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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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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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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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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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Farmers produce electronic content August 6th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación 

Earlier in this blog we have told how smallholders in India and Kenya are using smartphones and tablets to surf the web for information. In Bolivia, some smallholders are not only accessing content on the web, but also using it to share their own observations and experiences.

quinoa standBernabé Choquetopa and Antolín Salazar are two quinoa farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano, the astonishingly high plains at 3,700 meters, between the ranges of the Andes. At this altitude it can be difficult to grow even potatoes. Quinoa does well, if it rains, but the Andean rains are now coming later in the year, threatening a whole way of life on the high plains.

Bernabé and Antolín are part of a group of 98 expert farmers, called yapuchiris, who teach their neighbors techniques to adapt to the changing climate. In 2015 a Bolivian organization, Prosuco, formed a group on WhatsApp, an online social media platform that one can access from a cell phone. Ten yapuchiris from different parts of the Altiplano joined the group, and called it the Observer’s Network, dedicated to sharing information about the weather in their areas. Farmers in other parts of Bolivia, and a few non-farmers, have joined the network, so that it now has over 60 members.

In 2016 several farmers wrote in to tell how the drought was killing the harvest of nearly all the crops. But there is also encouraging information. Bernabé often reports on “indicators,” the name the group uses for signs that predict the weather in the near future. For example, when the foxes leave the plains to seek out warm cover in the hills, the night will be cold. This knowledge reminds farmers to double check that livestock are well sheltered.

nest of oven birdThe oven-bird makes a round, hard, covered nest. The birds seem to sense the coming wet weather and do their best to build a dry nest, so if the walls of the nest are especially strong and hard, it will be a wet year. Knowing this lets farmers know that they can plant even in somewhat dryer areas, and that they can start planting with the first good rains. Some of the users also upload satellite based weather predictions onto the Observers’ Network. At first I thought the yapuchiris might feel upstaged, and might stop uploading their own predictions, but they didn’t. The farmers are happy to see satellite images and bird nests alike. Information is appreciated no matter where it comes from.

The internet, inexpensive cell phones and user-friendly social media are making it possible for at least some smallholders to start posting their own ideas. It’s an exciting new trend, because those of us who share information with farmers on the Internet may soon find it easier to use the web to share high quality messages with farmers on a mass scale.

Acknowledgement

Written with the help of Eng. Sonia Laura who works at Prosuco, www.prosuco.org, a non-profit organization.

Related blog stories

Village smart phones in India

Connected to the world in Kenya

AGRICULTORES PRODUCEN CONTENIDO ELECTRĂ“NICO

6 de agosto del 2017 por Jeff Bentley

Ya hemos escrito en este blog que los campesinos en la India y en Kenia usan smartphones y tablets para navegar la web para buscar información. En Bolivia, algunos productores no solo bajan contenido del web, sino que también lo usan para compartir sus observaciones y experiencias.

quinoa standBernabé Choquetopa y Antolín Salazar son quinueros del Altiplano sur boliviano, esa planicie sorprendentemente alta que está sobre los 3,700 metros, entre las cordilleras de los Andes. A esta altitud puede ser difícil producir hasta la papa. La quinua da bien, si llueve, pero ahora las lluvias llegan cada vez más tarde, amenazando toda una forma de vida en esas zonas altiplánicas.

Bernabé y Antolín son parte de un grupo de 98 productores expertos, llamados yapuchiris, quienes enseñan técnicas a sus vecinos para adaptarse al cambio climático. En el 2015 la institución Prosuco formó un grupo en WhatsApp, una plataforma de medio social que se usa desde el celular. Diez yapuchiris de diferentes zonas del Altiplano se unieron al grupo y lo llamaron la Red de Observadores, dedicada a compartir información sobre el clima en sus zonas. Algunos técnicos, y agricultores en otras partes de Bolivia, se unieron a la red, hasta tener más de 60 miembros.

En el 2016 cuando varios campesinos escribieron para contar que la sequía atrasaba azotaba a la cosecha de casi todos los cultivos. Pero también hay información alentadora. Bernabé a menudo informa sobre los “indicadores,” el nombre que el grupo usa para las señales que predicen el tiempo a corto plazo. Por ejemplo, cuando los zorros salen de las llanuras para buscar lugares cálidos en los cerros, hará frío en la noche. El saber eso hace recuerdo a los agricultores a asegurarse que sus animales estén bajo cobertura.

nest of oven birdEl hornero hace un nido redondo, duro y cubierto. Los pájaros sienten la llegada del tiempo húmedo y hacen lo posible para hacerse un nido seco, entonces si las paredes del nido son fuertes y duras, será un año lluvioso. Este conocimiento informa a los agricultores que pueden sembrar hasta en lugares más secos, y que pueden empezar a sembrar con las primeras buenas lluvias. Algunos de los técnicos también suben pronósticos basados en satélites a la Red de Observadores. Al principio pensé que eso podría quitar protagonismo a los yapuchiris, pero no fue así. Los agricultores están felices de ver imágenes satelitales y nidos de pájaros. Se puede apreciar información de varias fuentes.

Gracias al internet, los celulares baratos y los e-medios accesibles, hoy en día es posible que algunos campesinos empiecen a publicar sus propias ideas. Es una tendencia emocionante, que facilita el trabajo de los que compartimos información con los campesinos. En el futuro será más fácil compartir mensajes de alta calidad, a gran escala, por el web.

Agradecimiento

Escrito con el apoyo de la Ing. Sonia Laura, quien trabaja en Prosuco, www.prosuco.org, una entidad sin fines de lucro.

Cuentos relacionados del blog

Village smart phones in India

Connected to the world in Kenya

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