Meghalaya’s Turmeric Trinity
We live in a country, where more than 50% of the population is dependent on agriculture as their main source of income. Most of these farmers struggle day and night to feed themselves and their families. Trinity Saioo is also a fifty-two-year-old turmeric farmer living in Mulieh village in West Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya, who changed the fate of herself and more than 900 other farmers in Meghalaya. Commonly known as ‘Turmeric Trinity,’ Saioo enabled herself and several other farmers to triple their incomes with the cultivation of the prized Lakadong Turmeric. Awarded the Padma Shri in 2020 for her work in developing rural women-owned sustainable organic farming, Saioo has successfully trained around 800 women in her village of Mulieh, Meghalaya, to grow the purest and most potent form of turmeric through organic farming methods. In 2018, she has also been honored for “Excellence in Horticulture” by the Union Ministry of Agriculture in New Delhi.
Trinity was trained as a schoolteacher and every day after her school got over, she diligently used to tend to her farms of the “golden spice.” Her village comprises of 230 households, all of which practice traditional agriculture. She is also a mother of six and belongs to the Jaintia hill tribe, one of the matrilineal hill tribes of Meghalaya, that follows matrilineal descent of inheritance. This age-old matrilineal system was probably the reason that Saioo decided to take the lead in educating the women in her village on the process of sustainable and organic farming of turmeric. Another reason being that her mother also farmed turmeric and she wanted to continue the tradition, “my mother also farmed turmeric, so it was a natural transition for me to start doing the same,” recalled Saioo.
Before Saioo started cultivating Lakadong Turmeric, most of the cultivation in her district was of Lachein, one of the three varieties of turmeric. Having acquired knowledge about turmeric farming from her ancestors, Saioo immediately realized that Lachein is low on yield and the presumably cancer-fighting curcumin (the chief constituent of turmeric that gives it its salutary properties including the bright yellow color, and the distinctive earthy piquant taste that lays the foundation for most Indian cooking) content. “But I realized that most of the women were growing the Lachein variety of turmeric, which had low yield and low curcumin content. It had no market demand. The Lakadong variety used to be grown earlier, but lately, there has been a decline in the production of turmeric,” Saioo said. On further research, she discovered that the Lakadong variety has approximately 7% curcumin, 2% higher than Lachein. Lakadong fetched more in the market and Trinity started earning three times her income. “Farmers, especially women, were intrigued when my family started earning three times higher from Lakadong variety,” said Saioo.
The curiosity among other women in the village, drove Saioo to impart them training. She received training from the state’s agriculture and horticulture departments on improving the yield of the Lakadong variety, and with the Spices Board on her side, she helped illiterate women complete their documentation and avail subsidies for seed tubers and organic certification to switch to the high yielding variety. Saioo also said, “As a teacher, I guide them to cultivate turmeric and help with pest management. Women in Meghalaya do the core of the farming work and our husbands or male members assist them. So any boost to their skills means it adds to their family’s income.”
She did however come across certain challenges. One of which was that local insects would often destroy the cultivation. For this purpose, farmers started using cow-dung, cow urine, and vermicompost, which not only kept insects at bay but also improve the quality of the crops due to the high nutritive value. “Instead of relying on chemical pesticides, we have switched to cow urine, vermicomposting and other organic means of aiding growth,” Saioo stated. Another challenge was that the price of Lakadong seeds was higher than other varieties. However, after several trips to the state’s AHD, officials agreed to finance seed partially. It was only in 2018 when the department decided to provide the seeds for free.
Today, nearly 100 Turmeric Self Help Groups (SHG) are working directly under Saioo, which consists of over 800 women. Saioo herself has a Self Help Group which comprises of two co-operatives: the Leng Skhem Spice Producer Industrial Cooperative Society, and the Life Spice Federation of Self-Help Groups, both based in the Jaintia Hills. While the men in the village assist with the farming, the co-operatives are run by women. With the help of the Meghalaya Agriculture Department, Saioo has helped the Life Spice Federation of Self- help groups open a storeroom for the supply chain distribution of Lakadong Turmeric. “We have the gift of good soil, conducive climate, and hardworking women. We hope to work these to our advantage so that people outside Meghalaya realize the value of our products,” quoted Saioo.
Today under Saioo’s leadership, the Self Help Groups export Lakadong Turmeric to southern states like Kerala, Karnataka, and the other North Eastern States. Every farmer in Meghalaya now grows the Lakadong variety of Turmeric. Saioo’s initiative has helped over 900 women to be able to earn their own money and stand on their own feet. Her work that education is not simply a measure of literacy. Knowledge resides in the awareness with which these female farmers learned how to cultivate a cash crop without destroying the environment or corrupting the produce itself. Saioo is the perfect example of how a person, if committed and willing, can and will succeed.