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The Magic of a Fistful Seeds

It is hard to believe that what, three decades ago, was a patch hopelessly barren land with no topsoil, today yields more than 100 varieties of vegetables and more than 50 varieties of fruits. It was more than three decades ago that Sabarmatee’s father, Radhamohan, a former professor of economics, came up with what many thought was an impossible dream — turn a patch of degraded land into an organic food forest that would also be a habitat for plants, insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and other animals. (Both father and daughter go by their first names.)

It was with that dream in mind that Radhamohan, who was also formerly Odisha information commissioner, and Sabarmatee bought 90 acres of degraded farmland in Odisha’s Nayagarh district in 1989 and took up the challenge to rejuvenate it through organic farming and soil and water conservation. To that effect, they founded Sambhav, a nonprofit which focuses on regenerative agriculture and gender justice.

The father and daughter duo started by creating a bio-fence by planting bamboo on the edges of the property. The land had no topsoil left to sustain farming and most locals believed that it was impossible to grow anything on the property. But the duo set about reviving the soil by planting specific species like bamboo, hill broom, and Sabai grass (Eulaliopsis binate or Chinese Alpine Rush) to arrest the topsoil, and protected whatever grew on the land naturally in order to prevent soil erosion. They also planted legumes to fix soil nitrogen and used mulch to rebuild the soil. They relied on ants and other insects that bore tunnels under the soil to aerate it and help it absorb water better.

In two years, eleven sprigs of grass made their appearance, they started their project to grow rice, fruits, and vegetables. Of the 90 acres, they put only 2 acres of land under paddy cultivation and allocated half an acre for growing vegetables. On the rest they planted fruit trees like mango, lychee, coconut, and lemon. They also allowed the seeds of local tree species that had been dispersed by birds across the property to take root, thus allowing a native forest to regenerate on a portion of the land.

Today, Sambhav, which means “possible” in Sanskrit, Hindi, and several Indian languages, is a resource center for farmers all over India where they can come to exchange seeds and learn organic farming.

The nonprofit has successfully grown vanishing crops like clove bean, jack bean, black rice, sword bean, and more. The regenerated forest has over 1,000 species of plants, and the farm uses System of Rice Intensification (SRI) techniques, which use less water, to grow 500 varieties of rice and supports a seed bank with 700 indigenous rice varieties. Many of these seeds were hardy varieties adapted to harsh climate conditions like drought or flooding.

Regenerating a barren piece of wasteland on ecological principles and seeing it turn into a rich, biodiverse landscape was an achievement. But Sabarmatee and Radhamohan soon realized that it was not enough in the face of increasing climatic challenges, declining crop diversity from fields/plates, and miseries of farmers and the environment.

“All these varieties have been conserved by many farmers’ fields, but the question was how to take the crop varieties back to more farmers again?” Sabarmatee says.

“We did not have the money to conserve in ways huge institutions conserve the diversity,” she says, pointing to places like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. However, she says, such institutions that preserve farmer-saved seeds often make it difficult for them to access those seeds again.

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