India’s farmer innovators


Innovation is rarely associated with vegetables, fruits or spices. Hiren Bose introduces us to some of the farmer innovators of India who have developed crop varieties, which besides being high-yielding, are pest-resistant and can be grown in a non-traditional environment.

Sixty-four-year old Navnath Malhari Kaspate is a farmer innovator having developed a new variety of custard apple. Called NMK-01 (Golden), the variety is preferred among prospective custard apple growers and is presently being grown in 15 states of India.  Kaspate holds IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) for the variety, he has developed.   

The term ‘farmer-innovator’ is a very recent coinage in India, thanks to the National Innovation Foundation (NIF). The Foundation over the years has assiduously identified innovators from the country’s small town and villages. Besides recognising their contribution to agriculture and horticulture, it has promoted them too.

Innovation is rarely associated with vegetables, fruits or spices. Interestingly, there are scores of unlettered farmers who have been ingenious enough to develop crop varieties, which besides being high-yielding, are pest-resistant and can be grown in a non-traditional environment.

Earlier known as the Honey Bee Network, the NIF was set up by the Department of Science and Technology. It has documented, added value, protecting the IPR of the contemporary unaided technological innovators and traditional knowledge-holders, disseminating their innovations on a commercial and non-commercial basis.

According to Hardev Choudhary, Innovation Officer, NIF, it is the volunteers spread across districts in the country who identify the prospective farmer-innovators and validate their achievements.
The Biennial Grassroots Innovation and Outstanding Traditional Knowledge Awards being held since 2001 help in this regard. So far, NIF has filed for 71 registrations under the plant variety, of which only 10 have been granted. Following proper verification, documentation, evaluation and validation by local agriculture universities or the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) which involves the work of several years, NIF assists the innovators in acquiring registrations.

Developing a new variety of crop or fruit is generally undertaken either by universities or institutions like the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research. But in the case of Kaspate, a class 11 dropout he had the passion of a grower and the perseverance of a plant breeder.  Visit his sprawling farm in Gormale village in Solapur, Maharashtra, and you’re likely to come across a ‘living museum’ of 42-odd varieties of custard apple collected from different parts of the world.

Kaspate introduced the farming community to NMK-01 (Golden) in 2011 and five years later, he was awarded the Plant Genome Saviour Farmer Reward constituted by the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority. He received a cash prize of ₹ 1 lakh for the same. Ever since NMK-01 (Golden) was launched, he claims to have sold 30 lakh saplings and made at least one crore from selling the fruit. Mainly grown in dry-land zones, growers not only have a good word about the NMK-01 variety, but are all praises about the yield, which can be as high as 12 tonnes per acre.

Sadabahar, a new mango variety

Have you heard of a mango variety called, Sadabahar?  Very unlikely. It’s called so as it fruits thrice in a year.

Developed by Shree Kishan Suman, a Kota-based horticulturist and farmer, Sadabahar is a recent entrant in the mango-sphere and has quite a few similarities with Alphonso. Mango growers the world over are making a beeline for this new variety of the ‘king of fruits’ to have in their orchards. Fifty-two-year-old Suman of village Girdharpura, 15 km from Kota, belongs to a family of farmers who used to grow rice and wheat but gave them up due to the fluctuating market rates. In 2000, he identified a mango tree in his orchard, which had bloomed in the three seasons viz. January-February, June-July and September-October. He prepared five grafted mango trees, using them as a scion. This tree had a good growth habit and had dark green leaves. Growing them for years, he found the mango trees immune to major diseases and common disorders. He took about 15 years to develop this variety.

Soon the NIF got in touch with him and has grown the variety at different places in the country to authenticate the veracity of Suman’s claim. In 2017, Suman was conferred with the Farm Innovation Award during the 9th Biennial Grassroots Innovation and Outstanding Traditional Knowledge held at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Perhaps the nation’s or in fact, the world’s only hybrid mango that flowers thrice a year, Sadabahar has been registered under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act as a farmers’ variety. So far, Suman has sold over 1500 plants, to nurseries and individuals in different parts of the country.
Jumbo cauliflowers

Jagdish Prasad Parikh is a 71-year- old farmer from Ajitgarh, Sikar district of Rajasthan, who proudly tells visitors that his jumbo cauliflower has earned him an entry into the Limca Book of Records. As his cauliflowers are very big, they are preferred by hotels and restaurants. Growing cauliflowers since 1990, his variety received the Grassroots Innovation Award in 2001, also making him the recipient of an IPR in 2017. The biggest cauliflower he has so far grown is 25.5 kgs. The variety is unlike the regular cauliflowers you see with the vegetable vendor or purchase from your neighbourhood mall. Unaffected by warm temperatures, the variety is disease-resistant as well as tolerant to insect attacks. It can also be grown thrice in a year.

Wonder spices

These innovations by farmer-innovators, who hold IPRs for their innovations, are shining examples of livelihood security leading to crop improvement, assuring food and nutritional security, enhancing production technologies and also providing environment security. Of them, one is Sabu Varghese of Pampadumpara village in Kerala’s Idukki district, who sells around 10,000 saplings of his ‘wonder cardamom’ each year. It is a drought-resistant variety which yields around three kg of the spice per plant and can be grown in rubber plantations. The variety can be grown in high-temperature surroundings, requiring shade and humidity for a good harvest. He received an IPR for his variety in 2015 and has not looked back since then.

Like Sabu, T.T. Thomas (71) is from Idukki and has developed “Pepper Thekken”, a high yield variety of black pepper which gives a yield of more than 1000 pepper balls in one pepper bunch and is a recipient of IPR for his developed variety. About 8600 kg of dry pepper can be produced from one hectare. Since the pepper is produced in bunches, harvesting is also easy.  

Plant breeders, researchers and farmers like Kaspate, Suman, Parikh, Sabu and Thomas have been granted IPR under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act (PPV & FR) of 2001. Exclusive rights to produce, sell, market, distribute, import and export a crop variety are granted to farmers under this Act. They are also exempt from payment of any fee.

The Apple man of Bilaspur

Among the unique fruit variety developed by the NIF’s farmer-innovators is an apple that can be successfully grown in plains in temperatures between 40-45 ºC, called HRMN-99. Developed by Hariman Sharma of Paniala village in Himachal Pradesh’s Bilaspur district, the variety is scab disease-resistant and can be grown in tropical and subtropical regions in the country. In 2017, he was awarded the 9th National Biennial Grassroots Innovation Award by erstwhile President Pranab Mukherjee.

Called the ‘Apple Man of Bilaspur’, Hariman (61) owns a 1.75-hectare orchard, in which he also grows mango, pomegranate, kiwi, plum, apricot and peach, along with coffee. There have been reports of successful fruiting of the HRMN-99 apple variety in Manipur, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Haryana, Rajasthan, Jammu, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Telangana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and even Dadra & Nagar Haveli.

“Till 2005, no one would have believed that apples could be grown along with pomegranates and mangoes in the plains, 700 m above sea level in warm temperatures. But HRMN-99 has made this possible and is presently being grown in 29 states of the country,” Hariman concludes.

Hiren Bose

Hiren Kumar Bose is a journalist based in Thane, Maharashtra. He doubles up as a weekend farmer.