Kutki at Chanyara Farm
In 2004, when Surie and I started working together, our first job was to assess the results of a three-year project initiated by the Great Himalayan National Park in which kutki seedlings had been multiplied in government nurseries and distributed to women’s groups to plant in patches on government-owned forest land. The results were disappointing; survival rates were low and yields were almost non-existent.
There was one cause for optimism though; one of the national park’s nurseries – Chanyara nursery – was bursting with kutki and although wasn’t intended to be a commercial model, it was the most productive we had seen and gave us our only blueprint of how it could potentially be scaled up into a viable enterprise.
Two years later we were invited back to a farm that by chance happened to be a few hundred metres from Chanyara nursery. The farm belonged to Mr Singh, or Singh Sahib, as he was known in the village. Having lived on the farm for forty years he was very much a local, but he and his family were far from ‘ordinary’ villagers.
Born into a wealthy and well-educated family in Delhi (his father was the chief of Indian Railways), Mr Singh turned his back on mainstream society in the 1960s to build a life in the most remote place he could find. At the time, Shangarh village was four days walk from the nearest road; a further 20 minutes walk above the village, at 2400m altitude, was a beautiful clearing in the forest where the Singhs built their own (slightly eccentric) family home. Forty years later the village is connected by a precarious dirt track that is occasionally used by brave (or foolish) drivers, but for most people the farm is still a steep three-hour walk from Neuli village at the bottom of the valley.
My Singh himself wasn’t particularly interested in herbs. It was his son Jahan, and a fellow Brit, Martin Graham, who invited us. Martin had helped build a hut on the Singhs’ land – a quiet mountain retreat away from his busy day job in Delhi, and they were both keen to grow endangered Himalayan herbs. It was an ideal location and a perfect partnership to start experimenting with large-scale cultivation.
Having studied the kutki in Chanyara nursery, we were confident that it would grow well on the farm. And because of the National Park project, there was still an abundance of available planting material. So we started by ordering 30,000 kutki cuttings, many of which came from the women’s groups own nurseries – providing them with long-awaited income from their efforts. We also purchased a few hundred seedlings of about 10 other species, including all the herbs listed in the threatened species page.
The herb we wanted to grow more than anything was jatamansi. Unlike kutki though, it was very hard to find seeds or seedlings, and proved to be even harder to grow. Over the next few years we managed to buy several thousand seedlings through various National Park nurseries, but unfortunately few of the plants survived. Our most promising effort was ended prematurely by an unusual winter without snow. Freezing nights and relatively warm days caused the soil to expand and contract, dislodging and ultimately killing the young plants that were yet to develop a sufficiently deep tap root. This was unfortunate as the plants should normally be protected by a heavy blanket of snow throughout the winter.
As with all high altitude herbs, jatamansi has evolved to survive in extreme conditions and it can take time – usually through trial and error – to work out and develop suitable conditions and practices for ex-situ cultivation. Many of these species have very specific requirements that are difficult to replicate on a farm. The Himalayan marsh orchid, for example, needs to be grown in combination with specific mycorrhizal fungi; the only time we successfully germinated its seeds was by sowing them under a wild plant in the forest.
Of all the herbs we experimented with, kutki was one of the most resilient, surviving in almost every soil type and climate we tested it in. But unlike many herbs, which can thrive in poor soils, kutki was at its happiest growing in a nutrient-rich soil with plenty of organic matter. By adding Jahan’s excellent quality vermicompost [see the video below] we found that we could significantly increase the yield.
For anyone who has spent time searching for rare herbs in the natural habitat, it is an incredible experience to see thousands of them growing in one place. And when they are in flower, there are few places in the world more beautiful!
Like most other high altitude herbs, kutki takes approximately three years to mature. This means that, for the farmer to earn regular income after the third year, the land needs to be divided into at least three plots and a new crop planted every year. If possible, it should be divided into four plots so that a nitrogen-fixing legume can be planted between crops.
Kutki can be propagated from seed, but the seeds are tiny and can be difficult to germinate. Growing from seed also adds an extra year on to the growing cycle, so instead it is normally propagated using rhizome cuttings. This has worked well so far, but there is a risk that this could lead to a lack of genetic diversity, reducing the crop’s resilience against disease or changes in environmental conditions. To prevent this, government nurseries should be collecting and propagating seeds from wild plants to offer and preserve genetic diversity within the species.
With the right conditions and good quality planting material, the actual cultivation of kutki – as shown in the video below – is relatively straightforward. In the first year or two it requires a lot of weeding and watering; other than that it just requires a lot of patience:
Harvesting and processing herbs is often the most challenging stage of production. It is a critical stage in the herb’s journey and to a large extent determines the quality of the end product. Traditionally, Himalayan herbs are simply dug up, packed into old sacks, carried back home (or to a nearby cave) and laid out on the ground or on a roof to dry in the sun before being sold to a local trader. We would need to do things very differently.
To be able to sell the kutki to Pukka we had to meet their stringent quality specifications on appearance, taste, microbiology (i.e. yeasts, mould & bacteria), foreign matter and heavy metals. We would need to test samples for all these parameters before it could be approved for shipping, and it would be tested again on arrival in the UK.
Most companies involved in exporting medicinal plants buy semi-processed material from farmers or collectors, which they meticulously clean up in their own processing facility. As we had limited space for processing at Biolaya HQ, we decided to use wash, sort, dry and pack the herbs on the farm; we wanted to demonstrate that it is possible to create excellent quality finished product with the most basic of facilities. The video below shows the methods we used – very simple, but effective.
One question that is often asked is whether cultivated herbs are as good as herbs that grow in their natural habitat. It’s a valid question and one that we were also concerned about. So we designed a few tests to compare wild harvested with cultivated kutki.
From an organoleptic perspective (i.e. taste, aroma, appearance) there was little difference between the two; they both looked the same and tasted equally as bitter. So we sent samples for HPLC analysis to compare the picroside content (picrosides I & II are the ‘marker compounds’ used in Ayurveda as an indicator of the medicinal quality of roots). To our surprise the results came back showing that the cultivated sample had almost double the level of picroside I content, and the picroside II content was more or less the same. I would want to repeat the test a few times before drawing any firm conclusions, but was happy to know that the initial results indicated that we were cultivating excellent quality kutki.
The final step was to get a certificate of cultivation and CITES export permit. We knew the application process could be challenging, but we could never have anticipated just how difficult it would be. In the end it took us almost two years to get the permit. We calculated that the number of times Jahan walked from the farm (a 1000m vertical descent) to take the 2-hour bus journey to visit a Forest Department office, and back up to the farm, was the equivalent of climbing two mount Everests (!). The rest of us at Biolaya also endured equally arduous torture at the hands of the government; it pushed even the most patient of us to our limits.
We persevered until we were finally able to sell the kutki to Pukka, but ultimately our inability to sell the kutki, and the demoralising effect the whole experience had on all of us took its toll on the project. Jahan, for one, had no interest in repeating the exercise.
Fortunately, as we predicted, prices in the local market have continued to rise (an inevitable a result of declining populations in the wild), and it is gradually becoming more financially viable to produce it through cultivation. The latest news from Jahan was that he made a good profit selling kutki to a local trader; hopefully this is the spark that’s needed to encourage other local farmers to follow in his footsteps.