In Chittur, in the rice bowl of Kerala, the land flattens conspicuously, its evenness heightened by the undulating Western Ghats that loom large in the background. Here the Shokanashini (destroyer of woes), a tributary of the Bharathapuzha, irrigates the dark soil on which grows luscious paddy. Rains fall often here, enhancing the beauty of the landscape. Of late, peacocks have come to roost and their shrill cries are heard ever so often.
Narayanan Unny’s Navara Eco Farm is snuggled in this picturesque scenery. This 125-year-old, 18-acre farm exclusively produces navara, a rice species acclaimed for its medically beneficial properties.
Consumed traditionally during the wet months of karkidakam and used extensively in the famed navara kizhi Ayurvedic treatment, navara is a rice endemic to Kerala.
Not being a staple variety and used mainly as health food, the rice lost its prominence after the Land Ceiling Act of 1967, when paddy acreage was considerably reduced. In 1994, Narayanan Unny quit his computer business in Kozhikode and took charge of the family farm, after the demise of his father.
He found that the rice with a 60-day life cycle, and consumed periodically, had being reduced to production of a mere 50 acres from the 2,000 that it once commanded. “Even pure navara seeds were not available,” says Unny.
He then made and executed a plan for conservation of navara. It began with a search for pure navara seeds, and not finding any, not even at the Rice Research Centre in Pattambi, Unny began seed purification in 15 cents of land, sowing only navara without another rice variety.
He then planted the pure seeds in 12 acres. “I was clear that there was a demand for this wellness rice and that it had to be grown organically.”
Navara paddy is delicate with soft strands that wilt easily and is prone to rice pests. To make it organic, he tried and tested an array of natural pesticides — neem, marigold, tulsi, stale fish mix — but found them wanting in countering pest attacks. Finally, he came up with an innovative method of using a butterfly catching net to manually comb the paddy for pests twice a day. Along with his five colleagues, the workers on his farm, he brushes the paddy daily.
“It is the only successful pesticide-free method,” he says with pride.
In 2003, the process for Organic certification of the farm was started. A year later, he along with all stakeholders, pitched for registration of Geographical Indication of navara. The move brought together farmers, the Kerala Agriculture University, Department of Agriculture, rice millers and traders with CII Kerala facilitating Navara Rice Farmers Society in the process.
In 2007, the rice got its GI branding. “We now have a traditional product which was on the verge of extinction,” says Unny, adding that the price of the rice depends on output.
For him, this journey has been special, of carrying forward the hard work done by three generations of his family. Unny believes that the rice has the potential to conquer the world as a health food.
“It can be a representative ethnic product.”
And so he presents its story, his story in a telling narrative as a PPT to documentary filmmakers, scientists, agriculturists, conservationists, reporters, and chefs, who make a beeline to his farm looking for the rare purple rice.
There are still more challenges ahead, the current one being particularly tricky. Wild boars and the preening peacocks that swarm over his farm destroy the delicate paddy. “Both are protected species. Being the national bird, we are helpless when it comes to them; the peacocks are not so pretty after all,” he says with a sigh.