How Tamil Nadu’s farmers revived heritage rice varieties over decades

The past two years have seen a surge in the demand for heritage rice in the State. This Pongal, we look at the decades-long movement behind this revival, and the farmers, researchers and entrepreneurs who affected change at the grassroots

“At the Organic Farmers Market (OFM) Chennai, we sold 100 tonnes of 91 different varieties of heritage rice in the last two years,” says Ananthoo, founder, OFM. Radhika Augustus, of the city-based Heritage Essentials, adds that their sales of heritage rice doubled in 2021.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, it has resulted in people making more thoughtful food choices. This Pongal, many traditional farmers are celebrating the city’s growing enthusiasm for heritage rice. Though this surge of interest has been especially visible over the past two years, stakeholders point out that this movement has been almost two decades in the making, across Tamil Nadu and beyond.

“The [more recent] shift is due to an increased awareness about the benefits of traditional rice, as well as the general importance given to healthy living during the pandemic,” says Ananthoo. “Farmers are able to meet the surging demand now as they have mastered techniques to cultivate these crops, steadily increasing the yield per acre,” he states, adding that farmers’ collectives have played a significant role in this revival.

How Tamil Nadu’s farmers revived heritage rice varieties over decades

Radhika describes how Anand Rajarathinam — founder of the organisation Heritage Inspired, of which Heritage Essentials is a part — motivated farmers in the Kumbakonam region to take up traditional farming methods with a promise to buy their produce and take it directly to dedicated customers. “We also started organising cooking sessions on native rice, and have compiled an ebook with recipes, so customers can use heritage rice on a regular basis,” she says.

Rejuvenating the soil

These are not isolated stories. In Thanjavur district alone, for instance, “Around 45,000 farmers shifted to natural farming during the past 15 years,” says R Sriram, of SVR Organic Way Farm, Kathiramangalam. He credits environmental activist G Nammalvar, who accelerated the heritage rice revival movement during the past two decades, as well as seed saver Nel Jayaraman, who organised seed festivals all over the State. “Their efforts resulted in a significant increase in the cultivation of native rice as well as widening the area of land that is completely into natural farming. It is the marginal and mid-size farmers who made this shift, and more and more are joining the movement all over Tamil Nadu to cater to the rising demand,” says Sriram.

How Tamil Nadu’s farmers revived heritage rice varieties over decades

In his 80-acre farm Sriram has since 2008, he revived close to 60 different types of heritage rice varieties. “In the Thanjavur region, which was known as Nerkalanjiyam, there existed 175 or more varieties and we are trying to revive all of them,” he says.

How Tamil Nadu’s farmers revived heritage rice varieties over decades

Popular native rice varieties of Tamil Nadu

  • Mapplilai Samba
  • Karung kuruvai
  • Thooyamalli
  • Kaattuyanam
  • Seeraga samba
  • Kichili Samba
  • Karuppu kavuni
  • Kodaivalai
  • Ponni
  • Poongar
  • Kothamalli samba
  • Garudan Samba
  • Iluppaipoo Samba
  • Thanga Samba

In Chennai, Qidhan, a platform that supports natural farming, has worked with farmers to revive and market an ancient rice variety called rakthashali, which was on the verge of extinction in 2018. Qidhan’s founder Harjas Singh, who procures produce from farmers and sells it online, says they have collaborated with farmers in Kerala’s Palakkad region to grow native rice such as the GI-tagged Kerala Matta’s various varieties: Chenkazhama, jyothi and chavalakannan.

“We promote parboiled rice, therefore the processing is done within the farm. We have brought together small farmers who cultivate about 20 acres. Now, more farmers in the region are showing interest in natural farming and reviving native rice,” says Harjas. Currently they have six types of Kerala Matta rice, besides jeerakasala, mappilai samba and thooyamalli.

Enriching every meal

Back in Tamil Nadu’s Odakkanallur village, K Ilayaraja transitioned to natural farming five years ago, focussing on traditional rice. “The transition was beautiful. It is a labour-intensive process, but the financial investment was comparatively less. We have to plough the land well and sow the seed, and ensure good flow of water. Then after two or four months, depending on the paddy variety, it is ready for harvest. The yield may be less compared to commercial farming, but the cost is also minimal, therefore it is profitable,” he says.

How Tamil Nadu’s farmers revived heritage rice varieties over decades

According to Ananthoo, the enhanced interest among the farmers and consumers is also due to a love for tradition and a sense of nostalgia that heritage rice brings along with it. “For farmers, these varieties are a boon, as they are weather, pest, and disease resistant. For consumers, there is a sense of respect and regard for traditional native rice due to its therapeutic and medicinal properties,” says Ananthoo.

Know your source

  • PGS-India (Participatory Guarantee System of India) ( is a quality assurance initiative that is locally relevant and emphasises the participation of stakeholders, including producers and consumers and operates outside the frame of third party certification.
  • It is a system based on participatory approach, a shared vision, transparency and trust. It gives the PGS movement national recognition and an institutional structure.
  • Prithvi Indigenous Natural Farmers Trust, Kadhiramangalam, is involved in promoting Organic Farming, Farmers Research & study Center, conserving, and improving plant genetic resources for the farmers in the region. They also help small farmers to get PGS organic certification.
  • Certified farmers are listed in the website, where consumers can look up and get in touch and purchase produce directly.

Farm to home

One big advantage of this revival is that the produce is being sold directly to consumers, with help from farmers’ collectives in every region or cluster. “Right now, we farmers cultivate based on the demand or pre-order. Presently, a part of the land is used for native rice cultivation, and I am sure gradually more acres will be utilised,” says Ilayaraja.

How Tamil Nadu’s farmers revived heritage rice varieties over decades

Hima Kiran, of Namma Village, who cultivates over 80 acres of agricultural land in Kommakambedu village in Thiruvallur district, says that more and more farmers are considering traditional rice cultivation as there is better price realisation. “We are slowly adapting to natural farming and revival of native traditional rice. We see how the soil quality improves within a few years, the environmental hazard of pesticide is eliminated and most importantly there is the biggest advantage of supplying directly to our customers through our website,” Hima Kiran says.

In Bodi, Theni district, Jayanth Kaaliappan discusses how his ancestors had cultivated a traditional rice variety called puzhudhi nel and adapted traditional farming in the region.

Revival and restoration

“We lost this particular variety, and I am trying to revive it, but I am unable to find the seeds. As there is a huge demand for traditional rice, I leased five acres of land in Karaikkal five years ago and began the cultivation of maapplilai samba, thooyamalli, and karuppu kavuni,” says Jayanth, who has also been involved in the revival of native mango varieties.

How Tamil Nadu’s farmers revived heritage rice varieties over decades

“My favorite among them is kalanamak or well-known as Buddha rice and iluppaipoo samba. This light pink Buddha rice is not only highest in antioxidant properties and nutrition value, but also flavourful and aromatic, can be used as table rice or porridge, and even in South Indian tiffin items,” says Sriram.

Ilayaraja adds, “It is such a joy to see our land being rejuvenated. With natural farming, the quality of the soil improves gradually. When we see snails and crabs on the farm, it is an indication that the soil is at its best.”

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