farms are lush green after the many rains this season.
Almost all the farmers we work with are dalits and their small and marginal land holdings are invariably in low lying areas. It’s also not a surprise that many of them have uneven lands with patches of sandy or sometime loamy soil. Whenever the rains are enough for the water to flow, their farms flood and it takes a couple of days for this to drain.
After the initial rains, the farmers prepared their farms and finished sowing in time for the following rains. Now, these turned out to be heavier than expected and a few have lost all their crop as their entire farm went under water for extended periods so soon after sowing.
Even in those farms where crops have survived, frequent rains are making it near impossible to take up weeding – the soil is too wet. Any weeding activity would take too much effort and/or hurt the crop plants’ roots. So the farmers wait for a dry spell, seeing the weeds taking over their farms.
This monsoon season, we are also seeing that despite normal rainfall, both day and night time temperatures have been higher than normal. So this makes for warm (bordering on hot), humid days with overcast skies – ideal conditions for pests to flourish in. Another potential disaster that most small farmers are in too weak a position (now) to avert.
There are sustainable organic farming steps that one can take to mitigate losses from these conditions too. It will be a couple more years of sustained work before our farmer friends from Sitapur can get there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we will get there before its too late.
But coming back to today, the meteorological department does say that the rains have been normal so far. And policy makers, commodity traders and economic forecasters have started calculating how good the harvest is going to be. But for the small farmers, the uncertainty of agriculture does not end with monsoon forecasts.
PS: The higher than normal winter temperatures this year (the el-nino/nina effect) effectively cut the wheat harvest to a third in many families’ farms in these parts. And I do remember reading about the higher than normal temperature in July in Delhi even after the monsoon had moved in. I searched to see if someone has written about the change in temperature patterns in other parts in the later part of monsoon, but couldn’t find one. If you have come across one, please do share. If you are interested to look this up from raw data and do it as project, please do ping me.
People, many a time well meaning ones, identify that they have a solution that can be used to solve so many problems. They go about hunting for these problems. When you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail. Unless you stop yourself and learn to look further beyond the hammer in your hand.
So it is now with millet cultivation. It is exciting to see so many farmers trying to cultivate millets again. But the Agriculture officers have a hammer and millets are the new nails. Just read this in a news report from Madurai …
Farmers can also claim 50% subsidy on micro nutrient inputs for millet fields, the department announced. All the extension centres are adequately stocked with certified seeds, agricultural inputs like solid and liquid nutrients and fertilisers.
So many in the sustainable farming movement are promoting millets and some amongst us are trying to engage with the system trying to work it to the benefit of the small and marginal farmers. This news report shows how the system responds and squelches any hope people might have of seeing a change in the approach of those in power.
The struggle continues.
We discovered cranberries when we lived in Minnesota a decade ago. We were searching for local alternatives to tamarind – the traditional go to for adding a tangy/sour taste to a good many recipes in Indian cuisine. An adventurous aunt who had lived a few decades in that part of the world told us that there is nothing better than cranberries to make good చారు, a sweet & sour rasam that isn’t too spicy. And living in the Twin Cities, we were lucky enough to have cranberry farms in nearby Wisconsin and then when we moved to Toronto, it was the Bala cranberries.
The cranberry farms would organize these cranberry festivals during harvest season and show case the whole process of harvesting and processing cranberries. Though most of the harvest happened through mechanical harvesters, the farms offered people an opportunity to walk through their flooded marshes to harvest these air pocket filled small fruits that float up waiting to be picked. But the thought of having to dry off in the cool fall breeze and that of driving back 3 hours after that didn’t let us venture into those thigh-high gum boots.
As the leaves turned colour and fell, every year since that realization in 2005 (or was it 2004?), we would indulge ourselves by working cranberries in to various recipes – ಗೊಜ್ಜು, ತೊಕ್ಕು, chutney, చారు, పప్పు, jam, spicy bread spread, pasta sauce, etc. From the second season we started making cranberry sauce and chutney to preserve them for the rest of the year … other than stocking up on the berries themselves in the freezer.Since moving back to Bengaluru in 2011, and working consciously to increase the diversity of our nutritional sources, we had discovered kokum and were using it on and off. Last year when we were introduced to Savita of Buda Folklore and learnt that there was a chance to go pick kokum from the trees on their (and their neighbors’) farm in Angadi Bayal, near Kumta in Uttara Canara, we were quite excited. Unfortunately, we couldn’t work it into our calendars last year and we decided to give it top priority on this summer’s plan.
I am so glad that we did go to AB. We had such a great time ! We collected/picked/harvested the fruits, cleaned and segregated them, cut them up to make sundried fruits, sugar steeped preserves, jaggery sweetened jams, and spicy lip smacking chutneys. And while these were probably the driest and warmest days of the year at AB, the open air shower, the sprinkler cooled afternoons, candle and lantern lit evenings and dinners more than made up for the weather. Oh! the thick tree cover with a mango tree here and a kokum tree there in full fruiting glory are sights we will remember for a few months … till we come across the next seasonal fruit that we shall harvest and relish !!
Historically, farming was a rain fed practice. Even today, after spending lakhs of crores (or trillions, if you prefer that system of counting large numbers) of rupees and $s on irrigation systems and destroying almost all river ecosystems across the world, ~20% of cultivated land is irrigated. And ~60% of food production comes from rain fed farms. For more interesting facts and figures on irrigation, please see this comprehensive FAO ready reckoner and explore the website.
If we look at the budgetary outlays in India (and in other countries too) investments in agriculture are invariably dominated by investments in irrigation. Isn’t it high time people call the bluff and realized that if we really want to have a food system that survives the changing climate and tumultuous financial systems, we need to develop our rain fed farms.
Increasing spending on irrigation will of course mean more contracts and constructions. And construction, after all is the best way for people in power to make more money.
“There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow !! Oh ho, why do you worry about all the money we are making you spend to get to this pot of gold, or about the wrecked ecosystems we are leaving behind! you are such an ‘anti-national’ !!”