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Return of the forgotten crop – Brown top millet

‘Korale Raghu’, as he is popularly known, with brown top millet

Anitha Reddy and Krishna Prasad G

Millets, a staple food in Karnataka, is making a comeback. Farmers are reviving cultivation of brown top millet, a minor millet which can be grown on degraded soils with very little water. Besides being an answer to climate change crisis, brown top millet with its high nutrition content could also be an answer to deal with malnutrition among the rural poor and lifestyle diseases among the urban and semiurban India.

Browntop millet or signalgrass as it is commonly called, is one of the rarest among millets. Being native to India, it grows well in the dryland tracts of Karnataka-Andhra Pradesh border areas, covering regions of Tumkur,Chitradurga and Chikkaballapura districts in Karnataka and Ananthpur district in Andhra Pradesh.

Termed Korale in Kannada and Andakorra in Telugu, Brown top millet is also grown and consumed in limited quantities in north central India – the region commonly referred to as Bundelkhand.

Browntop millet is drought hardy and heat tolerant, but can also be planted in low areas that get flooded. The shadow tolerant nature of Korale makes it distinct from other crops. The shade loving crop grows well even under tamarind trees.Thus, the practice of farmers growing browntop millet under the tamarind tree shade is still prevalent in places like Pavagada, Madhugiri and Sira in Karnataka. In these regions, millets form the staple diet of the people. The crop survives under arid conditions and has the potential to spread widely because of its rich nutritional value as well as its ability to adapt to climate change.

It is planted in mid-April until mid-August in most locations, though later plantings will result in lower yields. It can be planted either as a sole crop or in combination with other seasonal crops. It is also an excellent choice when combined with other millets. In fact, redgram is grown as a mixed crop – for every 12 rows of browntop millet.

Browntop millet is remarkable for its early maturing ability. The crop is harvested in 75 to 80 days. Some farmers growit for fodder purpose only and harvest within 50 days. Because of its very short maturity, it can be planted as late as August and still offers ample supply of grains. It survives even if monsoon is delayed. It requires a little bit of moisture during sowing and one or two rains later, for the crop to grow and mature. Even with broadcasting method, the crop yields about 7 to 8 quintal grains per acre and four tractor loads of good quality fodder which cattle relish.

Browntop millet is not only nutritious but also very delicious. The millet is gluten free and rich in essential nutrients. It is a rich source of natural fibre, when compared to other grains. Korale contains about 12.5% fibre due to which it serves as medicine for dealing with life style diseases. Lower incidence of cardiovascular diseases, duodenal ulcer and hyperglycemia (diabetes) are reported among those who regularly consume millets.

The browntop millet is known for its rapid forage production. It is grown for several other purposes as well – as cover crop in coconut and arecanut groves, for soil erosion control and for high straw production. It suppresses root-knot nematode in the soil. The sharp leaf structure of the plant obstructs the intrusion of rats into the fields. Hence, farmers grow this crop also to control rodents in coconut and arecanut groves.

Millets make a comeback
Continuous drought in Mysore and Mandya district for three years brought back millet cultivation in these areas. Mandya farmers always enjoyed the water flow from Krishna Raja Sagar Dam for both kharif and rabi crops. But due to water shortage in the previous years, they were forced to look at alternatives to replace irrigated crops. The workshop and millet mela organised by Sahaja Samruddha, in 2015, made farmers to think beyond the irrigated crops like paddy and sugarcane. The farmers at the workshop were introduced to millets as alternative crops during rabi season. Since most of the millet varieties, particularly browntop millet, are drought resistant, farmers experimented with millets andwere successful with record yield.

Korale is a rich source of natural fibre and serves as a healthy food

More than 2000 farmers across Karnataka are cultivating Korale, owing to its various merits.

Puttaswamy, a farmer in Haleboodanuru, said “Millets don’t require much water and cultivation is easy when compared to paddy. I cultivated brown top millet and did not expect much yield owing to severe summer and depleting moisture. But to my surprise, the crops were robust and withstood the severity of drought and yielded a good harvest. Also none of these farms were affected by pests or diseases”. He remembers millet being the staple food in Mandya region, but was replaced with rice and wheat in the last three to four decades. Farmers have found out that these crops can grow with the moisture available in the soil after paddy harvest.

Similar has been the experience of C.P.Krishna , farmer from Gulurudoddi in Mandya district, who reaped a rich harvest. He says “Hardly any expenses were incurred, as only seeds were purchased and no fertilizers or pesticides were used. It grew well in the residual moisture on the field and gave a rich harvest. Now we are convinced that we will benefit if our farmers shift to these hardy dryland crops to tide over the water crisis”.

Raghu of Hendore village, Sira taluk in Tumkur district has put in efforts to popularize the crop and now he is popularly known as ‘Korale Raghu’. In addition to cultivating Korale, Raghu is also engaged in supplying seeds, value addition and marketing. He says, “Korale cultivation is cost effective. With minimum investment, farmers can register maximum returns.”

Korale is gaining popularity in some parts of north Karnataka as well. Many farmers in Hanumanahalli and Mathighatta village in Kundgol taluk, Dharwad district have started cultivating Korale. Attracted by the shadow tolerant nature of Korale, some farmers in Koppal region have also shifted to this crop from last three years. Presently, more than 2000 farmers across Karnataka are cultivating Korale.

Challenges in upscaling
With changes in climate, browntop millet could be an alternative crop for the farmers. However, while the cultivation of Korale is simple, its processing is difficult due to the hard outer cover of the seed. As a result, farmers get only 40 to 50 kg of grain from one quintal of Korale seeds. Earlier, grinding stones were used to separate the grain from the seed. Today, grinding stones have almost disappeared and Korale seeds are processed in the flour mills that process finger millet. One should be careful while processing millets in the existing flour mills as the size of these grains is very small. Even after processing, there will be some bran on the rice. This is processed further through winnowing. The size of Korale rice is also very small and separation of stones is difficult. Hence, processing has become a bottleneck for Korale farmers, and efforts have to be made to design suitable processing machines. Thirty years ago when groundnut replaced browntop millet, it upscaled very fast owing to its ease in processing resulting in better income compared to Korale.

Korale is grown in arecanut plantations

Despite all the benefits it offers and with the popularity it has gained, Korale cultivation is still confined to certain regions. It is a less cultivated crop and is almost on the verge of extinction. Conservation, popularisation and invention of appropriate and easy processing equipment for Korale could go a long way in addressing the issues of food security, malnutrition and climate change, while protecting the livelihoods of farmers.

Krishna Prasad G
Sahaja Samrudha
No 7, 2nd Cross, 7th Main, Sulthanpalya,
E-mail: sahajaindia@gmail.com