Preserving ancient grains

I visited The Traveler, an old friend who I’d lost touch with, and met his wife, The Glittering, for the first time. She is very deeply into preserving old grains. That’s something The Family and I are also interested in, although not in a practical and hands on fashion. So we spent a long and pleasant evening listening to her experiences. There was an interesting story behind the millets which you can see in the featured photo. The Traveler said that he’d been trying to help his wife grow millets for a while, but they would always be eaten up by birds before they could be harvested.

The Glittering continued the story and told us how she met a farmer who had a few stalks of heavily bearded millet. Birds found it difficult to peck at the grains through the beard. He gave her half a stalk to plant. The year that she planted it she was very careful, keeping watch on the patch constantly. Everything that she’d planted grew, and she harvested more than a kilo of the foxtail millets. She put all of it back into the ground the next year, and now she has a continuing stock.

What is the Hindi word for this grain? The Family thought it must be ragi or nachni, but The Traveler pointed out that these are probably words for finger millet. Pearl millet is called bajra. A little search threw up two unfamiliar Hindi words for foxtail millet: kangni or kakum. So these are known, but as the grains have fallen out of use, their names are also slowly being forgotten.

This is her method. Find seeds of grain, plant some, and keep planting it. Preservation is use, according to her, not just a seed vault buried in a frozen but warming continent. She showed us this rice. “No smell,” she said. I sniffed at it, and thought I could get a mild sweet smell from it. The Family got no aroma. The Glittering said that she found this from a farmer who had just a little of it to spare. “How much land to you set aside for each?” I asked. She said, “Very little. I own a very small piece of land.” We decided to go and look at it another time when we come by.

Seeing our interest, she brought out a different variety of rice. “I grew up eating this,” she told us, “but it cannot be found in shops any more.” She spent seasons looking for it, and only found it deep in the interior of a tribal area in Chhattisgarh. The soil and weather are very different there, she told us. It took a while for her to figure out how to grow this rice, but now she has a continuing crop, and grows enough to keep a year’s supply at home.

We had no idea how much grain she would consider sufficient until The Family asked whether we could get some of it. The Glittering said “I don’t have enough to give you any this year.” She promised to send us ten kilos the next. This was not what The Family meant, and they had a laugh when she said she wanted only a kilo. We are light eaters, and a kilo of this variety to rice added to all the others we have collected could well be eaten over three months. Viable farming, on the other hand, means several tens of kilos of yield just to continue the grain.

The Glittering said that she’d started with sorghum, jawar in Hindi. The Family has been eating jawar rotis for years, and I’ve grown to prefer those to wheat because of the interestingly different taste. The rotis turn out thicker, so one has to resist the temptation to eat more. We saw the grain that The Glittering grows: a nice dark shade. She had enough of it to share. We are now looking forward to visiting her farm. There’s such a variety of grains which have fallen out of use, and are only grown in forgotten little pockets. They add many different tastes to meals, and deserve to be brought back.

Desert livelihoods

As we traveled westwards from Jodhpur into the deep desert, we raced past tiny villages. A day later, as we stood in a little oasis in the desert and saw a herd of sheep come in to graze and drink water, I started to wonder about the livelihood of people who live here. The desert covers about 60% of Rajasthan. The population density of about 80 persons per square kilometer is about a fifth of the rest of Rajasthan. Still, the desert holds more than 15 million people. How do they live, what do they do?

Herding is a major traditional livelihood. Apart from sheep we saw goats, cows and donkeys. The photo which you see above was taken near one of the largest oases in the western desert. Ground water is scarce in the desert; we hardly saw any wells. Because of this, traditional herders were nomadic, driving their livestock from one oasis to another. I don’t know whether this lifestyle is still possible today. I suspect that the slightly improved supply of water, from the Indira Gandhi Canal, has contributed to the settling of nomads. Another factor in the settling of nomads is the plentiful electricity from wind generators: you need to have a settled address in order to tap into the electric grid

There was evidence of subsistence farming, as in the photo above. I had to keep my nose and mouth constantly covered against blowing dust, so I suspect that there is little soil here. Farming cannot be a paying proposition. The article on the Thar desert in Wikipedia claims that a third of crops fail. This figure is not referenced, and may be inaccurate. New crops are constantly tried out, and it was clear that pearl millet (bajra) is a success. We had wonderful bajra roti all through our trip. The Family pointed out that the bajra is better than what we get in Mumbai. On the other hand, it is also clear that there is a constant battle to contain the desert.

One possible future for India due to global warming is widespread desertification of the country. This is not inevitable, because good policies and innovation in large-scale rain and ground water management could lead to a different future. The Thar desert is a laboratory for how we could try to manage this kind of disastrous future.