Dr Prabhakar Rao has collected about 560 endangered seeds from across the world and is looking to revive them.

Heard of strawberry corn or freckles lettuce This Bengaluru man is reviving worlds forgotten cropsDr Prabhakar Rao (L)
news Agriculture Monday, May 15, 2017 - 13:44

Ever seen Tuleo strawberry corn? It's corn except its kernels are cherry red in colour! Heard of casper eggplant? That would be an eggplant which is all white. Or Freckles Lettuce, which literally has freckle marks on it?

No, these aren’t names of plants made up by JK Rowling, they exist in real life!

And if you want to see them, head to Bengaluru where they thrive in a 2.5 acre farm with 140 other rare and endangered varieties of crops.

Black corn, blue corn, oda capsicum, bhoot jolokia capsicum, yellow pear tomatoes, red sausage tomato, hill county red okra, silver queen okra, purple okra

Fastigia Purple Striped Groundnut

The farm is under the care and supervision of Dr Prabhakar Rao, who holds a PhD in plant breeding and genetics. Dr Rao has always had a keen interest in agriculture. Working as an architect in Dubai before returning to India in 2011, the 60-year-old says he has collected about 560 varieties of endangered, indigenous seeds from 25 countries on his travels.

It was also during his time abroad that he became part of a worldwide community called International Seed Savers Exchange. 

“I read an article 25 years ago about how many desi species of crops were going extinct because farmers were buying hybrid seeds. They may sound exotic but they aren’t even new. In fact, 30% of seeds I collected are of Indian nativity,” he tells TNM.

Dr Rao explains that when corporates sell hybrid seeds, they ensure that the farmer comes to them every time he/she wants to cultivate the crop. “Unlike these hybrid seeds, these desi varieties multiply when grown. So essentially, if a farmer buys 10 seeds from me, they never have to come back to buy more,” he says.

Oda bell peppers, indigo blueberries tomatoes, beleah rose and romain lettuces

Casper Eggplant

But it hasn’t been easy collecting these seeds. The trick, Dr Rao says, has been to locate old farmers, who may have some of these rare varieties saved, and persuade them with reasons that would resonate with them. 

“They give you the seeds when they know that you are going to do something good with it. They don’t even ask for money in return,” he says.

After returning to India, Dr Rao tested the seeds to check which ones could grow here and found that 140 of them could be easily grown in the Indian climate. He also set up Hariyalee Seeds, which curates species of endangered and heirloom seeds from all over the world and also sells them.

Hariyalee holds curated visits to the farm, allowing families, groups and individuals to experience everything from sowing to harvesting. “While some come to get away from the city, others come to learn how to produce something sustainable. Others want to grow chemical free vegetables at their home. Families come with children to familiarize their children with the farm experience,” Dr Rao observes.

Photos from a curated farm visit

He also trains and holds workshops for farming communities in coastal Karnataka as well as across Indian states like Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, in collaboration with Art of Living in which he is a trustee. 

In this three-day workshop, farmers who want to do away with chemical methods and supplements for their crops, are trained in natural farming, which Dr Rao says is different from organic farming.

“It is like organic farming but only to the extent that both are chemical free ways of cultivating crops. But in natural farming, there is no composting, which causes an exothermic reaction. We use cow dung and urine, and prepare certain mixtures which don’t kill the microbes, but cause them to multiply. These microbes then do the work of releasing nutrients for the plants, making external fertilisers unnecessary,” he explains.

Once the workshop is completed, Dr Rao says that they also create handholding mechanisms for the farmers, by training certain persons from within the village who then guide and help the farmers in the future.

Ultimately, Dr Rao wants to popularise the endangered seeds. So far, most people who have bought them from Hariyalee Seeds are home gardeners with whom Dr Rao keeps in touch through area-based WhatsApp groups. Some farmers have also bought them because the crops get a good price given their exotic nature, Dr Rao explains.

Dr Rao intends to keep his passion for agriculture alive for as long as he can. “There is something hugely motivating and energising about reviving a tradition, something that our ancestors did,” he quips.

(All photos courtesy Hariyalee/Facebook)

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