KANNUR: Queen Victoria appointed English statesman and poet Edward Robert Lytton, the first Earl of Lytton, as the viceroy of British India on April 12, 1876. When he arrived, the Great Famine of 1876-78, also known as the Madras famine of 1877, was raging, which covered a major part of South India and claimed an estimated 5.5 million lives. The viceroy travelled between Madras and Mysore to verify the effects of the famine. As it showed no sign of abating, Lord Lytton created a famine commission to investigate the causes and effects of the famine, recommend ways to predict and prevent future ones and suggest how the government should intervene.
One of the recommendations of the commission, which is better known as the first famine commission of 1880, was setting up research centres and farms across the country to encourage study and cultivation of major crops in the respective areas. A farm was started at Karimbam, Taliparamba in Kannur, by eminent botanist and taxonomist Sir Charles Alfred Barber at the behest of Madras presidency. Although the initial objective was to do research on pepper, the activities of the farm were further extended to agro-climatic experiments, hybridisation and production and distribution of seeds and seedlings.
The Englishmen who initially headed the farm introduced foreign fruit trees and spices here which are still rare in other parts of the country. In 1938, the then Madras presidency declared the institution as a fruit orchard. When the state government started the pepper research station at Panniyur in 1952, the pepper research stopped at Karimbam and it turned to other specialisations. In 1955, for the first time in India, new varieties of mangoes were created by artificial pollination and hybridisation at this centre. In 1975, it was upgraded to the district agricultural farm.
One of the oldest farms in India, Karimbam is now known for its fruit varieties, especially a germplasm collection of over 52 varieties of mangoes. This centre has produced over 200 hybrid mangoes over the years. Almost all the fruit trees, including jackfruit, sapota, rambutan, lychee and karambola, are available here. During peak seasons, almost 1.5 lakh saplings are sold out from here daily. Recognising the importance of the flora and fauna of the station, the Kannur district panchayat established a ‘Biodiversity Centre’ here.
Though an ‘Indigenous technology knowledge centre’ was also envisaged, it didn’t take shape. Research in bio-control agents and tissue culture protocols is done at the centre which will soon have a fruit processing unit for passion fruit and jackfruit. Though it was part of the district panchayat from 1997 onwards, the active participation of the district panchayat started in 2005. The farm is governed by a council headed by the chairman of the Kannur district panchayat development standing committee.
— Photos by Prasad Nittoor
Farm’s commercial success
Karimbam farm is the only district agricultural farm which commercially develops bio-control agents to tackle pest menace in the state. The KAU and the state bio-control lab, Mannuthy, are the other government institutions doing it. The farm has already developed three types of bio-control agents using Trichoderma, Pseudomonas and Beauveria. The development of the fourth one, Entomophagous Nematodes is underway. The bio- control research unit was started under the agri-biotechnology division in 2014.
On an average, the unit sells bio-control agents worth Rs 8 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. This year, the farm has already sold agents worth Rs 6 lakh. “Extending bio-control units in all districts will boost the organic farming in state. Otherwise, eventually when the right bio-control agent is not available, all organic farm movements would suffer,” opined Mr V.G Hareendran, officer in-charge of Karimbam farm agricultural-biotechnology. The tissue culture wing of the farm has developed its own medium for the tissue culture of their focal product, banana.
The farm has been using the technology successfully for the last one year and is now planning to go for patent for the protocol. At a time the tissue culture sector is facing a crisis with the ban on ammonium nitrate (a major ingredient in the medium) by the government due to security reasons, the indigenous protocol is expected to help the farm in getting better results and also avoid the exploitation by multinational biotech companies.
Guest house hides many tales
The Karimbam guest house, located at the top of the farm, is a century-old building constructed for the stay of it its founder, Sir Charles Alfred Barber. The building with the colonial architectural style consists of a main residence, adjacent kitchen section built in European style and a horse stable. During the last 100 years, many eminent politicians, scientists, diplomats and bureaucrats have visited the place and also planted trees to mark their visits.
Recently, the prime minister’s office also enquired about the guest house to consider it as one of the places where he could stay during his visits. Some of the high-profile guests who have stayed here include India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru along with his daughter Indira Gandhi and Kerala chief minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad on April 27, 1958. The fourth president of the republic, V.V. Giri, stayed here on March 12, 1963 when he was serving as the state’s Governor.
The building was recently renovated and the district panchayat is planning to set up a museum to commemorate the visits of prominent personalities and also to provide accommodation facility in association with the District Tourism Promotion Council. The guest house premises also have the trees planted by the visitors here.
The Great Famine
The Great Famine of 1876–78, also known as Madras famine of 1877 was a famine that began in 1876 and affected South India including Madras and Bombay Presidencies and the princely states of Mysore and Hyderabad for a period of two years. In its second year famine, also spread North India. The famine covered the area of 670,000 square kilometres and the death toll was estimated to be in the range of 5.5 million people.
(Courtesy: Imperial Gazetteer of India)
Sir Charles Alfred Barber: Sir Charles Alfred Barber, a botanist and taxonomist under the British government stayed at Karimbam as part of his assignment to make a comprehensive study of plants for the preparation of a kind of registry titled ‘Flora of the Madras Presidency.’ Dr. Barber was born at Wynberg in South Africa in 1860. He was the son of William Barber, and Edith Leather, daughter of the Rev. G. R. Osborne. He went to Cambridge University before going out to Madras as the Government Botanist. Dr Barber started his work here after he was appointed the Director of the Botanical Survey of India. He is also listed as a Sugar Cane expert. He died on February 23 , 1933. He had published several books on grasses and other horticultural subjects.