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Good-bye bison January 10th, 2016 by

The story of the American bison (the “buffalo” as it is called in the USA) has been rehearsed many times, how the settlers shot them for their hides, or sometimes for their tongues. They shot them just for fun from the platforms of trains, and killed them for malice to starve the Native Americans. It gets worse. The last man to seal the bison’s coffin was a researcher from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

bison up closeThere were once 30 million bison in North America, in two great “herds”, a northern one ranging into Canada and a southern one that wintered in Texas. They ranged from Utah to Pennsylvania. By 1886 bison had almost disappeared, so the Smithsonian Institution sent William Temple Hornaday out west to investigate.

The resourceful Hornaday gathered a team of hunters and guides, provisioned himself with wagons of food and ammunition and set off for the wilds of Montana, where a remnant herd of about 35 bison still ran wild. Hornaday already knew that there were only about 400 bison left alive, 200 in the newly created Yellowstone National Park, and 200 scattered around on private ranches.

Bison had once been naĂŻve and easy to shoot. Sometimes the beasts simply stood still while the hunters shot them down. At other times when the bullets started to fly, the terrified animals bolted off in a wild dash into the wind (where they could smell their way). In his book, The Extermination of the American Bison, Hornaday describes in loving detail how this last wild herd in Montana was now more cautious of people.

Hornaday simply assumed that nothing could be done for the bison, that they were doomed to extinction. He (and his backers) imagined that when all the bison were gone, it would be nice to have a few stuffed bison in naturalistic poses, inside a glass case for the museum-going public to see.

By 1886, the remaining, wiser bison had finally learned to run in different directions at the first shot, and to hide in the ravines. And bison run pretty darned fast. Even so, Hornaby and his crew managed to kill 20 of the creatures, and crate their hides and bones back to Washington, where the remarkable Hornaday, who was an expert taxidermist, preserved six dead bison, from calves to old cows and bulls, for a diorama of the Great Plains. Wildlife conservation has come a long way since then.

As a species though, the bison got lucky. As an afterthought, Hornaday brought back two calves. It was the least he could do, since he had killed their mothers and they had wandered into his camp and taken to following the men around. These calves became the nucleus of the bison herd in the National Zoo, in Washington.

S.L. Bedson, of Stony Mountain, Manitoba and C.J. Jones of Garden City, Kansas and other ranchers managed to buy up scattered bison from other cowmen who had only one or two animals, until they gathered small, reproducing herds.

In 1986 the management of Yellowstone National Park passed from the Interior Department to the U.S. Army. Hunters slipped into the park to slaughter the last remaining wild bison (to sell their hides). The poachers were heavily armed and light on scruples, but Captain Moses Harris and his men chased them out of the park.. Thanks to the efforts of a few ranchers and soldiers the bison survivedin parks, ranches and zoos. Yet their ecosystem is gone: the wild grasslands have been plowed up, and replaced with maize, soybeans, and pick-up trucks. The bison or buffalo no longer thunder their way north and south in great, reddish brown rivers in search of fresh pasture.

Some people are even raising bison commercially, and its lean, tasty meat is back on the menu. In Washington DC, you can have a bison burger at the restaurant in the Museum of the American Indian, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, the same outfit which once backed Hornaday’s taxidermy expedition. Hornaday might be pleasantly surprised to see that the bison was not exterminated after all.

Further reading

Hornaday, William Temple 2002 (1889) The Extermination of the American Bison. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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Apple blossom honey September 20th, 2015 by

When the Soviet Union broke apart, the collective farms of Kyrgyzstan were split up among the workers, with larger shares going to those who had worked the most years. Now, some 35 years later, the family farm is doing well.

My colleagues and I visited some of these farms near the eastern end of Lake Issyk Kul (“Warm Lake”) which never freezes in the winter, and has long attracted settlers to its sheltered shores.

talay lifts lidOne of the Kyrgyz farmers, Talay, is a veterinarian by training, and although he occasionally charges for advice on animal health, he makes a comfortable living as a smallholder farmer, on his three hectares of land. He has six cows, 26 horses and a dozen sheep, which all spend the winter in a warm barn eating the alfalfa that Talay has harvested for them.

In the summer the animals graze in the mountain pastures and later on the stubble of the harvested fields. It’s a better life for the animals than a factory farm. A modern milk plant sends a contractor to collect the milk for Talay and the other village households, providing them with a modest, but steady cash income.

The farm families have time for the occasional party, when a horse is slaughtered to feed the guests. Horse is good to eat, but the neighbors will speak more approvingly of a two-horse party.

bee polen trapTalay takes the most pride in his 26 beehives, nestled among his apple trees. “Bees and apples depend on each other,” he explains. The apples need the bees to pollinate them, and the bees need the nectar from the trees to make honey (50 kilos per hive per year, worth about $5400).

Talay gathers the honey three times during the summer. Each time, the honey is richer. His pure, dark honey is so well known that people drive six hours from the capital city, Bishkek, to buy it.

Talay also collects pollen from the bees. He puts a little trap with small round holes over the door of the hive. The bees scrape the pollen off their legs as they crawl home.

Propolis is a waxy stuff laden with antibiotics. Bees lay propolis down in the hive to preserve the honey. Talay scrapes up the propolis into greenish grey balls. It is expensive, but he gives most of it away to people who want to use it as medicine.

Nothing is wasted, not the wax, not even the bodies of the bees, when they die. Talay boils three tablespoons full of bees in a cup of water for a few minutes. He drinks the infusion, and says that it is good for hypertension. Talay also sells seven tons of apples a year (from 5800 square meters of orchard), and the family grows their own potatoes, wheat, berries and vegetables.

propolisOver lunch, of mutton stew, homemade bread, honey and jam, the family explained that their oldest daughter is a medical doctor. The second daughter is studying economics and the third is at an institute for foreign languages. The two youngest children are boys. Talay wants to give the farm to the older of the two, and then retire on the farm. It seemed like long-term planning, since the boy was only ten.

“What if he doesn’t want to be a farmer?” someone asked.  “He has already shown great interest in it,” Talay says, drawing the boy near.

I envied that little boy more than his successful sisters or anyone else in the room. It is no wonder that the family farm survived collectivization. The farm and the family are well suited to each other, like the bees and the apples.

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The goat with the bucket April 12th, 2015 by

At first glance, some of the things we see people doing in villages and small towns may seem strange, but digging deeper we often see that people have a good reason for doing what looks odd.

This afternoon, filming at a bean and grain trader in southwestern Uganda, I noticed some goats with a small plastic bucket over their mouths. I immediately thought that the elder woman who was walking with her two goats on a lead had taken measures so that her goats would not destroy any of her neighbours’ fields. A very thoughtful act, I thought.

Then I had another thought: since we were in a market, perhaps the bucket is to keep the goat’s snout out of the traders’ bags of flour. They might retaliate by smacking the goat and hurting it.

The driver, Fred, interpreted it differently, however, and said the goats had probably been punished for whatever reason goats are punished for.

My Ugandan colleague, Isaac Mugagga, came up with yet a fourth explanation. The goats must have eaten some maize grains or flour, so the woman wants to protect her goats. If goats drink water shortly after having eaten maize, their stomachs will bloat and they may die. “The buckets simply prevent the goats from drinking water,” Isaac said.

Interpreting farmers’ practices requires an understanding of the local context; a good place to start is by asking farmers why they do the things they do.

So we asked the woman, and she explained that she did want to prevent her goats from feeding on peoples crops and grains.

In rural Africa, a person travelling with a goat or two is a fairly common sight. The little animals are bought and sold at markets, and are just the right size to take to cook at a feast or funeral. Or the goat may just be going to eat lunch, not to become one. Unlike factory farms, a family farmer in a tropical country may have time to take the goat out to find a choice bit of grazing. Whatever the reason for the trip-with-goat, it’s usually best to keep the goat out of trouble on the way, and innovative farmers have come up with another use for the plastic bucket.

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Cell phones for smallholders February 1st, 2015 by

In his sweeping history of Africa, Martin Meredith says that the continent’s economy is now growing rapidly, in part because of cell phones, for sharing information and for managing money (2014 The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Great and Endeavour. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers).

He doesn’t give any examples, so I thought I would provide some here. Somali herders used to take their flocks to the arid coast, and wait for a buyer. If many days passed, the owner of the flock would become impatient paying for feed and water in town. The livestock might have to be sold at a low price, after a frustrating wait. Now herders ring ahead, find out the price for livestock and decide if the time is right to make a trip to the coast (Richard Dowden 2009 Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. London: Portobello).

In northern Ghana, where distances are great and money is short, farmers used to go to town to buy fertilizer, only to find that none was available. The wasted travel expenses were a needless inefficiency. Now farmers ring ahead, and ask their input dealer in town if fertilizer is available before taking the trip.

The cell phone works just as well in Latin America. In Guatemala I met a fruit farmer, who explained that cell phones have made his life a lot easier. When he has citrus to cell, he calls his dealer (el coyote), who deposits the payment in the bank, and then comes up and collects the tangerines. Neither the buyer nor the seller is carrying cash, which helps to keep them safe from bandits, the scourge of modern Guatemala.

In lowland Bolivia I have seen banana buyers send out a guy on a motorcycle. This banana rep goes from farm to farm, arranging for fruit to buy on a certain date. Then the rep calls the buyer, who brings in a truck, and meets each smallholder family by appointment, at the farm gate, loads the bunches, and pays in cash. (There aren’t that many bandits in Bolivia.)

These cases show that cell phones help to increase efficiency by lowering transaction costs. They avoid wasted expenses, for the benefit of buyers and sellers. The second efficiency of cell phones is using them as banks.

A young African colleague recently told me that he was tired of hearing about Africa always being in last place. I told him that was changing. Africa was the world’s leading innovator using cell phones for financial services.

“Really?!” he said, brightening instantly.

Really. I have seen people saving money on their cell phone in Mali, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and elsewhere. The phone companies encourage entrepreneurs to set up little branches where money can be received in amounts large and small, and saved electronically. The customer can withdraw her money later, or send it to anyone she cares to, as long as that person has access to a cell phone. Saving and sending money is basically as easy as buying air time.

I’ve heard that some of the banks are opposed to the deal, and are trying to have governments regulate cell phone savings out of business. Shame on the banks. If they don’t have the imagination to work with smallholder farmers, they shouldn’t punish the people who do.

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Free range turkey November 30th, 2014 by

Folks in the USA have just finished their long, Thanksgiving weekend, which is all about turkey, most of which come wrapped in plastic, and frozen as hard as the Plymouth Rock. So this may be a good time to think about alternatives.

We hear a lot about free range chickens, or keeping hens at home, but it is also possible to keep turkeys. One of the pleasures of visiting highland Guatemala is seeing the native turkeys strolling around the village lanes and strutting on the porch.

The native Mayan languages have words for turkeys, like akach in Kekchí, attesting to the bird’s antiquity in the highlands. Even in Spanish, the Guatemalans have word of their own for turkey. While the rest of the Spanish-speaking world calls the turkey pavo, here it is chompipe.

So here are some tips on free range turkey, from Guatemala, the land that loves them the most.

When the female is in heat, the males follow her, until they mate. Then she lays one egg a day. When she has eight or ten she sits on them, in a nest in a box, in the chicken coop or in the house, otherwise the turkey will go to the woods and lay her eggs, where the dogs will probably eat them.

When the turkey is about to lay her eggs, she starts looking for a place to lay them, so folks make her a nice nest out of dry grass, in a dark place. Some people eat the first few eggs the turkey lays, because the first eggs get old, and may not hatch anyway. What a great way to eat your losses.

The turkey is a little wilder than the hen, and fussier. They brood for 29 days. When the turkey has been sitting on the eggs for a week, many people put six hen’s eggs in the nest. These baby chicks are called mozos (hired hands) or ayudantes (helpers) because they teach the turkey chicks how to eat. The Guatemalans say that the little mozos are better at identifying what’s food sooner than the turkey chicks. (Any comments from readers on this would be appreciated).

The turkey chicks will eat store-bought feed, but most people can’t afford that. The chicks will eat maize grain that is broken a bit and boiled. But after the chicks are six weeks old they will eat raw maize, and they eat that all their life.

Free range turkeys reduce costs. The household buys simple veterinary drugs when the turkeys get sick, but otherwise invest little cash in the flock. Giving the birds a roost and a handful or two of maize every day teaches the birds to stay near home. Unlike industrial turkeys, free range ones are not given hormones, antibiotics or even cheap, processed feeds.

Turkeys are avid scavengers. Their diet includes grasses, grains and a menu of creatures such as snails, earthworms, termites and other small insects. Free range turkeys will also sift through kitchen waste, essentially feeding itself for free while recycling some of the farmers’ trash and pests. http://www.free-range-turkey.com/

Wherever the family farm exists (and there are quite a lot of them) they provide food that is fresh, not frozen, based on local customs, knowledge and practices. These systems are not “inefficient” as some economists like to sniff from the sidelines. Family farmers rely (at least in part) on local resources, saving costs, minimizing risks, and growing the best food.

Adapted from:

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Keith L. Andrews 2011 Los Dos Saberes: La Sinergia Entre los Saberes Científicos y Locales: Un Diálogo entre Técnicos Agropecuarios y Productores para Mejorar la Extensión e Investigación en Guatemala.  Guatemala D.F.: IICA (Instituto Interamericano de Cooperación para la Agricultura) & CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). 212 pp. Download the book in Spanish.

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