Leh (Ladakh), April 5 (IANS) At 73, Ama Sonam Dolma is a successful entrepreneur. She grows the seeds of exotic vegetables and herbs which we buy at a handsome price to spice our pasta, soups and salads. The only difference: the seeds of her broccoli, lettuce, bok choy and leek are very much Indian unlike the European varieties in the market.
Staying in Upper Tukcha, a village about a kilometre from Leh town in Ladakh, Ama (Mother) Dolma got into this business at age 58 when most people retire. Her seeds instantly became a hit with the foreign tourists.
'My seeds are kept in the local products' shop of the Women's Alliance, an NGO. Most foreigners like the seeds as they are organic,' she said.
Seeds in Ladakh are increasingly becoming a lucrative business, thanks to the region's cold and dry climate. With a minimum investment of Rs.2,000, those like Ama Dolma are earning about Rs.30,000 annually from seeds.
'Seeds, like that of leek for instance, are imported from Europe. They cannot be produced anywhere in India but Ladakh. Other seeds like beetroot, knol khol, celery and zucchini can also be easily grown in Ladakh because the region enjoys long daylight hours, which means high light intensity,' said Dorjay Anghcuk, a scientist at the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR) in Leh that works under the Defence Research and Development Organisation.
'This, combined with very low humidity, makes Ladakh quite congenial for the production of seeds,' he said. 'These also fetch a good price.'
Added Shashi Bala Singh, a former director of DIHAR: 'Because of the weather, vegetables transform from vegetative to reproductive state, which is when they breed seeds. Also, their size grows bigger than normal. The flowers are also bigger and more in number, which means more seeds.'
Surprised tourists stop to buy the unusually fat zucchini and cauliflower (sometimes weighing more than two kg) in the Leh market where many a women sit selling their extraordinary stuff.
In one acre of her field, Ama Dolma has a treasure trove of parsley, celery, Swiss Chard, the German Knol khol, beetroot and zucchini apart from carrot, radish, cabbage, cauliflower, onion and a variety of spinach seeds which would be any chef's delight.
All her seeds are certified by the National Seeds Corp of India.
'I sell lettuce seeds for Rs.840 a kg and knol khol for Rs.2,000 a kg. The mongol variety of spinach goes for Rs.2,000 a kg. Onion and radish seeds sell cheap at Rs.500 a kg but most local farmers easily buy them,' said Ama Dolma.
'If these seeds are exported to other regions in the country, farmers will get better rates. But agricultural labour cost is higher as compared to other states. This, along with transportation cost, would mean that we can compete only in high value exotic vegetables and not onion and cabbage.'
Mohammad Hussain, the chief agriculture officer of Leh, said: 'Scientists say there is great potential to produce organic seeds in Ladakh. The soil here is not yet contaminated; therefore the disease incidence in plants is very low. Most seed varieties India imports can be easily grown here.'
AVT Natural Products Ltd, a Kochi-based company, is experimenting with the production of marigold seeds in Ladakh.
'The quality of the seeds produced here has been good, but there was less yield in the last two years due to flash floods and excess rainfall. Small land-holdings make it difficult to work on large scale... The climate here is similar to California and Chile,' said K. Gopinathan, its assistant vice president.
Although farmers around Leh town are growing seeds, most in Ladakh still farm traditional crops.
'Young people, whom one expects to experiment with new things, are moving out for army or tourism jobs. Old people still farming do not take to new ideas easily. We need to convince the young to stay back and experiment with production of seeds and tab the market outside Ladakh,' said Angchuk of DIHAR.
To have the farmers cash on the organic fad, DIHAR, along with NGO Ladakh Environment and Health Organisation (LEHO), has been training farmers to self-certify their organic produce.
Said Mohammad Deen, director of LEHO: 'The Seeds Corp of India has been targetting Ladakh for disease free vegetable seeds. If the farmers follow norms, they can sell seeds for a decent price.'
(Ravleen Kaur is a media fellow of the National Foundation for India working on agriculture in Ladakh. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)
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