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Honest farming November 19th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

You can’t teach a skill that you don’t practice, yet many agricultural scientists try to do just that, lecturing at universities or writing extension messages without spending time a farm. So I was pleased this week to meet a scientist who was getting on-farm experience, and loving it.

My wife Ana and I met Dr. Alberto Centellas on the small farm, about a hectare, which he works with a business partner in the Cochabamba Valley, here in Bolivia. We heard that he sold fruit tree seedlings, and we went to buy some. I had barely closed the farm gate when Dr. Centellas walked up to me, wearing a grin and a straw hat. Without waiting for introductions, Dr. Centellas (“call me Alberto”) began to show us his projects, passionately explaining each one.

Dr. Centellas is Bolivian, but he earned his Ph.D. in Brazil, in temperate fruit production. Then he worked for Embrapa, the Brazilian agricultural research agency, for eight years, followed by another stint at Proinpa, an agricultural research organization in Bolivia. Now he teaches fruticulture at the university in Cochabamba. Teaching and administration don’t always leave much time to spend in the greenhouse, so to hone his agricultural skills, Alberto works on the farm every Saturday.

He had planted new varieties of apples from Brazil, bred to yield fruit in warm climates. After just two years the little trees were head-high. The orchard was enclosed in a large net to keep out the birds. “We won’t harvest anything if we let in the birds.”

The Tahiti lemon trees were full of bright, round green fruits the size of walnuts. “These are seedless. You can just wash them and drop them whole in the blender, rind and all. They are perfect for mixing with cachaça (the Brazilian cane liquor).”

Besides lemon and apple trees, he also has a collection of pears, avocados, peaches and cherimoyas.

Like a lot of researchers, Dr. Centellas is regularly invited to conferences in other countries. But he uses his trips as more than talking shops. He also collects tree varieties. “But only from research centers,” he hastens to add. He gets new tree varieties from reliable sources where the trees are certified and guaranteed to be healthy.

The farm is also a serious business, called Tecnoplant, and it is state of the art. Avocado tree seedlings are expertly grafted and growing in the protected cover of a tidy greenhouse. Other trees have been planted in a small orchard.

Avocados are tricky. Unlike many trees, each variety belongs to one of several pollination groups, including A, B and AB. They yield more if the varieties are grown in mixed groves. Dr. Centellas has carefully set out one row of the variety Fuerte, and one of the variety Lamb Hass. The little trees are watered with drip irrigation and growing under plastic mulch, to keep out the weeds. This is cutting edge tree culture.

I ask Dr. Centellas what motivates him to invest so much time and effort in the farm. I thought he might say something about boosting commercial fruit production, or contributing to agricultural development, but I was pleasantly surprised when he said “I was teaching other people how to farm, and then I got tired of them asking me how many trees I had on my own farm. And I would have to answer that I had none.”

It is more honest to teach techniques that one actually practices. Farming helps Dr. Centellas to understand the real problems that farmers face, making him a better teacher.

Related blog story

Head transplant: The art of avocado grafting

EL AGRO HONESTO

por Jeff Bentley

No se puede enseñar una habilidad que uno no practica, aunque muchos científicos agrícolas tratan de hacer eso, dando clases en las universidades o escribiendo mensajes de extensión sin pisar tierra agrícola. Entonces me dio gusto esta semana conocer a un científico que sí ganaba experiencia agrícola, y le encantaba.

Con mi esposa Ana, conocimos al Dr. Alberto Centellas en la pequeña finca, tal vez una hectárea, que él trabaja con un socio en el Valle de Cochabamba, aquí en Bolivia. Habíamos escuchado que él vendía plantines de frutales, y fuimos a comprar. Yo apenas había cerrado el portón cuando el Dr. Centellas se me acercó, con una sonrisa y su sombrero de paja. Sin esperar que nos presentáramos, el Dr. Centellas (“llámeme Alberto”) empezó a mostrarnos sus proyectos, explicando cada uno con pasión.

El Dr. Centellas es boliviano, pero ganó su doctorado en el Brasil, en la fruticultura de climas templados. Luego trabajó para Embrapa, la agencia de investigación agrícola brasileña, por ocho años, seguido por un tiempo en Proinpa, una organización de investigación agrícola en Bolivia. Ahora enseña fruticultura en la universidad en Cochabamba. La docencia y la administración no siempre dejan mucho tiempo para estar en el invernadero, así que, para pulir sus habilidades agrícolas, Alberto trabaja en la finca todos los sábados.

Había plantado nuevas variedades de manzanos del Brasil, mejorados para dar fruta en climas calientes. Después de solo dos años los arbolitos estaban a la altura de unapersona. El huerto se encubría de una gran red contra los pájaros. “No cosecharemos nada si dejamos entrar a los pájaros.”

El limonero Tahití estaba lleno de brillantes frutos redondos y verdes, del tamaño de una nuez.  “No tienen semilla. Se los puede lavar y echarlos enteros al licuador, con todo y cáscara. Son perfectos para mezclar con cachaza (licor de caña brasileño).”

Además de limoneros y manzanos, él también tiene una colección de peros, paltos, durazneros y chirimoyas.

Como muchos investigadores, el Dr. Centellas es invitado frecuentemente a conferencias en otros países. Sin embargo, se aprovecha de sus viajes para hacer más que intercambiar información. También recolecta variedades de árboles. “Pero solo de los centros de investigación,” aclara. Recibe nuevas variedades de frutales de fuentes confiables, donde los arbolitos son certificados y garantizados de estar sanos.

La finca también es una empresa formal, llamada Tecnoplant, y es tecnología actualizada. Los plantines de palto están expertamente injertados y creciendo bajo la protección de un invernadero ordenado. Otros árboles se han plantado en un pequeño huerto.

El palto tiene sus mañas. A cambio de muchos otros árboles, cada variedad pertenece a uno de varios grupos de polinización, como el A, B y el AB. Rinden más si las variedades se cultivan en huertos mezclados. El Dr. Centellas ha cuidadosamente plantado un surco de la variedad Fuerte, y una de la variedad Lamb Hass. Los arbolitos se riegan por goteo y crecen bajo un mulch de plástico, para que no crezcan las malezas. Es lo último en la fruticultura.

Le pregunto al Dr. Centellas qué le motiva invertir tanto tiempo y esfuerzo en la finca. Pensé que diría algo sobre promover la fruticultura comercial, o contribuir al desarrollo agrícola, pero era una grata sorpresa cuando dijo “Yo enseñaba a la otra gente cómo tenían que producir ellos, y me aburrí de que me preguntaban cuántos árboles tenía yo en mi finca. Y yo tenía que responder que no tenía nada.”

Es más honesto enseñar las técnicas que uno realmente practica. El trabajar con sus árboles ayuda al Dr. Centellas a entender los problemas reales que enfrentan a los agricultores, y por eso es un mejor profesor.

ArtĂ­culo relacionado del blog

Head transplant: The art of avocado grafting

 

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Tomatoes good enough to eat November 5th, 2017 by

I was astounded years ago to learn that many farmers in Bangladesh had two completely different ways to grow vegetables. As my friend and colleague Harun-ar-Rashid told me, farmers sprayed pesticides as often as every other day on their commercial vegetables, yet grew a pesticide-free crop to eat with their families.

It’s not that I doubted Harun’s story. He’s a careful observer and an experienced Bangladeshi agricultural scientist, but I wanted to find out more about this odd contradiction. How could farmers simply do without pesticides on crops that usually required a lot of spraying? Harun’s explanation was that the farmers were worried about eating vegetables tainted with dangerous chemicals. But that assumed that there were viable alternatives to the intense use of pesticides.

Recently I got to see for myself how this double standard works. I was tagging along with some of my mature students, who were writing a video script on tomato late blight, the same vicious disease that also destroys potato crops. We were visiting family farmers who grew commercial vegetables in the village of Sordarpur, in the southwest of Bangladesh, near Jessore. The farmers had received a lot of training from extensionists and had thoughtfully blended the new information with their own experience.

On their commercial fields, as soon as the farmers see late blight symptoms on tomato, they begin spraying with fungicides. The growers monitor the tomato crop constantly and spray often, especially when foggy days are followed by sun, which is perfect weather for late blight.

Farmers go to their commercial fields every day to check their tomatoes and prune diseased leaves with scissors. Then they clean the scissors with disinfectant, to avoid spreading disease from plant to plant. Farmers can hire labor to do this in their commercial fields. They say that because of the fungicides, there are few diseased leaves in the commercial fields. The diseased leaves are collected in a bag or bucket to keep them from spreading disease to the healthy plants.

The farmers did confirm that they grow tomatoes differently in their small home gardens, where they grow around 10 plants and uproot the ones that get diseased instead of spraying them. The farmers said that about eight plants usually survive, enough to feed the family.

The farmers in Sordarpur graft their home garden tomatoes onto eggplant rootstock. Partly this gives the tomatoes a stronger stem, but the farmers also think that grafting protects the tomatoes from disease, although they are not sure why. (Grafting can provide disease-resistant rootstock for a disease like late blight which is transmitted in the soil and through the air).

Insect pests can also be a problem. In the home gardens, farmers control insect pests (such as aphids and fruit flies) by hanging up plastic pots painted yellow and coated with engine oil. The fruit flies are attracted to the color yellow and get stuck in the oil. The farmers are also starting to use sex pheromone traps, trying out this new practice mostly in the home gardens.

They make organic pesticides with mustard seed oil, which is used only or mainly in the home gardens. Store-bought chemical insecticides are used in the commercial fields.

Related blog

Read about the farmers in Abdulpur who sell seedlings to the folks in Sordarpur Specializing in seedlings.

For more on pheromone traps see The best knowledge is local and scientific.

Further reading

Lee, Jung-Myung 1994 “Cultivation of Grafted Vegetables I. Current Status, Grafting Methods, and Benefits.” Hortscience 29(4): 235-239.

Further viewing

Watch training videos on fruit flies and integrated pest management

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Abu Sharif Md. Mahbub-E-Kibria “Kibria” at the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh, and to Nazrin Alam (Practical Action Bangladeshesh) and Rakesh Khadka (Practical Action Nepal), for letting me go with them to Sordarpur. Kibria was kind enough to make valuable comments on two earlier versions of this story.

The photo of the pheromone trap is courtesy of Md. Mizanur Rahaman, Practical Action Bangladesh.

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Ashes to aphids October 15th, 2017 by

Anyone interested in organic farming will eventually come across the use of ash to protect crops from pests and diseases. The internet has made it easy for people to consult, and to copy each other’s training materials. But one has to be cautious when borrowing ideas, as we recently learned during a script writing workshop in Bangladesh.

During the first day of the course, the 13 trainees from Bangladesh and Nepal laid out their key ideas to write a fact sheet and a script on a particular problem.

All of our script ideas were hot topics, that is, they are problems that occur widely across developing countries, requiring good training materials with ideas that are both feasible for smallholders and environmentally friendly.

One of the selected topics was how to manage shoot and fruit borer in eggplant, a pest for which many farmers in South Asia spray pesticides twice a week, or more. Just knowing this makes you frown when this tasty vegetable is presented to you in one of the delightful Bangladeshi dishes.

Another group worked on aphids in vegetables and suggested using ash to manage these pervasive pests. When Jeff and I asked why ash is useful, the group gave us various reasons: because it is acidic; it contains sulphur; it is a poison; the ash creates a physical barrier which prevents the aphids from sucking the sap of the plant. These all sound like plausible answers yet some are incorrect. Ash is rich in calcium, like lime, and therefore not acidic, for example.

We do know that ash makes the leaves unpalatable to insects and corrodes their waxy skin, making them vulnerable to desiccation. The FAO’s website on applied technologies (TECA) suggests controlling aphids by applying wood ash after plants are watered. If not, the sun may cause the leaves to burn. Our simple question about using ash reminded me that the scientific basis for many local innovations is poorly understood. There are too few researchers to validate each technology and limited resources often focus on high-tech solutions (e.g. plant breeding) rather than low-tech farmer innovations.

We may not always know why local innovations work, which is all the more reason to be cautious when recommending substitutions. During this workshop, for instance, I learned that not all ashes are the same. Shamiran Biswas, an extensionist with a rich experience working with farmers across the country, explained: “When one field officer told farmers to sprinkle ash on his crop, a farmer who followed this advice saw his entire bean field destroyed within half an hour. We were shocked and tried to figure out what went wrong. It seemed that the farmer had used ash from mustard leaves, which some rural women add to their cooking fires when they are short of wood. But leaf ash from mango, mustard, bamboo and other plants may also be harmful when sprinkled on crops. The only ash that is fully safe to recommend is ash from rice straw or rice bran,” Shamiran concluded. He added that “ the ash should be cold and sprinkled on the crop when the leaves are still wet from the morning dew.”

Experienced extension agents like Shamiran are experts at explaining farmers’ ideas to outsiders, as well as explaining scientific ideas to rural people.

When people give advice to farmers, or develop farmer training materials, it is easy to copy ideas from the Internet. It is easy to assume that because ash is natural that it must be harmless. In fact, tree leaves are often full of toxic chemicals, to deter herbivorous insects; it stands to reason that the ash of the leaves may also be poisonous.

A natural solution can go wrong, even one as simple as applying ash.

To develop good farmer training videos, solid interaction with farmers is crucial. And collaboration with a seasoned, open-minded extensionist helps to orient us in the right direction.

Related blogs

Chemical attitude adjustment

The rules and the players

A spoonful of molasses

Further viewing

To watch videos that merge scientific knowledge with farmer knowledge, visit the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform. All videos are developed by people who value local innovations, and feature technologies that are validated by real farmers.

Acknowledgement

Shamiran Biswas works for the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh, an NGO working on food security and non-formal education.

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Five heads think better than one July 9th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Innovation fairs are becoming a popular way to showcase agricultural invention, and to link some original thinkers with a wider community.

On the 28th of June I was at an innovation fair in Cochabamba, held in a ballroom that is usually rented for weddings and big parties, but with some tweaking it was a fine space for farmers and researchers to meet. Each organization had a table where they could set out products or samples, with their posters displayed behind the presenters.

For example, at one table, I met a dignified, white-haired agronomist, Gonzalo Zalles who explained his work with “deep beds” for raising healthy, odorless pigs. I told Mr. Zalles about some pigs I had seen in Uganda (Smelling is believing), but Eng. Zalles explained that he makes a slightly more sophisticated bed. He starts by digging a pit, then adding a thin layer of lime to the base, followed by a layer of sand. In Uganda, some innovative farmers raise pigs on wood shavings, but Zalles uses rice husks as the final layer. He says they are more absorbent than wood shavings.

I asked if he added Effective Microorganisms (a trademarked brand of yeast and other microbes that are used widely, not just in Uganda, but also to make bokashi fertilizer in Nepal, see The bokashi factory). But no, in Bolivia, swine farmers are using a mix of bacteria and yeast called BioBull, which is made by Biotop, a subsidiary of the Proinpa Foundation in Cochabamba.

José Olivera CamachoAt a nearby stall I caught up with José Olivera of Biotop who was displaying not just BioBull, but other biological products as well, including insecticides and fungicides for organic agriculture. José travels all over the Bolivian Altiplano selling these novel inputs to farmers. He may soon have another product to sell, if research goes to plan at the Panaseri Company, in Cochabamba. Panaseri collaborates with Proinpa to produce food products from the lupine bean, packaged for supermarkets under the brand Tarwix.  At the Panaseri stand, Norka Ojeda, a Proinpa communicator, explained that the Tarwix factory buys lupine beans (tarwi) from farmers and washes out the poisonous alkaloids, rendering the nutritious tarwi safe to eat. (Read more about lupines at Crop with an attitude).

tarwixThe people at Panaseri originally disposed of the alkaloids without any treatment. But they became concerned about the environmental impact, so they installed filters at their plant to remove the toxins from the water. Now researchers at Biotop are studying the possibility of using the alkaloids as ingredients in new botanical insecticides.

Linking researchers to farmers’ associations and companies seems to be bearing fruit. Raising swine without the bad smell is crucial for keeping livestock near cities, where it is easy to get supplies and the market for the final product is nearby. Inventing new bio-pesticides is key to keeping chemical poisons out of our food.  Many heads think better than one.

Acknowledgements

The innovation fair was hosted by FundaciĂłn Valles, Fundesnap and other partners of the Fondo de InnovaciĂłn on 28 June 2017, with funding from Danida (Danish Aid).

Further viewing

Watch a video on tarwi here.

CINCO CABEZAS PIENSAN MEJOR QUE UNA

Las ferias de innovación se están volviendo una manera popular de mostrar la invención agrícola, y para organizar a algunas personas creativas en una comunidad mayor.

El 28 de junio asistí a una feria de innovación en Cochabamba, en un salón de eventos que normalmente se alquila para bodas y quinceañeras, pero con algunos ajustes sirvió perfectamente para el encuentro de agricultores e investigadores. Cada organización tenía una mesa donde podían mostrar sus productos o muestras, con sus pósteres a la vista detrás de los interesados.

Por ejemplo, en una mesa conocí a un destacado agrónomo con una cabellera blanca, Gonzalo Zalles quien explicó su trabajo con “camas profundas” para criar a chanchos sanos sin olores. Le conté al Ing. Zalles de los cerdos que yo había visto en Uganda (Smelling is believing), pero él explicó que él hace una cama un poco más sofisticada. Empieza cavando una fosa, agregando una capa de cal y una de arena. En Uganda, Algunos agricultores innovadores crían a los cerdos en aserrín, pero el Ing. Zalles usa cáscara de arroz como la última capa. Él dice que es más absorbente que el aserrín.

Le pregunté si él agregaba los Microorganismos Efectivos (una marca registrada de levadura con otros microbios que se usa ampliamente, no solo en Uganda, sino también para hacer fertilizante tipo bokashi en Nepal, vea The bokashi factory). Pero no, en Bolivia, los porcicultores usan una mezcla de bacteria con levadura llamada BioBull, un producto de Biotop, que es un subsidiario de la Fundación Proinpa en José Olivera CamachoCochabamba.

En otra mesa encontré a José Olivera de Biotop quien mostraba no solo el BioBull, sino otros productos biológicos, incluso insecticidas y fungicidas para la agricultura orgánica. José viaja por todo el Altiplano boliviano vendiendo esos insumos novedosos a los agricultores. Él pronto tendrá otro producto para vender, si la investigación va bien con la compañía Panaseri, en Cochabamba. Panaseri colabora con Proinpa para producir empaquetar tarwi (lupino) para supermercados, bajo la marca Tarwix.  En el stand de Panaseri, Norka Ojeda, comunicadora de Proinpa, explicó que la fábrica de Tarwix compra tarwi de los productores y lava los venenosos alcaloides, para que el nutritivo tarwi sea sano para comer. (Lea más sobre el tarwi aquí: Cultivo con carácter fuerte).

tarwixLa fábrica de Panaseri tiene que descartar los alcaloides, pero la empresa se cuestionó del impacto ambiental, así que instalaron filtros en su planta para quitar las toxinas del agua. Ahora los investigadores de Biotop están estudiando la posibilidad de usar los alcaloides como ingredientes en nuevos insecticidas botánicos.

Vincular los investigadores con asociaciones de productores y empresas parece dar fruto. Criar cerdos sin malos olores es crucial para la porcicultura cerca de las ciudades, donde es conveniente comprar la comida de los cerdos y vender los productos finales. El invento de nuevos bio-plaguicidas es clave para evitar de envenenar nuestra comida. SĂ­ parece que varias cabezas piensan mejor que una sola.

Agradecimientos

La Feria de InnovaciĂłn fue auspiciada por la FundaciĂłn Valles, Fundesnap y otros socios del Fondo de InnovaciĂłn el 28 de junio del 2017, con financiamiento de Danida (Ayuda Danesa).

Para ver más

Vea el video sobre tarwi aquĂ­.

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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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