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How are we doing? A double century of blogs since 2013 September 24th, 2017 by

The first Agro-Insight blog appeared in October 2013. Jeff and Paul continued publishing weekly stories until May 2015, when I joined them. Now, after nearly four years, we have reached blog number 200, and I thought it was a good time to pause and reflect on what stimulates us to write, the subjects we’ve covered and what we’re trying to achieve.

We write mostly about personal experiences, prompted by meeting people, events we’ve witnessed or taken part in and other things we’ve come across while working on projects and consultancies. Stories about Africa have featured in nearly half our blogs. Latin America blogs account for 30% of the total, mainly because Jeff is the most prolific contributor and lives in Bolivia. The Asia-Pacific region is the next common source of inspiration (13%), plus a smattering of blogs from North America, Europe and Central Asia.

We are hugely privileged in being able to visit so many countries, to work with different organisations and learn more about the unsung efforts of their staff. Every visit we make confirms how much there is to learn, and share, about the ingenuity of farmers and the dedication of the many people (particularly in extension) who contribute in unseen ways to agriculture.  People and their actions are the main inspiration for our blogs.

Sometimes we also write about things that we’ve read, such as the last blog by Jeff on photographs of Bolivian miners or a more recent one by Paul on allotments in the UK and Belgium (where he lives: we don’t always have to go far to find sources of inspiration). I wrote about Wilson Popenoe after reading a biography. He was an intrepid plant explorer and the founding director of El Zamorano, the leading agricultural university in Central America. Popenoe’s endeavours resonated strongly because I’m intrigued by the discovery of new crops. And I remembered a visit, many years ago, to the marvellous La Casa Popenoe, a small museum, in Antigua, Guatemala.

Jeff is a keen linguist and trained archaeologist, hence a series of blogs on etymology (Reaper Madness) and links to historic and ancient agriculture (such as the Origin of the sunflower). Many of Paul’s blogs have come from his and Marcella’s (Paul’s wife) experiences of making videos with and for farmers (such as Aflatoxin videos for farmers). My own varied career has given rise to blogs on wild mushrooms, photography, the rise of cocoa in the Congo, and of course plant health. Sometimes we like to call attention to examples of natural resource management gone seriously awry, as in the near extinction of North American bison. We also like to see the lighter side of agriculture and development, as in Paul’s story about bullets and birds.

Each week we submit our ideas to the other two for comments. Writing is a collaborative effort and one of the big pleasures for me is being able to hone each other’s blogs, delivering a better and cleaner message. We try to avoid preaching and to lead our readers to gentle conclusions which encourage fresh thinking.

Not all ideas that we have are published as blogs. In one failed effort, I wrote unconvincingly about the new sustainable development goals. Paul and Jeff suggested it needed more work. They were right. The first blogs were quite short, just a few hundred words. They’ve become longer, though we rarely exceed 1000 words. We know that our readers are busy people, and there’s always a danger with a longer story that you stray from the main topic.

When we write about people we always try to show them the blog before we publish. We want to get our facts right and also check we haven’t written anything that an individual or organisation is unhappy about. Sometimes they don’t want too much publicity or maybe we’ve written prematurely about a work in progress. We had to kill one story about the problems with community centres to feed children, when our horrified partners realized that we were saying too much, too soon. Cannabis growing is legal but still controversial in Alaska, yet the owners were more than happy to share their experiences more widely, provided I didn’t reveal the precise location in the blog.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of having published 200 blogs is how little we know about our audience. Although we get regular comments from colleagues and others who we alert directly about blogs we welcome wider feedback via email (just add Paul or Jeff or Eric to @agroinsight.com.

We don’t know what we will write for blog 300 and beyond, but there is no shortage of things to discover or unheard voices of farmers to report. Thanks for staying with us. Feel free to pass these stories on to friends, family and colleagues. We look forward to hearing from you!

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High in the Arctic September 10th, 2017 by

A large supermarket in Anchorage displays an impressive selection of fruit and vegetables, including organic produce. Unsurprisingly, most of the goods on sale are grown outside Alaska. Farming this far north is challenging, with only a short growing season, unpredictable weather and moderate temperatures. Local initiatives such as the “Alaska Grown” campaign, are encouraging people to develop new agri-businesses. You have to be enterprising to succeed, as I recently discovered.

A popular option is to grow salad crops and soft fruits in high tunnels. Tough polyethylene sheeting is draped over sturdy metal frames, protecting the plants within. Peonies, popular at weddings because of their showy, robust flowers, are also grown. They flourish in Alaska during the summer, which is off-season in the lower 48 states, when it is too hot to grow peonies yet high season for weddings in the US.

Rhodiola, a native medicinal plant and member of the botanical family Crassulacaea, is another commercial success. But the most unexpected crop I came across was cannabis, legal in Alaska since 2014. Some is grown outside in high tunnels, but it is so profitable that many growers have invested in custom-built indoor facilities. Plants are regularly fed and watered using a hydroponic system. Artificial lighting ensures year-round production, whatever the weather outside.

A family friend introduced me to Bruce and Judy Martin on the Kenai Peninsula, who are part of the first wave of cannabis growers. Bruce worked in construction for many years and wanted a change. He originally designed a building to service boats during the winter. Fishing is big business in Alaska, both commercially and for visiting tourists, and the boats need regular maintenance. Bruce’s plan started well, but when a major contract collapsed he and Judy decided to move into cannabis growing.

A kilo of cannabis buds will earn Bruce and Judy between $2500 and $6000 a pound, or around ÂŁ4500 – ÂŁ10,000 per kilo, depending on quality. Bruce explained the set up: “We have a total growing area of 2,000 square feet (185 square metres), covering two rooms. In the first room, we take cuttings from the mother plants and suspend them in large tanks, where water and nutrients are regularly sprayed to encourage root development. After about three weeks they are moved to larger pots before being transferred a further three weeks later to the main production facility.”

Although Alaska legalised cannabis growing for medicinal and recreational use and sale in 2015, it wasn’t until 2016 that the legal framework was fully in place for producers to start supplying licensed outlets. Bruce and Judy harvested their first crop in December 2016 and have been regularly producing around ten kilograms per month of buds and leaves. The leaves are less valuable than the buds (around $1500 per kilogram) because they have lower amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound for which cannabis is renowned. Bruce explained that there was still a steady demand for leaves to produce “edibles”, which the Alaska Division of Public Health describes as “foods and drinks … made with marijuana or marijuana oils”, such as “cookies and other treats”.

Growing cannabis even on a modest scale requires major investment. “It cost us around half a million dollars to set up the production facility” said Bruce. Judy mentioned the many certificates they’d had to get before being allowed to start selling and the need to test cannabis batches for potency. “Testing is mandatory and costs us $2000 each month,” said Judy. Plus, Bruce and Judy lose two kilograms of product required for the tests. Costs are high, regulation is intense and official monitoring of operations is relentless. A monitor shows feeds from multiple security cameras, keeping a watchful eye on what happens outside the building and all nooks and crannies within.

I have mixed feelings about commercial cannabis growing for recreational use, but the more I look at the overall trade the more it makes sense. Regulating cannabis reduces criminality, safeguards consumers against adulterated products and also creates jobs. And there are significant numbers of people using cannabis for medicinal reasons, where there are proven benefits. The US’s experience with Prohibition (of alcohol) shows that an outright ban doesn’t work: better to regulate, educate and normalise consumption while advising people of potential and harmful side-effects. It is surely much better to treat adults in a mature way when it comes to cannabis, as clearly shown by the Alaska Division of Public Health.

Alaska has already earned around $2 million in taxes from growers and shops. In a neat political move, Bruce told me that “cannabis taxes on the Kenai Peninsula go straight to supporting schools.” Despite the long and successful campaign to legalise cannabis in Alaska there is already a ballot measure to repeal the 2014 decision, due to be voted on by all registered voters in October 2017. There are still diehards who see cannabis use, even for medicinal purposes, as sinful and leading inevitably to harder drugs, but the evidence for this happening is weak. Maybe the loss of funding for schools – which were facing major budget cuts – will help swing the vote and maintain the hard-won status quo.

The intense regulation of cannabis in Alaska suggests that the state is itself equivocal about legalisation, though the main reason for the tight scrutiny is because the US federal government still prohibits the “use, sale and possession of all forms of cannabis”. Banks are nervous about handling money associated with the trade and all transactions are in cash. Cannabis growers cannot ask for advice from cooperative extension staff, since they are partly funded by the Federal government.

This doesn’t seem to matter, since Bruce and Judy get advice from fellow growers nearby and there is an active online community buzzing with information about all aspects of cannabis production. I admire their hard work and commitment. Bruce and Judy have taken a calculated risk in becoming cannabis growers, but so far, their hard work and diligence has paid off. They’re also bringing a little cheer to fellow Alaskans.

Thanks to
Richard and Linn especially, for making the visit possible. And to Bruce and Judy for their warm  welcome and open discussions.

Read other blogs
Ethical agriculture

The ruffled reefer

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The power of the pregnant man August 27th, 2017 by

A memorable poster catches the eye, conveys a simple message and makes you think. Achieving all this demands careful planning and good design, balancing content with visual impact. Too much information and the passer-by moves on, having failed to get the full message. Too little information and the viewer leaves unsatisfied, wondering what the point of poster was. When you know who you are writing for, it is easier to know what to include and what to leave out.

Armyworm is a generic term describing the tendency of some caterpillars to congregate in large numbers, chomping like hungry troops through crops. The African armyworm, Spodoptera exempta, has been around for a long time, causing lots of damage on cereals. Now a new species has made the journey from the Americas to Africa, where it is causing high alarm. S. frugiperda, known as the fall armyworm, has recently been recorded from most of sub-Saharan Africa and will doubtless spread to more countries that grow maize, the fall armyworm’s favourite crop.

Scientists have been quick to respond to the arrival of the fall armyworm, first recorded in Sao Tomé in 2016, and soon after in southern Africa. FAO have held meetings in recent months in Harare, Nairobi and Accra to bring interested parties together, marshal resources and make plans for combatting this new pest. Unlike other new diseases which have appeared in Africa, such as banana bacterial wilt, a lot is already known about the fall armyworm and control strategies are well established.

CABI has produced an attractive poster showing the life cycle and damage caused by fall armyworm on maize. The poster appears to be part of a general campaign to raise awareness of key features of the new pest, though details of the campaign are sketchy. The poster has attractive drawings and clear information, yet the more I looked, the more questions I had.

I noticed some curious omissions. There is no date on the graphic and no contact details, such as an email address or a website. The scientific name of the fall armyworm is not given. But my main question concerned the target audience: extensionists or farmers? Both? Scientists?

Some hints are given by the layout. The circular cutaways and links to the far left hand column of text, running from bottom to top, would confuse a low-literate audience. An understanding of the insect’s life cycle is essential for designing a control programme, yet do extension officers, for whom this poster appears intended, need all this information?

These questions reminded me of my first effort at designing a poster for Sumatra disease of cloves in Indonesia (see earlier blog). I assembled photographs of the symptoms and the insect vector, a planthopper called Hindola, my own drawing showing the spread of the disease in a plantation, and a cartoon of the insect feeding on the branches. The photos and drawings were accompanied by short bits of text explaining key features of the disease.

I was rather proud of my efforts until a visiting project evaluator, Caroline O’Reilly, asked me who the poster was for and what it aimed to do. My stumbling answers revealed that I hadn’t thought through these key questions. Before writing anything, the author must first decide who the story (or the poster) is for. Since then I’ve also learned the importance of validating all extension material with the people it is intended for, whether it is a poster or a fact sheet. The gulf between scientists who have never farmed or who have long since left their rural childhood behind, and the extension workers and farmers who live and breathe agriculture, is easy to ignore.

Posters can have great power, as shown in a brilliant example from a 1970s British health education campaign to promote better contraception. One’s attention is immediately caught by the swollen belly, looking remarkably like an advanced pregnancy, except that it’s a man in the picture. The statement in bold makes its point concisely before adding a clever punchline – contraception is one of the facts of life.

When I teach people how to produce extension material I emphasise the need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. What does someone need to know? Depending on the audience it’s either: “Think like a farmer, act like an extension agent”; or “Think like an extension agent, act like a scientist”. The reason why the contraception poster works so well is because those designing it clearly understood the irresponsible ways of men. The poster designers also understood the power of simplicity.

The Health Education Council had a clear mandate to improve health outcomes in the UK. The pregnant man poster sought to change attitudes and behaviours, and was part of a wider campaign aimed at reducing unwanted pregnancies, particularl y amongst teenage women. It is less clear how the fall armyworm poster will reduce the impact of this new pest. Raising awareness about the biology and damage caused is a useful first step, but further posters are needed as part of a coordinated campaign that directly targets farmers and tells them how to manage this new threat to maize production.

Click here for a full copy of the fall armyworm poster.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Eric Boa 2013 “The Snowman Outline: Fact Sheets by Extensionists for Farmers.” Development in Practice 23(3):440-448.

Related blogs

Ethical agriculture (discusses clove disease)

The rules and the players (validating fact sheets)

Chemical attitude adjustment (validating fact sheets)

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Mending fences, making friends August 13th, 2017 by

Clipston is a small village at the geographical centre of England, set in fields where arable and livestock farming has existed for millennia. All Saints Church was built in the early 13th century and still holds regular services. The local primary school has just celebrated its 350th anniversary. Bar some new houses and better roads, the village is recognizably the same from photographs taken over a hundred years ago.

I have visited Clipston regularly over the last forty years, ever since my parents moved there. The village and its surrounding agriculture looks much the same today as they did four decades ago: grazing cattle and sheep and fields of wheat and rapeseed (canola). But it was only a few weeks ago that I spoke to a farmer for the first time and began to appreciate how little I knew about the landscape that defines the village.

Clipston continues to thrive; the village website reveals a vibrant community, even though there’s no shop and public transport is limited. Clipston thrives in spite of rather than because of agriculture. Job opportunities in farming are few and prospects for new farmers are uncertain, as I learnt from talking to a local shepherd, Martin Fellowes. Most of the employed people who live in Clipston today work somewhere else, some travelling long distances each day. Fast trains from nearby Market Harborough reach the heart of London in just over an hour, a journey of about 100 miles.

People who choose to live in villages for their rural charm and tranquillity can sometimes find it difficult to cope with the everyday messiness of farming. The pervasive smell from spreading slurry on fields, drifting smoke from burning stubble or mud spread by tractors on roads are all sources of potential dispute between farmers, who rely on the land for their living, and other residents.

My chance encounter with Martin arose from a domestic issue. The sheep in the neighbouring field would occasionally get into my parents’ garden and munch merrily on flowers and foliage, much to the dismay of my mother and father. A single strand of barbed wire between field and garden was clearly inadequate. The only solution was to erect a sturdier fence, which is what I was doing when I noticed someone in blue overalls in the field. Martin came across when I waved my hand.

Martin explained to me that he’d just taken over the lease of the field and an adjacent one. I felt a little guilty about mentioning the sheep invasions since these were related to a previous tenant. He explained that “the fence is the responsibility of the land owner”. His replies were courteous but wary. I sensed that he had other things of greater concern to consider. I wondered later about Martin’s response to a letter in the Clipston Newsletter some years ago which said: “It is a terrifying prospect that land surrounding this lovely village could easily fall into the wrong hands.” The writer was fearful about a drop in the value of her house.

Martin’s demeanour changed when I told him that I also worked in agriculture. I pointed to my T shirt, which by chance featured a plant health workshop held in Rwanda. I asked him more about his job. “It’s difficult trying to get established as a farmer today”, he said. He was pleased to have a signed lease for the fields behind my parent’s house for his sheep for the coming year, even though the owner was selling up. He was renting other fields in another nearby village and I began to imagine the challenges of moving animals back and forward between different sites.

The sale of the land prompted some gentle mutterings on the price of land. In nearby Market Harborough housing estates are springing up all around the town. Farm land has become increasingly valuable, not only for housing but as an investment. The result is that it’s nigh on impossible for a new farmer such as Martin to own his own land. Leasing creates uncertainty, yet clearly Martin loved what he was doing and was willing to work hard.

I was surprised and delighted that Martin knew about a recent unexpected best seller on sheep farming, The Shepherd’s Life, written by James Rebanks, a shepherd in the north of England. Martin had been given this as a present and confirmed that the descriptions of sheep farming were spot on. “I’m not a big reader”, Martin confessed, but clearly the book had caught his attention. “Sheep farming is tougher up north”, he added, “but down here it’s also difficult to get established”.

People take the gently rolling hills and the seasonal changes in farming for granted. Not far from Clipston is an outstanding farm shop, one of several that have flourished in and around Market Harborough as the population has expanded. Stuffed full of fine food from impeccable sources, much locally produced, it is easy to imagine that this renaissance in food retailing indicates a stronger, more vibrant agriculture.

My short meeting with Martin was proof that new farmers are willing to have a go but that it will be an uphill struggle. Commuters who move to villages bring new life to a fragile rural economy, but living in the countryside also carries a responsibility to take a wider interest in agriculture.

Talking to farmers reveals how hard they work. If commuters move to the countryside for the scenery, it’s worth remembering that farmers have nurtured that land for generations. Sometimes a bit of fence mending goes a long way.

Read previous blogs

Modern ideas for an ancient land

Further information and reading

Clipston village website. What farming delivers for Northamptonshire (NFU infographic).

Rowland Parker (1975). The Common Stream. (An excellent book on the enduring life of an English village.)

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Tuta on the move July 2nd, 2017 by

The tomato is a remarkably versatile plant, with a huge number of different varieties, most of which are easy to grow. It is a popular crop with many farmers, a reflection of the strong demand from consumers in many countries. But the tomato is also prone to many pests and diseases and physiological disorders. The tomato plant is closely related to the potato and both suffer from similar diseases, including late blight, bacterial wilt and a host of viruses.

Twine for tomatoes copyTomatoes tend to be grown in small plots or in polytunnels and glasshouses, so I still recall my surprise a few years ago when I saw my largest tomato field ever in Mato Grasso state in Brazil. Double rows of tomatoes several hundred metres long were planted on a gentle downward slope. A team of workers were tying the plants to twine stretched between large poles of eucalyptus set about five metres apart. A tractor stood by, ready to carry new poles along the rows

It was an impressive operation, though I worried about the efficiency of large scale production as I watched the workers working hard to remove vigorous weeds. I also saw a number of serious diseases when I walked a short distance along the rows. More recently, I came across more large fields of tomatoes in Kyrgyzstan, during a series of visits in Chuy district with Alieve Nur and colleagues. Alieve works for Ailana, a local food processing company that produces tomato purée and tomato juice and cans vegetables and fruit.

P1040311 copyAilana have 126 contracted out-growers, most of whom have started to grow tomatoes in the last few years. The fields were set up in a different way to those in Mato Grosso. The tomatoes were direct-drilled by tractor, rather than being planted out as seedlings. The method appears to work, though there were a few gaps where no seeds had been apparently sown – or had failed to grow. They were bushy tomatoes so didn’t need staking. Which is just as well, since the largest field I saw was 52 ha. Imagine a rough square with each side 700 metres long. It would take over 30 minutes to walk around all four sides.

The other unusual thing I noticed was the absence of any major pests and diseases and weeds. The tomato plants were only a month old so maybe this was too early in the season for infections and infestations to develop. Or maybe the crop had been treated with pesticides, though there was no direct evidence of this taking place. During my day out I was presented with odd bits of leaves that were drying out or showing minor damage. Nothing to worry about, I said. But when you have a large area of a valuable crop any sign of disease can cause anxiety and precipitate hasty spraying.

Damaged fruit cut open 3 copySo far Tuta has only been found in glasshouses around Bishkek. It is unclear whether it will cause as much damage in open fields as it does in enclosed spaces, where favourable conditions lead to rapid spread of the highly damaging caterpillars. Nor is it clear how a farmer with a 52 ha field is going to control Tuta. This is a huge area for putting out pheromone traps, for example, and an expensive task as well.

There is some hope that the long, cold winters may wipe out Tuta every year, though continuous production in heated glasshouses will provide a refuge and the insect has an uncanny ability to survive hard times and re-emerge to attack afresh. In the UK my colleague Martin McPherson suggested to me that the high risk of late blight in open fields discourages farmers from this method of production.

Demand for tomatoes is growing in Kyrgyzstan and the season is short, so it makes sense to maximize production from fertile soils in open fields. Water is freely available. Farmers will now be closely monitoring the current tomato harvest for Tuta damage. Fortunately, wholesale buyers of tomatoes, such as Ailana, are already thinking about how to help farmers cope with this new threat. For the many people with a small garden plot of tomatoes it’s less clear who will be giving them advice.

Reference

Esenali Uulu T, Ulusoy MR, Çaliskan AF, 2017. First record of tomato leafminer Tuta absoluta in Kyrygyzstan. EPPO Bulletin. doi: 10.1111/epp.12390

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