The quest for indigenous crops took Zizira explorers in search of locally grown turmeric to Kyrdem Kulai, in Meghalaya’s Ri-Bhoi district, near Umsning, well known for the Government’s poultry and animal farms and farmers’ training centres.
It turns out it was not easy to find local turmeric in that area. The farmers we interviewed hardly cultivate the crop. It was by chance that we heard about Kong R. Lau, an upper division clerk in the Veterinary Department’s training centre at Kyrdem Kulai. Kong Lau is also a successful small turmeric farmer, having cultivated it for the past ten years.
We arranged to meet at her office and from there we proceeded to her little farm, about a kilometre away. Kong Lau warned us that nothing may be seen in the field except bare earth, as it was past mid-May and the planting season gets over in March-April. The seedlings may have sprouted and it takes 8-9 months to reach maturity and harvest.
Kong Lau’s small venture
Kong Lau is originally from Shangpung, a village 10 km from Jowai in Laskein Block in West Jaintia Hills. She landed at Kyrdem Kulai because of her job in the Veterinary Department. Shangpung is in the region that is home to the renowned, high cucurmin, Lakadong turmeric. When Kong Lau came to Kyrdem Kulai ten years back she found the local turmeric quite low in quality. That discovery gave her the idea to cultivate the Shangpung variety. To her surprise, her turmeric not only grew well, it thrived year after year! The farm is a very small one, just under half an acre, with her house in the middle, Kong Lau grows other essential vegetables and fruits for the family’s own consumption.
Turmeric planting and caring
March is usually the planting month, and the first two weeks of December are harvest time. Soil preparation happens immediately after harvest by turning the soil over, leaving decaying plant matter buried till April. Chopped paddy straw and dried leaves and plant matter are strewn over as mulch to keep up soil moisture and fertility. Kong Lau uses only animal manure (chicken dung) as fertiliser. Once planting is over, weeding is another important activity done thrice in the growing season.
December is busy harvesting time. Once the rhizomes are out they are carefully segregated. Diseased and rotted ones are immediately discarded. The best ones are kept as seed for the next crop, while the rest are for conversion to powder. The latter is thoroughly washed in water, cut into thin slices and then spread out to sun-dry. This drying process may take about two weeks to a month, depending upon the sun’s intensity. Once the rhizome slices are fully dried or dehydrated they are ready for grinding into powder. Umsning town has a grinding facility.
Her farm being small, Kong Lau can accommodate only about 100 kilos of rhizomes for planting. A normally good season fetches her about 600 kilos of rhizomes out of which 100 kilos are kept for seed and the rest 500 kilos for conversion to powder. Ideally 5 kilos of rhizomes convert to 1 kilo of powder. In a good season Kong Lau gets approximately 70 kilos of good quality turmeric powder.
Experiment, Experience and Persistence
Her strategy for avoiding pests and diseases is by being very selective about the mother rhizome to be planted, the seed material. But pests cannot be fully done away with she says. There are always a few underground pests that eat up rhizomes, which she can do nothing about. But she never applies pesticides.
In the last ten years of turmeric cultivation, Kong Lau has learnt that good seeds are as important as good soil. That’s why she is very particular about seed material. Through experience, she discovered that the quality of the Shangpung diminishes after three to four years. The deep yellow colour fades and the aroma reduces. Thus, every fourth year she brings fresh seed material from Shangpung, to retain the quality.
Market Reputation and future plans
Kong Lau has a ready local market. Being purely organically grown, and high on quality and aroma, Kong Lau’s turmeric is reputed and very high in demand. She is the main supplier to the entire Kyrdem Kulai households and part of the Umsning area.
The Zizira Effort
We at Zizira continue to explore and bring you such stories of small and marginal farmers, highlighting their efforts. Largely unsung, these heroes, like Kong Lau are, collective contributors to the economy, in their small ways. For more stories, and to know more about us too, subscribe to our newsletter.