The Seeds of a Sustainable Future: Understanding the initiatives of Desi Seeds
Updated: Aug 3
It is often asked whether going the organic way makes any business sense especially to small and fragmented farming communities. This post is about a Karnataka-based farmers’ movement and the two producer companies that it has set up over the last decade to deal with the problem of marketing organic produce and organic seeds.
Connecting health of the land with personal wellbeing
Periyapatna in Mysore district has been a tobacco growing area for several decades. Farmers are known to have been in debt for generations. Struggling to cope with mounting debts many had taken their lives. Kalappa, the seed farmer whom we met in Periyapatna too was a tobacco farmer once. When he realised that long years of tobacco farming had significantly harmed his land, he stopped the cultivation completely. For about a decade now he and his wife Manjula have been following organic farming practices in their 2.5 acre farm.
“I took to organic cultivation to take care of my health and the health of this soil”
He has been associated Desi Seed Producer Company Limited since the last six years.
Kalappa grows around 100 varieties of vegetables exclusively for the production of seeds. He also cultivates paddy and millets mainly for the family’s consumption in the two acre of land that he has inherited from his father. There were ginger, amaranthus, spinach, chillies, radish, and tomato standing in the field when we visited him. Some seeds were in the process of getting ready. Seeds of many vegetables were seen conserved inside dried fruits, while some others were being dried in seed trays. He also maintains a small personal seed bank at home.
All the seeds produced in his farm are bought by one company – the Desi Seed Producer Company Limited, Mysore. Desi Seed, the farmer owned company incorporated in 2013 , carries the legacy on Sahaja Samrudha, the movement that started in the early 2000s in Karnataka by a small group of organic farmers to spread the message of diverse and sustainable agriculture. The total number of shareholders in the company as of September 2021 is 502, of which 472 are organised into groups (sanghas) and the rest are individual farmers. The members belong to 29 villages across nine districts.
Riding the wave of emerging organic farming movements
The idea of organic farming gained currency in India the early 2000s thanks mainly to the initiatives at the global level under the leadership of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to drive the agenda of sustainable agriculture, bio-diversity and food/nutrition security. There was widespread concern about the ill effects of conventional agriculture in the post Green Revolution era, especially, the depletion in soil quality. Several institutional arrangements like the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) were introduced in India in the 2000s.
The efforts of the Karnataka state government in creating an environment conducive to the working of organisations like Desi Seeds need to be acknowledged too. The government’s approach has been to leverage organic farming as a critical and convenient tool in its fight against the crisis in conventional agriculture and the rising incidence of farmer suicides. With this in focus several initiatives were introduced in the state in the 2000s. Sahaja Samrudha made a salient place for itself in the formulation and implementation of these initiatives. It did not, however, confine its activities just to advocacy and awareness generation. Development of a market for organic produce that can be catered to by for-profit institutions owned by farmers was considered critical for the long-tern sustainability of the idea of organic farming. Two farmer producer companies – Sahaja Samrudha Organic Producer Company Limited that markets the crops produced by farmers and Desi Seed Producer Company limited that sell seeds – were set up in 2010 and 2013 respectively. The two companies sell their products under distinct brand names – Sahaja Organics and Sahaja Seeds. As compared to Desi Seed, Sahaja Organic is a larger company in terms of both paid up capital (Rs 2.7 million and Rs 0.29 million respectively in 2019-20) and volume of business (Rs 88.5 million and Rs 3.9 million respectively).Desi Seed is careful not to expand its shareholder base aggressively as production of seed, especially organic seed, is a tricky business. The success of the business depends on the quality of the seed multiplication process. Purity of each variety must be maintained as it moves from the breeder to farmer.
Seeding resilience and a dignified livelihood
Building a profitable collective business to develop seed-sovereignty and ensure livelihood security among farmers are the central mottos of Desi Seeds producer company. Its core business is to produce and sell open-pollinated seeds that will breed true type. They are either farm-saved or conserved in community seed banks. The seeds are sold in their brand name ‘Sahaja Seeds’ to farmers, home gardeners, and NGOs/farmers organisations and government programmes.
According to Kalapppa, organic seed farming is quite remunerative. The cost of cultivation is practically zero. He makes bio fertilisers and pesticides by himself by mixing locally available leaves and grains with cow urine. His wife and daughters provide the labour along with him. The income cycle generally starts after about three months. He makes up to Rs. 100,000 from seed sales every three months.
Desi Seed has been working in collaboration with its counterpart Sahaja Samrudha and other agencies to spread the skills and knowledge around organic seed production. Farmers like Kalappa act as resource persons in the training and capacity building programmes it conducts. Many of the farmers are also committed conservers of a large variety of local seeds.
As we were getting ready to leave the small make-shift shack in the midst of Kalappa’s farm used mainly as the ‘work station’, Manjula offered us two big, round, golden yellow pumpkins from their field. That they were the outcomes of the family’s hard labour as also a deep love for the nature excited us. Manjula’s sense of ownership of the farm as an equal partner in the production of seeds was evident in our interaction throughout. The bright smile on the faces of the couple spoke volumes of their confidence in what they have chosen to do for their wellbeing and the wellbeing of the nature.
Tara Nair is a Professor at Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad.