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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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A farm in the city June 25th, 2017 by

Orchard and fields copyAerial views of the fertile plains of Kyrgyzstan reveal a dominant pattern of long, narrow fields, endlessly repeated into the distance. The colours of the fields give some indication of what’s being grown. In early June the wheat is almost ready to harvest and the green swathes are starting to go yellow. Maize fields are lush, the plants growing vigorously. Cotton, another popular field crop, is still establishing and cover is more patchy.

Large-scale farming in Kyrgyzstan is no longer the centrally-planned, target-driven model of the Soviet era. Farmers may be free to plant what they want, but market forces still determine the range of crops that are economically viable. The demand for wheat is steadily increasing and cotton has ready markets in Turkey, a close partner of Kyrgyzstan.

P1040244 copyBut there’s much more to agriculture in Kyrgyzstan than field crops. One gets a view of a more diverse production as the plane descends to land at major cities such as Bishkek and Osh. The irregular spaces between the long, narrow fields are filled with mostly fruit trees. Orchards can occupy up to several hectares, particularly in Osh district and in the southwest of the country generally, but many are relatively small. A smattering of polytunnels (small greenhouses) around the outskirts of Bishkek points to a year-round capacity to produce vegetables, meeting some of the local demand during the long, cold winter.

Then, just before the wheels touch the tarmac, small plots of vegetables and fruit can be seen around many houses. One of the privileges of the work Jeff, Paul and I regularly experience is to meet small-scale farmers, but this is usually in a rural setting and not in cities. A quick glance at Google Maps shows that while the centres of Bishkek and Osh are densely packed, gardens are still a prominent feature in the spreading suburbs.

P1120610 copyMr Orunbai Dosmatov, senior entomologist at the phytosanitary laboratory for Osh province and guide for my three-day visits to the southwest of Kyrgyzstan, invited me to stay at the family home in Osh city. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was looking forward to learning more about urban agriculture. The family home was fronted by a vegetable plot about 25 metres by 25 metres, complete with tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, pumpkins and maize.

Just beyond this was an orchard of cherries, the trees laden with juicy and flavoursome fruit. Orunbai told me that a local trader would organise the harvesting for an agreed price. Running your own farm in addition to a full-time job requires careful management. Cherry picking is a time-consuming task, even with family members to hand. At the back of the house, lucerne (alfalfa) was being grown to feed the three goats held in a covered area attached to the side of the house. Hay was stored in an open loft for the winter months.

There were more fruit trees in a separate field on the other side of the short track up to the main house. Orunbai had one cow on a summer pasture. Water flowed freely through the garden, diverted from a natural stream that flowed from the hills behind Osh. Ironically, despite the natural abundance of water, the supply to the house was restricted and unreliable.

P1120626 copyA grapevine wove in and out of a high metal frame outside the upper floor rooms which I occupied during my stay. A tandoor oven below my bedroom window was used for baking delicious bread. Yet it takes a lot of hard work to make good, local food. The crops have to be planted, weeded and tended. The goats need to be fed and looked after regularly. The garden may produce 30 cabbages in one go and so the family has to sell them or preserve them for later. Fruit can be turned into jam, though there’s a limit on how much of this you need throughout the year.

Later I was invited to Orunbai’s brother’s house in Kyzl Kiya, the main city in Batken region and around two hours from Osh. I saw another intriguing mix of vegetables and fruits, with large baskets of cherries ready to sell.

P1040433 copySalaries are low so city farming helps salaried people, even highly educated ones, to feed their families, save money and perhaps even earn a bit of extra income. Some years ago, I watched people sell berries, mushrooms and home-grown vegetables outside Tallinn railway station in Estonia. The value of each vendor’s produce was little more than 30 euros (around $34), a small sum but clearly valuable enough to warrant the cost of setting up the stall and hanging around all day for customers.

Field crops dominate agriculture in Kyrgyzstan but there’s also a strong tradition of growing your own food. The shops may be full of fresh produce, a welcome change from limited choice and uncertain availability during Soviet times, but it is expensive. Producing your own food is a way to eat well and cheaply and to combine the benefits of city and rural life. Orunbai is rightly proud of his urban farm and is showing the way for his sons and daughters to grow their own.

Related blogs

To drip or not to drip (peri-urban agriculture)

Things ain’t what they used to be (Kyrgyzstan)

Smelling is believing (peri-urban agriculture)

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Nurgazy and Akmaral for assistance with translation. And of course to all the Dosmatov family who made my stay so memorable.

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Wilson Popenoe: plant explorer and educator June 4th, 2017 by

Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) is the only agricultural scientist to ever win a Nobel Prize (for peace, in 1970). Borlaug developed short-stem (dwarf) wheat varieties that were high yielding and disease resistant, a hugely significant scientific advance for the world’s leading staple crop. But the award was as much for his dogged efforts to distribute improved wheat seeds to India and Pakistan at a time when millions were at risk from famine, and both countries were at war.

Popenoe 2Borlaug’s Noble Prize ensured global recognition of his achievements and continues to be a role model for many researchers. However, there have been many others in agriculture who have inspired students and made important scientific advances and who should be better known. One such example is the American plant explorer and educator Wilson Popenoe (1892-1975).

I first came across Wilson Popenoe’s name during a visit to the Pan-American School of Agriculture in Zamorano, Honduras, in the early 1990s. An impressive campus and bustling student population exuded a real sense of zeal for agriculture. Here was a thriving centre for producing graduates who would return to their homes from Mexico to Peru and beyond, where they would start their own agricultural enterprises or strengthen existing ones with new ideas.

“El Zamorano”, as the school is commonly known, was the creation of Popenoe in many ways, although it was first proposed by Samuel Zemurray, the president of the United Fruit Company, who wanted to give something back to the countries of Central America, whose soils and climate were the foundation for the company’s wealth. El Zamorano was established in the central highlands of Honduras, far away from the profitable banana plantations on the north coast. The idea was that the school could work on other important crops such as maize and coffee and avoid becoming a place to train banana agronomists.

Popenoe 7When Popenoe became the first director of El Zamorano in 1941 (the school did not officially open until 1943), he had already worked for the United Fruit Company for many years. He retired in 1957, having made a lasting contribution to the training of thousands of students and establishing a first class educational facility that was much admired throughout Central and South America. Popenoe’s early career, before he joined the United Fruit Company in 1925, is less well known, though arguably led to equally important achievements.

His first job was as a plant explorer for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Popenoe was a protégé of David Fairchild, the first director of the Office of Seed and Plant Introductions, and himself a seasoned plant explorer. Popenoe left the USDA in 1925, having become fed up with the bureaucracy that kept him from the field work he loved. He relished hunting down new crop varieties and spent months carefully documenting the botanical and food characteristics of specimens on lengthy travels, often on horseback.

Popenoe worked sympathetically with local farmers to learn what they knew about different crops. An intriguing quote in Frederic Rosengarten’s biography of Popenoe reveals a keen awareness of farmers’ ingenuity: “Important food crops will be found as a rule,” said Popenoe, “from a region where their value (has already been) realized.” Popenoe recognized that farmers experimented, testing, selecting and propagating the best varieties.

Popenoe2Popenoe is best known for his work on avocados, meticulously recording new varieties in Central America. He also prospected for cinchona (the tree that produces quinine), citrus and many other tropical fruits during his extensive career. The most impressive thing about Popenoe was his dedication and persistence, coupled with a restless curiosity. He was largely self-taught, having rejected a scholarship to Cornell in favour of becoming a plant explorer.

There have been many plant explorers over the years, but relatively few who have focused on plants of economic importance and dedicated their whole life to them. Before he became a USDA plant explorer Popenoe had already been to Iraq and North Africa, aged 20, to collect date palms, dodging bullets as warring tribes fought over land and overcoming the loss of plants that perished before they could be shipped to the US. He suffered from malaria and dysentery many times yet still he persisted in his hunt for new crop varieties. He spoke five languages fluently and worked hard all his life for a better agriculture, through science and education.

Popenoe was hugely influenced in his early years by the endeavours of plant explorers such as Spruce and thrilled “at the tale of Lieutenant Bligh and his voyage in the Bounty, to bring the breadfruit tree from Tahiti to the West Indies.” Popenoe would doubtless be pleased to learn that his own remarkable endeavours were an inspiration for future agricultural scientists.

Reference

Rosengarten F (1991). Wilson Popenoe: agricultural explorer, educator, and friend of Latin America. National Tropical Botanic Garden, Hawaii. (photos that appear above have been scanned from this book)

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On the road May 14th, 2017 by

View to Rwenzori from Beni roundabout copyEven a dangerous, war-torn province may be on the road to economic recovery, as I saw last week when I was driven from Beni to Komanda. The two hour, 120 km journey was part of my on-going involvement with cocoa growing here in North Kivu, DR Congo.

North Kivu has a bad reputation. The British Government map shows the province in blood red and “advises against all travel”. The capital, Goma, is associated with chaos and on-going conflict. North Kivu is at the heart of internecine battles involving countless, shifting factions, watched closely by neighbouring countries with their own interests to safeguard. Beni is a long way from Goma, yet it also has periodic outbursts of violence.

Our journey started and ended peacefully. We passed more motorbikes than cars. The motorcyclists drove cautiously, partly because they were loaded up with people, produce and belongings. Bunches of bananas, bags of leeks, cassava and charcoal – lots of charcoal. A few wore helmets. Traffic is increasing year on year, but it’s all remarkably peaceful compared to the heaving roads of Kenya. We moved smoothly along.

But still we had an early reminder of the dangers of driving. A truck driver had ploughed off the road the previous evening and one person had died. A UN armoured car was parked at the side of the road, one of several that we’d seen on the outskirts of Beni. People walk pass the white UN behemoths, ignoring the blue helmets that protrude from the turrets.

Brasimba adverts on walls copyThe roadside houses had walls made of mud plaster over wooden slats and corrugated roofs. We went through many small towns. There were more shops than I remembered from last year’s journey to Komanda. The local Beni brewery, Brasimba, advertises its various brands of beer by painting buildings in yellows and reds, both bright, optimistic colours. Mobile phone companies do the same all over Africa, a sure-fire way to be noticed. Beer and phones: signs that investment and businesses are growing, part of an increasing prosperity in Beni that is closely linked to cocoa.

We stopped in Oisha at a cocoa depot. Outside, a farmer was carefully tending his cocoa beans, which he had brought a bit too wet to sell. A motorbike was refuelling from a mini-depot, small stands stacked with plastic bottles of petrol. The vendor poured the fuel through a funnel while the passengers remained in place. They looked cramped but soon they were on their way.

Mini-depot and fill motorbike copyWe passed through areas of tall eucalypts, a tree maligned by some ecologists but hugely popular with farmers. The tree grows fast and straight; producing light but strong timber for construction and fences. Oil palm groves flashed by, the seeds crushed in simple presses to produce a viscous, orange cooking oil. More bags of charcoal by the road as we headed north, a sign that were getting close to forested areas. But the most surprising part of the journey so far was that we were on a tarred road, a real luxury in North Kivu: 60 km of smooth highway, courtesy of China – another investment in the future.

Just after Eringeti we stopped at a local government checkpoint marking the boundary with Orientale province. My colleague went to report my presence, clutching my passport. Such checkpoints are of dubious legality, a way to exact tolls and exercise notional authority. Haggling over payments can be protracted, but Patrick returned after 10 minutes: “all he wanted was a bottle of water”.

Shortly afterwards the tarred road ended. There were bumps and lurches but the graded road was well maintained and surprisingly smooth as we made good progress. My mobile phone signal stayed strong throughout the journey. Many more mobile phone masts have been erected in recent years, another tick on my mental list of improvements that makes peoples’ lives easier.

Komanda is an important but nondescript town, strategically positioned at the crossroads of three major roads: Beni to the south, Bunia to the east and Kisangani to the West. All of us gave a little gasp at the brand new hotel in the centre of town, with modern façade, multi-storied and all gleaming blue windows (de rigeur in North Kivu).

Oxygen hotel frontA modern hotel in Komanda? We entered the Oxygen Hotel and looked around. The owner from Butembo had invested a lot: proper beds and en suite bathrooms, a big improvement on the decrepit but serviceable hotel where we stayed last year. Here was another sign of confidence in the future, and in the most unlikely of places. I don’t pretend that one hotel in the back of beyond is a harbinger of economic prosperity, but it is a significant step forward.

Robert Louis Stevenson, the great Scottish writer, said that the journey was as important as the destination. The view from the car paints only a partial picture, yet it is still an important window on other people’s worlds and backs up what I’ve seen in the wider countryside. My journey gave me hope, reinforcing improvements I’ve seen over the last 13 years, powered by a steady increase in cocoa production. Decline and disarray is not inevitable nor irretrievable, especially if the agricultural economy is thriving. There is still violence and civil society struggles to flourish in North Kivu, but there are plenty of people who are optimistically investing in their future.

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Are you poor? May 7th, 2017 by

Big smile with banana bunch on head copyWhen Jeff, Paul and I write these blogs we chose our words carefully. We want to paint a positive yet realistic picture of development, reflecting an optimism founded on first-hand experiences. Yet it can be difficult when writing about the poorer regions of the world to avoid emphasising poverty and creating a spiral of despair, however unintentional.

The recent vogue in development is to classify countries by income, the latest in a long list of attempts to find a neutral way to describe poor countries. We have come a long way since Henry Kissinger’s crude and infamous description of Bangladesh as a “basket case”, back in the 1970s. “Third World” countries prevailed for a while, but its use faded as political divisions between East and West began to disappear.

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development proposed the use of North and South to distinguish rich and developed nations from their impoverished counterparts. This has never quite caught on, though “the global South” is still in current use. “Under-developed” countries had a patronising ring to it and though “developing countries” has a more positive connotation it has never really conveyed a strong sense of transition out of poverty.

Now we have low, middle and high income countries, with rankings monitored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Donors find this classification a convenient way to separate countries in terms of needs and to target funds at the most deserving. Ranking by income matters a lot because it determines where projects will be funded and allowed to work.

Caravan at petrol staton copyBut there are still anomalies, particularly in large countries such as Brazil and South Africa, where regional disparities in income and life prospects are particularly marked. Even low income countries have wealthy people, and middle income countries have pockets of poverty. When I drove from the Western Cape into the Eastern Cape, in 2000, it was like entering a different country. The landscape became bleaker, towns more ramshackle and the mobile phone signal disappeared.

The OECD list classifies South Africa as “upper middle income”, so there are drawbacks to this method of deciding which countries do and don’t deserve donor support. Fortunately, South Africa is able to fund its own development projects and I was intrigued to experience a few years ago  an initiative that used the expertise and knowledge of white farmers to train black farmers in maize production. Maize has been a popular smallholder crop for many years, but on a small scale and with poor yields.

Hat lady with samples and Richard copyI got to know the white farmers, mostly Afrikaans-speaking, when I ran a course on plant clinics in Drankensville. I assumed that most of them belonged to the rich world, yet although they had undoubtedly benefited from apartheid-era privilege, there was no simple division between them and the black farmers they worked with. At a plant clinic, I watched in admiration as the Afrikaaners gave advice on maize problems in fluent Zulu. Many of the (white) people on the course had been given additional Zulu names, probably by domestic staff. I saw a genuine rapport between the two groups of farmers and an obvious mutual respect. It made me think hard about the way we decide who is poor and who is not.

Later I learned that some of the Afrikaaners had left school with minimal qualifications. They’d been in the army and then worked the land. Yes, they clearly had more material wealth, but to label them rich and the black farmers they worked with poor seemed wrong. This bleak division did little to emphasise the dignified way in which the white and black farmers treated each other.

Remo consultation copyAid agencies and international NGOs learnt long ago that pictures of suffering children attract funds, but they over-emphasise misery at the cost of hope for a better future. A poor country is a poor country, whichever way you look at it. But we should think carefully about how we describe their farmers, people who strive hard to do better. Their ambitions, perseverance and creativity deserve respect, hence the importance of choosing the right labels for the countries where they live.  Our blog stories will continue to feature the successes of farmers and entrepreneurs in poor countries. Publicising their achievements is the simplest way to enrich the lives of everyone.

Acknowledgements

I’m grateful for the support of the Agriculture Research Council of South Africa and for the support of my colleagues at the Plant Protection Research Institute.

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