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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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Your own piece of land July 30th, 2017 by

In earlier blog stories Jeff, Eric and myself have written about the value of growing and processing one’s own food. For people who don’t own their own land, one alternative is the allotment.

Allotments or community gardens are small plots cultivated by individuals who abide by rules set by the land owner, often a local council but sometimes the Christian Church, a private company or individual willing to provide a social service. Non-commercial gardeners pay a modest annual rent against the security over a longer-term land tenancy.

While a new trend of urban gardening is sparked by a young generation in favour of eating healthy food that is produced with minimal food miles, few people realize that allotment schemes originated out of a need of food security.

Across most of Europe, industrialisation in the 19th and early 20th century drove people from the countryside to the cities in search of jobs. Their working and living conditions were often appalling and, coupled with poor nutrition, meant that early deaths in a family were common. Church authorities and local councils started “gardens of the poor”. Railroad companies also allotted plots of land to their workers. The stretches of land along the sides of the railway were unsuitable for general agriculture, but offered a good opportunity for the large workforce to grow their own food. Through this social service, companies kept their workforce happy.

Your own piece of landDuring the first and second World Wars it became a real challenge to bring enough food from the countryside to the cities. Most of the male workforce was called up by the armed forces. Fuel was also rationed and prioritised for moving soldiers, weapons and supplies. As ships were no longer able to import as much food, the British government launched a “digging for victory” campaign that used waste ground, railway edges, gardens, sports fields and golf courses for farming or vegetable growing. Victory gardens were also planted in backyards and on apartment-building rooftops. By 1943, the number of allotments had peaked at an estimated 1.75 million.

To support newcomer growers, many of whom did not have prior farming expertise, numerous radio and TV programmes were developed to strengthen people’s skills while at the same time instilling a communal pride in the nation.

When looking at today’s allotment plots a few things strike the eye: each plot shows a unique mix of innovations as tenants experiment to get the best out of their garden. And secondly, the soil is often quite black indicating the many years the soil has been nourished with organic matter. Long-term leases encourage gardeners to cherish the land and invest in its future.

Throughout history and across countries, allotment gardens have taken many shapes and forms. Many that were started under the pressure of war continued long into peacetime, in part because of demands from gardeners who loved being outdoors and growing their own produce. While allotments often started as poverty relief, they now help salaried professionals unwind from the stress of the office. Like agriculture, gardening evolves, and does more than just produce food.

Credit

The British “Dig on for Victory” poster was produced by Peter Fraser.

References

David Matless 2016. Landscape and Englishness. London: Reaction Books. 491 pp.

Related blog stories

A farm in the city (urban agriculture)

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Anasazi beans June 18th, 2017 by

Dove Creek 3In 1981 I worked as an archaeologist at the Lowry Ruins, a Native American site inhabited about 1200 AD by the Anasazi people, now known as the “Ancestral Puebloans”. The Lowry Ruins are in Southwestern Colorado, a flat land with rich soil, carved in places with deep sandstone canyons.

room blockThis strange landscape is made even more bizarre by the ancient stone dwellings which are still visible in shallow caves (alcoves) in the canyon walls. Modern farms dominate the flat lands and produce some of the finest pinto beans in the USA. But drop into the canyons and it is like going back 700 years to pre-Colombian America, when ancient Native Americans also grew beans, as well as maize and squash.

irrigated beansOne day in 1981, I happened to meet a Colorado bean farmer, who told me that in one of the canyons he found an ancient pot filled with a strange variety of beans. Being a bean farmer, he was naturally curious, so he planted a handful of the beans and they germinated. He harvested the beans and planted them again. By the time I talked to the farmer in 1981 he said that he had a whole acre of the beans and would soon have enough seed to plant a commercial sized field.

By 1983 a new variety of bean appeared in stores in the Southwestern USA under the name “Anasazi beans.” Unlike pinto beans, which are brown, these Anasazi beans were pale, with reddish speckles. I wondered if the beans in the shops were the ones the farmer in Colorado had told me about.

handfull of Anasazi beansI was back in that part of the world recently, visiting family, when my brother, Scott, went to the cupboard for a burlap bag labelled “Anasazi beans” and began to prepare them for supper. I could see that Anasazi beans were still popular with consumers, and for the first time in years I thought of the farmer with his odd tale of finding the beans in a ruin in a canyon. But this time I was more skeptical that bean seed could stay viable for 700 years, even in the dry Southwest. I wondered if the farmer I talked to in 1981 had found the beans in some more conventional way, such as from a seed catalog, or perhaps while on vacation in Mexico.

By 2017, several companies were selling “Anasazi beans”. Scott’s bag of Anasazi beans came from the Adobe Milling Company in Dove Creek, Colorado, where I went with my brothers, Scott, Brett and Dan to learn more about the origin of the beans.

adobe milling companyDove Creek is a small town and the Adobe Milling Company was easy to find. The store was surprisingly busy for a specialty shop in such a quiet place. The staff could hardly keep up with the stream of customers. I met Velvet Pribble, the lady in charge of this successful family business. Although the she and her staff were busy coping with a steady stream of customers, she still had time to chat. Velvet said that her great-uncle found the Anasazi beans in the nearby Lukachukai Mountains of New Mexico and brought them home and planted them in her family’s garden in Yellow Jacket (near Dove Creek). The beans grew and Velvet’s sister took the beans to school, for show-&-tell. The teacher, Bessie White, took some of those beans home and planted them herself. Ms. White shared the beans with neighboring farmers and then “they took off”. Velvet says that her family still has the original pot and some of the ancient beans, and that they look as fresh as the ones just harvested in Dove Creek today. “They never age,” Velvet adds.

tower at Painted HandVelvet’s story puzzled me; her great uncle could not have been the farmer I met in 1981, because the two men claimed to have found the beans in different places. The Lowry Ruins are about 120 miles from the Lukachukai Mountains. Then I learned about other versions of the Anasazi bean story. The pamphlet on display at the Adobe Milling Company itself says they beans “were found in the ruins by settlers to the four corners area in the early 1900s”, not that the beans were found by family members in the 1980s.

To put the Anasazi beans in context, there are no confirmed cases where old seed, stored on purpose by ancient people, has been successfully grown by modern farmers. Legume seeds found in adobe (mud brick) from California and Northern Mexico were still alive after 200 years (Börner 2006), but this is some of the oldest viable seed ever found. Seed rarely survives for more than a century (Bewley and Black 2012).

By 1299 AD, following a 27-year drought, the Anasazi abandoned their canyon homes on the Colorado Plateau, in the area where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico all meet. Centuries later, the area was settled by small groups of other Native Americans, the Utes and the Navajos. Anglo-American colonization did not start until the 1840s. Parts of Anasazi country are still uninhabited, so great was the ecological collapse of the late 1200s.

Seven centuries seemed a long time for bean seed to stay viable, so I phoned an old college friend, Winston Hurst, a life-long resident of canyon country, and an archaeologist specializing in the area. He told me that stories have been circulating for years about people finding beans in pots in archaeological sites. Winston explained that Utes and Navajos were growing corn in the region, but it is less clear if they were planting beans there. However, historic native North Americans usually grew maize and beans together, and the Navajos made enough pots to suggest that they could have been cooking beans. Several Navajo pots have been found in dry caves in Anasazi country. Winston recalls seeing three kinds of beans, which people claimed had come from ancient pots. Each bean was completely unique. One was the reddish “Anasazi bean,” while another was large and white like a navy bean, and the third looked a bit like a castor bean.

So I offer the following hypothetical scenario: after the Anasazi (the Ancestral Puebloan) people abandoned southern Colorado and southern Utah in the late 1200s. Navajo settlers eventually planted gardens of maize and beans in the country, and left small caches of seed in pots in dry alcoves, perhaps even in Anasazi sites. These beans could have been less than 200 years old when collected by Anglo-American farmers, including Velvet’s great-uncle.

Whatever their origin, the Anasazi beans are delicious. So drop in to see the friendly folks in Dove Creek, Colorado, or order some Anasazi beans on-line, because no matter where these attractive beans came from, they are a real treat to eat.

About ancient sites

Some local people in the Four Corners of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico are now digging up archaeological sites for pleasure, forever closing a window on the past. Wherever you live, please respect ancient sites and leave them to the archaeologists, who know how to excavate a site professionally, to learn how ancient people lived and farmed. When plundered for its artifacts, an ancient site is not worth a hill of beans.

Scientific name

The pinto bean and the Anasazi bean are varieties of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris).

Further reading

Bewley, J. Derek, and Michael Black 2012 Physiology and Biochemistry of Seeds in Relation to Germination: Volume 2: Viability, Dormancy, and Environmental Control. Springer Science & Business Media.

Börner, Andreas 2006 “Preservation of Plant Genetic Resources in the Biotechnology Era” Biotechnology Journal 1: 1393–1404 DOI 10.1002/biot.200600131.

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Chocolate evolution June 11th, 2017 by

Some foods, like bread and boiled potatoes, have been around for thousands of years, but since the 1500s, new options have evolved, including French fried potatoes, corn flakes, and those marvelous chocolate bars. Cacao was domesticated by Native Americans in Central America and Mexico. Cacao residue found on ceramics in Honduras may be 2400 years old. Ancient American cacao beans were so valuable they were often used as money. Cacao was made into a bitter drink and a food. A sauce made from cacao, chili and peanuts was used to make a turkey stew, called “mole.” (The word “mole” can either refer to the sauce itself, or to a dish that includes it.)

cacao beansChocolate reached Spain in 1528, after the conquest of Mexico. The Spanish soon found that cacao could be mixed with sugar and pressed into a solid disk or tablet, to mix with hot water to make a drink. For the first time in history chocolate was sweet.

Manufacturers in Mexico still sell boxes of chocolate disks, sweetened and spiced with cinnamon. The chocolate is hard and dissolves slowly, so it must be vigorously beaten into hot water, but the frothy drink is worth it.

By the 1700s, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe, and its popularity soon led to other innovative uses, for example in confectionary.

In 1828 a Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houten, found a way to make powdered chocolate by removing half of the natural fat (cocoa butter), pulverizing what remained and treating it with alkaline salts to reduce the bitter taste. The cocoa powder was called “Dutch chocolate.”

In 1847, in Bristol, England, Joseph Fry invented bars of chocolate by adding cocoa butter back into Dutch chocolate, along with sugar, and pressing the mixture into molds. Fry’s Chocolate Cream Bars debuted on the market in 1866, but the confection was still somewhat bitter, and sales were slow.

From 1869 to 1887, Daniel Peter, a chocolate maker in Vevey, Switzerland, experimented with ways to add milk to improve the bitter flavor of chocolate. The challenge was to remove liquid from the milk, add sugar, and blend it with chocolate before the mix spoiled. Early attempts were often rancid or tasted of bad cheese. But Peter’s hard work paid off, and chocolate was being sold in the UK under the Nestle brand by 1901. By 1900 other manufacturers (including Milton Hershey in Pennsylvania) were also selling factory-made chocolate bars in America.

Allied troops in the Second World War were issued chocolate tablets (with oat flour added to prevent melting). Soldiers often used the chocolate as gifts or trade items. Paul Van Mele’s older relatives in Belgium recall how the British soldiers gave chocolate to the local families who offered them food and accommodation.

Since those optimistic days at the end of World War II, chocolate has continued to change, not always for the better. Manufacturers often substitute partially hydrogenated vegetable oil for cocoa butter, and use the chocolate as a simple coating for cheaper candy.

So food evolves, fueled by the creative experiments of innovators who were stimulated by new commercial opportunities. The Age of Exploration and the Industrial Revolution both offered new foods, which the public craved, including the seductive taste of chocolate. As with other kinds of technologies, old food recipes often persist alongside new ones. In Mexico and parts of the USA you can still find the delicious mole, often made now with chicken instead of turkey. The sauce even comes conveniently packaged in class jars. So chocolate still survives, in at least some places, not just as a candy, but also as a drink and a main dish.

Further reading

Boynton, Sandra 1982 Chocolate: The Consuming Passion New York: Workman Publishing.

A brief history of chocolate

Chocolate, food of the gods

Daniel Peter – The inventor of milk chocolate.

Related blog stories

Teach your children well (with cocoa)

Out of the shade

Forty farmer innovations

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The ice harvest April 23rd, 2017 by

Ice was once a natural resource of some value, harvested, processed and sold on international markets. The ice harvest has vanished, but not before evolving into our modern food chain.

In 1805, the 21-year-old Frederic Tudor was at a party in Boston, when his brother William playfully suggested that ice from nearby ponds could be cut and sold to wealthy customers in the Caribbean. Frederic, later to be known as the “Ice King”, seized on the idea, and the following year took a ship loaded with ice to sunny Martinique, where he taught the owners of the finer hotels how to make and sell ice cream.

The ice cream sold for a hefty price, but the ice itself soon melted, leaving Frederic with a staggering loss of $4000. Not one to be easily discouraged, he learned from his expensive lesson by experimenting with different ways to make the ice last longer. He compared types of insulation, including straw, wood shavings, and blankets, and designs for storage facilities until he had perfected an ice depot that could keep 92% of its inventory frozen for a summer season. Once he had succeeded, Frederic’s business and reputation soared.

Ice mover NSmallFor years, ice harvesters improvised techniques with pickaxes and chisels, aided by horses wearing spiked shoes, to avoid slipping on the frozen lakes. This was usually good enough to gather enough ice to be stored for sale in the summer in northern cities. Then in 1824, another Massachusetts man, Nathaniel Jarvis, invented a horse-drawn ice cutter, with parallel blades that would cut ice from frozen ponds into blocks of standard sizes, such as 22 by 22 inches (56 centimeters). This innovation allowed blocks of ice that could be loaded tightly onto a ship, without spaces in between. The ice was less likely to melt or shift in transit, and the ice trade took on a new life.

Ice began to be shipped to Charleston, New Orleans and other southern cities (especially to chill beer and preserve fish during the long, hot summers), but in one bold experiment in 1833, Tudor shipped 180 tons of ice to Calcutta, where he built a large ice depot to house his product. Residents of India could now buy an insulated box, and stock it with a block of Yankee ice that would keep food and drinks cold for days.

4380 keeping the fridge cool with iceBy 1856 over 130,000 tons of ice were being cut from ponds around Boston and shipped not just to India, but also to Latin America, the Caribbean, China and the Philippines.  But that same year, spurred by the profits to be made from ice, a British journalist, James Harrison, invented a practical, coal-powered ice compressor in Australia. “Natural ice” (cut in the wild) and “plant ice” (from factories) competed with each other in an expanding market. In the 1800s, some railroad cars and ships were fitted with ice-holding compartments that allowed fresh meat and other perishable produce to be shipped long distances.

At first, consumers preferred natural ice, believing it was cleaner and longer lasting, and it wasn’t until 1914 that plant ice in the USA gained dominance. Relatively inexpensive electrical refrigerators came onto the market in 1923. Once consumers had refrigerators, they no longer had to buy ice.

ice bhanAfter a century of lively commerce, the spectacular long-distance and large-scale trade of natural ice finally began to decline and eventually collapsed in the 1930s. However, the ice trade has left the modern economy with a legacy: the commerce in fresh food which continues to this day, although it is now based on refrigeration, not natural ice. And of course there is still a niche market for factory-made ice, sold for picnics, and (especially in developing countries) to fishmongers and other small-scale food dealers.
The ice trade also led to another innovation, the ice box, which allowed homeowners to keep food fresh, stimulating the trade in produce from countryside to town. Modern supermarkets with ice cream, frozen fish and fresh meat presuppose that the consumers have a refrigerator at home. Today, tropical countries like Ghana export mangos and papayas to Europe and North America. Because of refrigeration in Central America, more farmers are able to sell fresh produce to large, new supermarkets in cities like Tegucigalpa and San Salvador.

You can now find tropical produce in refrigerators around the world, and in a sense it started when a student at Harvard joked with his brother about shipping frozen pond water to the Caribbean.

Further reading

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1965 The Americans: The National Experience. New York: Vintage Books. 517 pp.

Cummings, Richard O. 1949 The American Ice Harvests: A Historical Study in Technology, 1800–1918. Berkeley and Los Angeles: California University Press.

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