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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.


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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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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Forty farmer innovations December 13th, 2015 by

Last week I was invited to the first national meeting of farmer innovators in Bolivia. It included a fair and it was organized by Prolinnova and by World Neighbors.

I was used to finding farmer innovations the hard way, one at a time, in the field, but here they were forty of them assembled under tents erected on a volleyball court in Cochabamba.

Some of the farmers had worked with NGOs. A German NGO had coached a group of Guaraní women from the warm lowlands, the Chaco, to care for local maize varieties. Doña Lucía and the other women showed how they had learned to separate each native variety, to keep the fields separate so the pollen wouldn’t mix, to select ears for seed of pure red or striped gold, or pearly white or blue-and-yellow. The Guaraní wanted to preserve each variety because each one went with a different recipe of traditional food. The NGO taught them to dig into the soil to measure the moisture before planting. The women were still pleasantly surprised with this simple technique. It was helping them determine when the soil held enough water to bear a crop.

The Swiss NGO Helvetas had helped a group of Aymara farmers from the High Plains to chart their weather for the year, meticulously recording the intensity of the sun, rain or hail. They called it a “Pachagrama” (an earth graph). The Aymara wise men, the yapuchiris, had gathered the eggs of wild birds (as they have done for many years) to predict the weather by the spots on the egg shells. Now, the yapuchiris compared the eggs with the pachagrama. After predicting the year’s weather, and then graphing it out, the yapuchiris were convinced that their predictions were accurate. Now there is a topic I wish I could study in detail.

Maybe two cultures think better than one, but even the farmers with less NGO support were also creative, if less complicated. One farmer, Julián Prado, had carved two miniature mill stones from sandstone, perfect replicas of the old water-driven mill stones, but only about 40 cm in diameter. Instead of being driven by water and a turbine, don Julián could rotate the wooden shaft with his foot, and a system of gears and wheels turned the top stone. The wheat dropped into a hole in the middle of the upper stone, which whirled around grinding the grain to flour.

Elena Céspedes had raised a dog as a puppy with her flock goats, even suckling on their milk. Now the dog would take the goats out alone into the sandstone hills to find rough pasture, freeing up doña Elena to do other things.

Raquel AlanesNot all of the innovators were farmers. Raquel Alanes grew up in a small town, Salinas de Garci Mendoza, surrounded by quinoa fields. She had always liked to cook, and when she was a school girl she baked quinoa cookies and sold them at the local fairs. After high school she studied food manufacturing at university and improved her recipes. Bolivians have grown cacao and made chocolate for centuries, and Raquel had some chocolate quinoa Christmas cake (delicious) and quinoa chocolate-chip cookies and chocolate covered cookies made from the flour of chuño (Andean freeze-dried potatoes).

My favorites were Marina Mamani and Silvano Morales, an Aymara couple from the High Plains of the Andes. They had noticed that the price of native potatoes was rising, and was almost double that of commercial varieties. Some of the native varieties had nearly gone extinct. Doña Marina recalls one variety that she salvaged. It is bright yellow when cooked. Marina found just five of these potatoes left, in a basket at the home of her 90-year old mother-in-law. Marina planted them and got half an arroba (around 6 kg), which she planted again the next year, until she had enough to grow a field. That variety may well have gone extinct if Marina hadn’t found it in the basket.

Marina Mamani and Silvano MoralesThe couple has been growing heirloom potatoes for five years now, and they have enough of the red, purple, yellow and white potatoes to take to local fairs. Once in a while they go to the market on the wealthy, south side of La Paz, where the well-heeled are starting to appreciate these gorgeous varieties.

“Next year we want to sell in the five-star hotels,” don Silvano says. The couple has a vision of the future.

“What we really want is technical assistance,” Silvano added coyly.

I fell for it, and gave him the name of an organization that worked in their area.

Don Silvano grew impatient with me. He wasn’t really after free advice “I mean, we want support. We want a truck. Then we could gather potatoes in the area and deliver them in the city.”

Fresh ideas are nice, but sometimes a truck is even nicer.

As I left, Silvano and Marina gave me some of their wonderful, rare potatoes. They were sprouting, and I could plant them in my garden. I’ll never be able to get these people a truck, but I can try and stay in touch with them, and see what happens next. “We should have a meeting of farmer innovators every year,” Silvano said.

And that is a smashing idea. Creativity needs the warmth of other inventive people and the broader society to support those who put creative ideas into action.

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The juice mobile September 27th, 2015 by

Some forty years ago, mobile services were common across Europe. In my home village, Kieldrecht, in northern Belgium, I remember how a dairy farmer had his regular clients to whom he delivered bottles of fresh milk. The service was pretty sophisticated. Varied numbers and sizes of bottles were delivered on people’s doorsteps on different days of the week, depending on what the clients wanted. Once a month people paid their bill. They would pay cash (after a short, friendly chat), or if they were away at work, they would leave the coins in an enveloppe on the doorstep for the milk man to collect. A quality, tailor-made service it was.

Early mornings, two competing bakers delivered bread to their customers. My granddad, who lived by himself on his family farm, was happy to pay a few cents more for his bread, while receiving some friendly words or a joke from the baker’s son.

But society has changed and most of those village services are long gone. Supermarkets and bread machines at the corner of streets have replaced the personalised services. Services have become more expensive and today’s customers no longer want to devote as much time to producing and processing food as our parents’ and grandparents’ generations did. But with an increased consciousness of healthy food and a desire from consumers to reconnect with food producers, some old services such as home deliveries have come back, while new initiatives such as farm shops and subscriptions to weekly vegetable boxes have become increasingly popular.

Last week I experienced a delightful local initiative to save some of our food and farming heritage in Limburg, the northeastern province of Belgium. Limburg is known for its bicycle culture, greenery and orchards, all of which contribute to local tourism and the local economy.

Unfortunately, family orchards have suffered from the same lack of time mentality of our generation; many orchards with tall, old varieties have been abandonned with few new ones being planted.

8802 A mobile service 1To maintain the genetic diversity of old fruit varieties the National Orchard Foundation established a genebank with over 3,000 old and valuable local fruit varieites. Besides their own orchards that serve as research, demonstration and training sites, the foundation has also successfully convinced people like my late father-in-law to plant local fruit varieties.

Over the past thirty years hundreds of people across the province and country have gradually re-established fruit gardens with old varieties. Until 2014, one could even get subsidies for planting tall fruit varieties.

“But how to keep y8831 A mobile service 2oung families motivated to plant and maintain fruit trees? Money to buy trees isn’t the bottleneck, but time to maintain an orchard and process the fruit are. As fruit spoils fairly quickly, why would one bother to pick a few hundred kilograms of fruit?” my wife, Marcella, asked herself.

8874 A mobile service 3Until she learned about the “Juice Mobile”. On specific days throughout the fruit harvesting season (September to early November) the juice mobile comes to certain locations to process small batches of fruit from family orchards into fresh fruit juice.

The juice mobile is operated by the National Orchard Foundation in collaboration with its sister organisation NBSW (Natuur en Boomgaarden Sociale Werkplaats). During the harvesting season, the crew of three people works long days. On a single day, they press up to 5 tons of apples, pasteurise them, and package it all in 3-liter or 5-liter sterile bags, neatly placed into cardboard boxes. The orchard owners go back home with all the juice from their fruit, and pay 1.25 Euro per liter for the entire service.

8844 A mobile service 4So we called upon Marcella’s sisters, brother, nephews and nieces. One day we picked some 600 kilograms of apples, and the next day brought them to the juice mobile. In an hour and a half we had over 400 liters of fresh juice.

The dry fruit pulp along with the rotten and overripe apples that are sorted out at the beginning of the conveyer belt are taken to a nearby farm to turn into biogas.

They were two rewarding days: being out in the fresh air, picking the family’s fruit trees, chatting with other people from the community. For a full year, the entire family will fondly recall that Marcella’s dad planted those old apple varieties.

Family ties and conservation of old fruit varieties can strengthen each other, with a little help from modern agro-processing.

Related blog stories on biodiversity conservation

Bolivian peanuts

Forgotten vegetables

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Bolivian peanuts September 13th, 2015 by

When you think of Bolivia, peanuts are not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet peanuts are a native crop, domesticated and grown in lowland South America (east of the Andes) for at least 7000 years. The ancient Moche people of Peru even honored the peanut by making gold and silver jewelry of it.

maní chiclayoAlthough peanuts are an oil crop in many countries, in Bolivia the peanut is grown more for food. South Americans have many delightful local dishes based on the peanut, such as peanut soup, peanut drinks, and anticuchos—grilled beef heart covered in a thick peanut sauce.

Despite its popularity in Bolivia, the peanut was neglected by researchers. Now the crop is getting the attention it deserves, although this love comes with its own risks, as I learned recently at the First National Congress and Forum on Peanuts in Bolivia.

There were few peanut specialists when research began in 2004 and no dedicated institution. So Bolivian researchers got together, formed a network, and began building links to specialists in other countries, where peanut research was well established.

In 2007, Bolivia had one of the world’s lowest peanut yields, barely a ton per hectare. R&D paid off, and now yields are up to 1.6 tons per ha, a remarkable increase in such a short time.

The peanut was first domesticated in the Chaco, the dry lowlands where Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina meet. Peanuts are well adapted to the short rains followed by a blistering hot dry season. A remarkable genetic diversity emerged from these challenging conditions. Today there are around 100 land races (locally adapted varieties) of peanuts still grown in and near the Bolivian Chaco. The genetic diversity is important for plant breeders around the world who seek improved disease resistance or drought tolerance.

Twelve thousand families grow almost all the peanuts in Bolivia, about 21,000 tons, and perhaps 60% is exported, mostly to Peru. Accounts vary, but only eight to 18 peanut varieties are grown commercially in Bolivia. The other 80 or 90 land races are grown in very small amounts, by isolated people in marginal areas, so most of these land races are at risk of extinction.

1283 Eleuterio, manĂ­ y maĂ­z2Some of this rich genetic diversity is represented in the two major, international peanut gene banks which breeders rely on. The largest collection, of 14,968 accessions, is held by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Patancheru, India. Most of their accessions are from local land races that arose in Asia. The USDA gene bank in Griffin Georgia, has 9027 accessions, based in part on collections made in Bolivia in the 1990s.

It was encouraging to learn that the Bolivians have their own gene bank with 1050 accessions, potentially representing a greater genetic diversity than the other two gene banks combined. In their typically generous fashion, the Bolivians have placed the data on the internet, in English and Spanish, for public inspection, and possibly for sharing seed www.iniaf.gob.bo and

Gene banks are an invaluable resource but storing seeds is not the same as growing a crop on a farm. Seeds in gene banks don’t last forever and peanuts (and many other crops) need to be planted and harvested every few years to get fresh stock. Over generations of this artificial selection, the seeds are selected for life in the gene bank, not for life on the farm, where it really matters. It’s crucial to keep any crop growing, in as many varieties as possible, especially in its native homeland.

Research may be improving in Bolivia, but farmers’ concerns are still rooted in profitability. At the Bolivian Peanut Congress, when we split up to attend sessions, almost all of the farmers attended the one on peanut marketing and repeatedly asked for help finding new markets. The sessions on genetics were attended largely by researchers with interests in conservation and breeding.

Farmers who maintain land races are performing a public service that’s taken for granted. Many land races have limited commercial value and could be displaced and lost as higher yielding varieties take over. Commercial growing can really improve rural livelihoods, but only a handful of varieties will become commercial. What will happen to the other 90 varieties grown in very small amounts? There is a real risk is that land races could disappear, causing an irreplaceable loss of genetic diversity.

There is a contradiction here. Agricultural researchers, especially the plant breeders, would like farmers to maintain traditional land races of crops, for future research and development. Yet researchers can offer farmers little or no support to do that. As farmers in remote parts of tropical countries begin to sell more of their crop, these growers are less inclined to grow non-commercial land races.

I began to imagine a system that could preserve endangered crop varieties. Bolivia’s INIAF has already listed the peanut varieties on-line. Through the Internet, and personal contacts, different people could be persuaded to adopt a variety, or a few. They wouldn’t need to grow very many, a few plants each. They could include farmers, hobbyists, gardeners, peri-urban farmers: anyone who loves plants and who wants to share them. This network could share the seeds, and one person would be enough to monitor the flow and population of these precious plants. A moderator could keep track of where each variety was being grown.

There are some precedents for such an idea. For example, in Britain, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) maintains a “seed scheme”; members write in, and request packets of seed from the botanical gardens. The members only pay for the postage, and excess seed from the gardens is distributed to people who will raise the plants.

Acknowledgements. The Congress (El Primer Congreso y Foro del Maní Boliviano) was moderated by Edwin Mariscal and Juan Arévalo. It was sponsored by the Fundación Valles, INIAF (Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal) and by the Collaborative Crops Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

Further reading

Holbrook, C.C. 2001 “Status of the Arachis Germplasm Collection in the United States” Peanut Science 28:84-89

Williams, D.E. 2001 “New Directions for Collecting and Conserving Peanut Genetic Diversity.” Peanut Science 28:135-140.

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