Meet Dattatreya Hegde: A farmer with a flair for conserving special pickle mango types in the Western Ghats
Uttara Kannada, one of the forest-rich districts of Karnataka in southern India, is well known for its biological diversity and many farmers are aware of the importance of conserving this diversity. One such farmer is Mr. Dattatreya Hegde, a farmer in the remote village of Salkani. He maintains a large number of local varieties of mango (Mangifera indica) and kokum(Garcinia indica). Spread over an area of 15 acres in the serene environs of the Western Ghat forests, he has some 35 varieties of mango and a half a dozen types of kokum. Though arecanut (betelnut) is his main cash crop, Dattatreya started to plant fruit crops a decade and a half ago.  Today he receives some 20% of his family income by selling fruits as well as grafted cuttings of these diverse varieties.
Bioversity International, with partners, has a Tropical Fruit Tree Conservation (TFT) project, supporting a local group to conserve mango and kokum types. Mr. Hegde has been pivotal in sharing his rich knowledge within the group on selecting pickling varieties from the wild, standardizing protocols for grafting, and maintaining the orchard. He shared his experience with us in this interview.
Q: How did you get involved in agriculture?
A: Ours is an agrarian family. Traditionally we have been cultivating betelnut, banana and cardamom for almost a century. Naturally I gained a lot of experience while I was involved in farming on a day-to-day basis since my childhood. As our village is situated right in the Western Ghats, which is very rich in tree diversity, every member in our family would be able to recognize at least about 30 species of trees. Since aromatic pickle mango is a delicacy in our daily meals, I have been naturally inclined to plant more of the traditional varieties of this species. 
Q: What challenges are you encountering and how is agriculture changing?
A: Today commercial plantation-based agriculture of the Western Ghats has been changing and farmers are looking at new cash crops such as vanilla and agar-wood because of diminishing returns from traditional crops. One of the major challenges of fruit tree crops, such as mango, is the increasing vulnerability to climate change, especially the flowering and fruit set stages, which could be very badly affected by off-season rains. Further, the year-to-year fluctuations in the market prices for fruits have made prediction of returns almost impossible. Farmers are not completely aware of the market chain; that is the biggest hurdle in marketing lesser-known local varieties and hence maintaining the higher on-farm diversity. Also, knowledge is being lost among the farmers about locally important varieties.
Q: What are you doing differently than a few years ago to create a sustainable farm?
A: I have long been interested in introducing pickle-mango varieties into cultivation and diversifying the fruit crops. Today I have realized the importance of it and I am promoting the use of more and more species (such as kokum) into the farm as well as planting a larger number of varieties that fetch good returns through local selling. Minimizing the use of pesticides and increasing the organic pesticides has been a new practice adopted.
Q: How has working with Bioversity and partners made a difference?
A: Working with Bioversity International and the local partners such as Forestry College at Sirsi has confirmed my belief in mixed cropping, focusing on wild-pickle mango varieties. When I was first introduced to the need for identifying and conserving the local varieties by the Tropical Fruit Tree project, my ideas got a boost. Furthermore, I started involving more and more community members and started working with them as a unit. This has created a social forum to appreciate and encourage conservation of local varieties. Bioversity recognized me as a custodian farmer of local fruit diversity that allowed me to visit Thailand and see how people there are using local diversity for farmers’ benefits.
Q: What would you tell others about what you are doing and why it’s important?
A: Year-round on-farm labour utilization is a must to be more efficient in producing the fruit trees. By diversifying the crops, I have been successful in efficiently using the labour force because different species mature at different seasons, and the peak work is well distributed throughout the seasons. Local communities have consistently ignored species such as kokum, however I feel that tropical fruit trees are as important as betelnut - not only providing economic gain to farmers but also helping me manage my farm.
Q: What improvements are you seeing from using agricultural biodiversity?
A: Definitely there has been better economic gain to my family through the sales of local fruit varieties as well as planting stocks of these varieties. My income has grown by at least 5 – 10 percent through these sales. In my farm there used to always be a shortage of growth of fodder grass when there was no tree crop. Perhaps because of increased soil improvement as a result of multiple crops, today I am getting three times more fodder grass yield than usual. Several people in my community get the genuine scion material of local varieties easily from my farm and are very happy about it. In a way my farm acts like a local repository of these valuable and rare varieties. People visit my garden to enjoy diversity of fruits and I do not have to go out to sell them. Also, when people visit my farm they learn grafting skills. 
Q: What is your message to other farmers about agricultural biodiversity?
A: As I have been stressing, there is always a need to diversify fruit crops, to include local varieties of commercial importance. Since changes in flowering and fruit-set are becoming more and more pronounced in the recent 5-6 years, having multiple varieties is better since they act like insurance in the changing environment and contribute to the sustainable food production. Developing local demand and catering to it is the key to market the local varieties.