SKUAST-K, MARS team helps preserve Gurez’s heritage crop

Organically grown black cumin is known for its aroma, nutritional values
“Locals had never thought that the spice would grow in the plains and even in their kitchen gardens," Khan said. [Representational Image]
“Locals had never thought that the spice would grow in the plains and even in their kitchen gardens," Khan said. [Representational Image]Wikimedia Commons / Mountainhills

Gurez: The organic black cumin, known for its aroma and other nutritional values, grown naturally in the wild habitations of the high mountainous valley of Gurez in north Kashmir's Bandipora, has now been preserved and domesticated with help from a team of scientists from Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Kashmir (SKUAST-K) and the Mountain Agriculture Research and Extension Station (MARS) established by the Indian Agricultural and Research Institute (IARI) in the tribal valley.

Both centers are involved in keeping the nature of the horticultural and agricultural products in Gurez Valley organic with the help of various scientific techniques and awareness campaigns among the farmers.

For some time now, the centers have been helping the naturally grown black cumin in tribal or wild habitats to be harvested domestically to uplift the socio-economic status of the community, besides preserving the indigenous varieties via germplasm preservation techniques.

In the process, the center collected wild but mature tubers from various mountainous areas and grew them in different designated areas.

Talking to Greater Kashmir, Head of the Mountain Agriculture Research and Extension Station at Izmerg, Bilal Ahmad Bhat said, “We checked the spice's performance and various parameters, including aroma and nutritional values in the labs."

The project initially started in 2019 under Chief Scientist Wadura, SKAUST-K, Prof Muhammad Anwar Khan, who was then the in-charge of the station.

Sharing the details of the project, he said, "There was this immature harvesting practice prevalent among the natives in June and July that damaged seeds and tubers. Otherwise, decades ago, the spice would grow in the plain areas. The spice was even cultivated on the mud roofs. However, with the mode of propagation via tubers and seeds hindered, the spice vanished locally and remained restricted to wild areas where the same harvesting practices continued.”

To stop the practice, they did local campaigning, and the practice was somehow nearly halted, resulting in the preservation of “the natural asset” through the process of indigenous biodiversity conservation.

In one of the reports published by Greater Kashmir, the local administration had ordered a ban on the early cultivation of cumin.

The second part of the project was domestication, for which the department collected mature seeds and tubers from the wild habitations and planted them at the station and even in Dawar.

"From roughly 4000 to 5000 collections, 930 collections were established, from which 253 were selected for their unique character and production quantity," Khan said. “Wome of the unique selections of about 102 varieties had doubled production quantities of about 4 to 5 gm.”

Those varieties were preserved at the National Germplasm Plasm Repository at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), New Delhi, where they are registered.

Furthermore, in the actual domestication process, farmers living closer to the mountains, especially in Nayle village, who exploited the spice more and damaged it during harvesting were made aware of this and given the tubers for cultivation in the kitchen gardens.

"It was a success. The spice had grown in the kitchen gardens and other areas, and the performance was splendid," Khan said about the project, which culminated in October 2022.

As a result, locals inspired by the department tried to exploit the same techniques by letting the spice grow naturally.

This included an elderly woman, Khadija, who fenced an area on a nearby hill and let the spice grow in its natural habitat, which won praise from the SKUAST-K Vice Chancellor.

“Locals had never thought that the spice would grow in the plains and even in their kitchen gardens," Khan said.

With the success of the project, he believes this practice would continue and that the farmers would benefit from the produce.

“The market value of black cumin is estimated at Rs 8000 per kg and the hybrid varieties, which include SKAUST-K's Kala Zeera-I, have a yielding performance of 200 kg per 2.5 acres of land, and other selections from the department have a 250 to 300 kg range.

“The best and most promising four to five selections may also come as varieties in two to three years," Khan said.

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