The sweet-scented spuds from Sanjog Sahu’s Mati Farms are a summer surprise at chefs’ tables and will soon find a prominent place in restaurant menus
Chindi Varadarajulu, chef and owner of Chennai-based Pumpkin Tales, is delighted with the purple sweet potatoes she has sourced this summer. They have brought back memories of her childhood in Singapore, she says. The potatoes, a deep purple with a sweet fragrance when cooked, are from Mati Farms, a farming enterprise in Odisha — the state leading in sweet potato production across India. “I have been actively looking for them for the past year. They are versatile and lend vibrancy to the simplest recipes,” says Varadarajulu.
Earlier this month, Delhi-based farming initiative Krishi Cress, that offers locally-grown exotic produce, also added these spuds to their list. A client, beauty columnist and influencer Vasudha Rai, immediately took to Instagram to share her experience — delicious breakfast bars with the sweet potatoes, Medjool dates, coconut oil and pistachio. Sanjog Sahu, the young farmer behind Mati Farms, couldn’t be more delighted. “Tie-ups with like-minded partners are gratifying, and have enabled us to tide over problems during these unprecedented times,” he says.
Growing a revolution
What started as a pilot project on Sahu’s one-acre farm on the banks of the Chilika lake in late 2016, grew into Mati Farms in 2018 — incorporating smallholder farmers into its initiative. The māti in ‘Mati Farms’ is soil, in Oriya. “We refer to ourselves as Mati Farms in the plural. It’s because even when we were just one tiny farm, the goal was to always create an optimal model that could be quickly adopted by smallholder farmers for profitability and environmental resilience,” adds Sahu, 35, who discontinued a PhD at the University of Arizona and set up Mati Farms. “My research focussed on the relationship between agriculture and environmental change in the Eastern Ghats. During the course of my PhD, I interacted with the farmers there, and realised that I should be involving myself in something more actionable,” he says.
The purple sweet potatoes are indigenously developed. “We conducted multiple trials to identify how it grows best, following which we expanded its production within our network of farmers. Our farmer group in northern Orissa, led by well-known organic mango farmer Lal Bahadoor Mohanta, has successfully grown purple sweet potatoes in summer, a feat unheard of,” says Sahu, about what is traditionally a winter crop harvested in September and March.
As for its special fragrance, he calls it a “happy discovery”. According to the Central Tuber Crops Research Institute (CTCRI), purple sweet potatoes have a high anthocyanin content of 90 milligrams per hundred grams. “But we still do not know much about the flavour profile and are conducting independent tests to understand this better,” he adds.
- A lot of the sweet potatoes are grown in the uplands of the Eastern Ghats inhabited by tribal communities who have been growing them for centuries. The highlands are perfectly suited for the tubers that are cultivated between 800 and 1,600 metres above mean sea level.
The farmer network
Twenty three farmers are actively a part of Mati Farms, across the highland regions of Gajapati district, Koraput, foothills and uplands of Daitari at the Jajpur-Keonjhar border in northern Odisha, and coastal regions. They also run a successful peri-urban farm at Kila Dalijoda, where, in collaboration with sustainability advocate Debjit S Deo, landless farmers from the migrant Munda community of the region seasonally grow salad vegetables for the urban market.
Sahu says, “We handhold our network of farmers right from the seed stage to harvest, with knowledge transfer, organic inputs and troubleshooting, and have an assured buyback at fair prices. The farmers contribute their time, labour and land.” The fact that sustainability is key here is what excites chef Varadarajulu. “There are so many locally grown vegetables and fruits that we don’t see anymore. If we do not cook with them, farmers will stop growing them and the younger generation will never know about the wealth of local produce,” she says.
Making travel plans
Sahu observes that while growing exotic vegetables was easy, marketing them in eastern India was another matter. “Odisha’s vegetable farmers are already good at growing what they do, leading the state to quietly become one of the largest producers of vegetables in the country. But the problem lay in finding a market for the perishables,” he says, having now ventured into setting up a vegetable processing plant at Jagatpur. They have a successful project with straw mushrooms.
Koraput on the map
- In 2012, Koraput, in the Eastern Ghats, was accorded the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) status. That is, it was declared as an area that was a repository of agricultural biodiversity, resilient ecosystems, and valuable cultural heritage. Here, sustainable systems provide food and livelihoods to small-time farmers.
Meanwhile, Varadarajulu plans to source more sweet potatoes in September. “I hope to convince vegetable markets to carry it. It will definitely be a big part of our menu as a seasonal vegetable,” she promises. Sahu, who prefers the sweet potatoes baked in their jackets, is amused at the reaction of his folks back home. “As it trends across the globe as a superfood, they are bemused as to what the fuss over the humble sweet potato is all about,” he concludes.
For details, visit matifarms.in/