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High in the Arctic September 10th, 2017 by

A large supermarket in Anchorage displays an impressive selection of fruit and vegetables, including organic produce. Unsurprisingly, most of the goods on sale are grown outside Alaska. Farming this far north is challenging, with only a short growing season, unpredictable weather and moderate temperatures. Local initiatives such as the “Alaska Grown” campaign, are encouraging people to develop new agri-businesses. You have to be enterprising to succeed, as I recently discovered.

A popular option is to grow salad crops and soft fruits in high tunnels. Tough polyethylene sheeting is draped over sturdy metal frames, protecting the plants within. Peonies, popular at weddings because of their showy, robust flowers, are also grown. They flourish in Alaska during the summer, which is off-season in the lower 48 states, when it is too hot to grow peonies yet high season for weddings in the US.

Rhodiola, a native medicinal plant and member of the botanical family Crassulacaea, is another commercial success. But the most unexpected crop I came across was cannabis, legal in Alaska since 2014. Some is grown outside in high tunnels, but it is so profitable that many growers have invested in custom-built indoor facilities. Plants are regularly fed and watered using a hydroponic system. Artificial lighting ensures year-round production, whatever the weather outside.

A family friend introduced me to Bruce and Judy Martin on the Kenai Peninsula, who are part of the first wave of cannabis growers. Bruce worked in construction for many years and wanted a change. He originally designed a building to service boats during the winter. Fishing is big business in Alaska, both commercially and for visiting tourists, and the boats need regular maintenance. Bruce’s plan started well, but when a major contract collapsed he and Judy decided to move into cannabis growing.

A kilo of cannabis buds will earn Bruce and Judy between $2500 and $6000 a pound, or around £4500 – £10,000 per kilo, depending on quality. Bruce explained the set up: “We have a total growing area of 2,000 square feet (185 square metres), covering two rooms. In the first room, we take cuttings from the mother plants and suspend them in large tanks, where water and nutrients are regularly sprayed to encourage root development. After about three weeks they are moved to larger pots before being transferred a further three weeks later to the main production facility.”

Although Alaska legalised cannabis growing for medicinal and recreational use and sale in 2015, it wasn’t until 2016 that the legal framework was fully in place for producers to start supplying licensed outlets. Bruce and Judy harvested their first crop in December 2016 and have been regularly producing around ten kilograms per month of buds and leaves. The leaves are less valuable than the buds (around $1500 per kilogram) because they have lower amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound for which cannabis is renowned. Bruce explained that there was still a steady demand for leaves to produce “edibles”, which the Alaska Division of Public Health describes as “foods and drinks … made with marijuana or marijuana oils”, such as “cookies and other treats”.

Growing cannabis even on a modest scale requires major investment. “It cost us around half a million dollars to set up the production facility” said Bruce. Judy mentioned the many certificates they’d had to get before being allowed to start selling and the need to test cannabis batches for potency. “Testing is mandatory and costs us $2000 each month,” said Judy. Plus, Bruce and Judy lose two kilograms of product required for the tests. Costs are high, regulation is intense and official monitoring of operations is relentless. A monitor shows feeds from multiple security cameras, keeping a watchful eye on what happens outside the building and all nooks and crannies within.

I have mixed feelings about commercial cannabis growing for recreational use, but the more I look at the overall trade the more it makes sense. Regulating cannabis reduces criminality, safeguards consumers against adulterated products and also creates jobs. And there are significant numbers of people using cannabis for medicinal reasons, where there are proven benefits. The US’s experience with Prohibition (of alcohol) shows that an outright ban doesn’t work: better to regulate, educate and normalise consumption while advising people of potential and harmful side-effects. It is surely much better to treat adults in a mature way when it comes to cannabis, as clearly shown by the Alaska Division of Public Health.

Alaska has already earned around $2 million in taxes from growers and shops. In a neat political move, Bruce told me that “cannabis taxes on the Kenai Peninsula go straight to supporting schools.” Despite the long and successful campaign to legalise cannabis in Alaska there is already a ballot measure to repeal the 2014 decision, due to be voted on by all registered voters in October 2017. There are still diehards who see cannabis use, even for medicinal purposes, as sinful and leading inevitably to harder drugs, but the evidence for this happening is weak. Maybe the loss of funding for schools – which were facing major budget cuts – will help swing the vote and maintain the hard-won status quo.

The intense regulation of cannabis in Alaska suggests that the state is itself equivocal about legalisation, though the main reason for the tight scrutiny is because the US federal government still prohibits the “use, sale and possession of all forms of cannabis”. Banks are nervous about handling money associated with the trade and all transactions are in cash. Cannabis growers cannot ask for advice from cooperative extension staff, since they are partly funded by the Federal government.

This doesn’t seem to matter, since Bruce and Judy get advice from fellow growers nearby and there is an active online community buzzing with information about all aspects of cannabis production. I admire their hard work and commitment. Bruce and Judy have taken a calculated risk in becoming cannabis growers, but so far, their hard work and diligence has paid off. They’re also bringing a little cheer to fellow Alaskans.

Thanks to
Richard and Linn especially, for making the visit possible. And to Bruce and Judy for their warm  welcome and open discussions.

Read other blogs
Ethical agriculture

The ruffled reefer

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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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The ruffled reefer June 19th, 2016 by

Reefer (a marijuana cigarette) is the perfect example of a common word with an unknown origin. I heard Richard Diebold say this several times. He was an eminent historical linguist (and one of my mentors). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language noted that the etymology of “reefer” was obscure, but that it might come from the phrase “to reef (i.e. roll up) a sail.” Diebold found this unconvincing. I’ve since learned where the word “reefer” really does come from, but first, a bit of history.

marihuana leavesMarijuana is an old crop, native to Central Asia, where it still grows wild (pictured), and cultivated in China at least 4500 years ago (Zohary et al 2012). It came to the Americas with the early colonists, and it was called “hemp” (or cáñamo, in Spanish). Hemp was grown for fiber, to make sails and rope. The word “marijuana” or “marihuana” is a Mexican invention, according to the authoritative Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española, a major reference for Spanish etymology.

Hemp and marijuana are the same species of plant, but there are many different varieties. In the USA, recreational marijuana arrived with Mexican immigrants in the 1920s, following the end of the catastrophic Mexican revolution. The word marijuana was loaned into American English about then. The word “reefer” was well enough established to be used in the title of the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness, which sought to discourage marijuana smoking; the movie was so loaded with errors it became a classic in the annals of disinformation.

In Honduras in the 1980s, I realized that “reefer” came from grifa, a synonym in Spanish for marijuana. I wanted to publish the idea, but I was too much of a coward to publish on an illegal crop. Spanish makes some sense as the origin of reefer. After all, some of the other words describing marijuana are also from Spanish: such as “sin semilla” for seedless marijuana (female plants produced in isolation from male plants to produce lots of drug-rich resin), and “toke” for a hit, from toque.

I am only now getting up the nerve to write about reefer, and I am almost too late. By 2016 the American Heritage Dictionary has stopped repeating the old story about reefing up a ship’s sails, but it still says that the etymology of reefer is obscure. Wiktionary, a collaborative dictionary written by readers (www.wiktionary.org), does say that reefer is from grifa, but stops there. The Real Academia corroborates; “grifa” does mean marijuana, but only in the Americas. And that’s where the books end.

The Honduran campesinos not only use “grifa” to mean marijuana. The term is rich in other meanings. As an adjective, “grifo” means ruffled, or fluffy, for example when weed seeds stick to your trouser legs after walking through a field of maize: one is said to “salir de la milpa con el pantalón grifo de mozote.” The verb engrifarse means to ruffle up one’s own feathers, the way birds fluff up their feathers to look big.

So “grifa” (the feminine form of “grifo”) is a perfect way to describe a bud of marijuana, which is fluffy, feathery or ruffled. The word “grifo” in turn comes from standard Spanish, and it is the name of the mythical gryphon, with the head of a lion and the body of a ruffled eagle.

The other thing they say about marijuana in Honduras is that it turns your head grifo or fuzzy, which is a good reason not to smoke it, at least not every day.

I wish Diebold was still around to hear this story. He spoke Spanish well and would have appreciated the real origin of reefer. Crops need names and it was always going to be more likely that the etymology of reefer came from the land and farmers rather than from the sea and sailors.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2001 Diccionario Campesino Hondureño. Ceiba 42(2).
http://www.jefferybentley.com/Diccionario%20Campesino%20Hondureno.pdf

PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) 2014 “Marijuana Timeline.” PBS Frontline.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html

Zohary, Daniel, Maria Hopf and Ehud Weiss 2012 Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in South-west Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin (Fourth Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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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 naïve 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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The sunflower: from Russia with love, and oil January 3rd, 2016 by

Some 4,000 years ago, native North Americans of what is now Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and surrounding states were domesticating a whole set of crops, most of which you have probably never heard of.

For reasons we do not fully comprehend, when ancient peoples made the transition to agriculture, they never domesticated just one crop by itself. In the first stage of agriculture, first farmers planted and tended wild plants, species which they and their ancestors had been gathering for generations. Within a few centuries, the farmers would select for larger seeds or roots, depending on which part of the plant they ate. This change in form is usually what archaeologists refer to as domestication. By more stringent definitions, domestication is when the plant can no longer reproduce on its own, in the wild, as is the case with maize and potatoes.

The native North Americans domesticated the sunflower (Helianthus annuus), but also the summer squashes (yellow and green varieties) and the acorn squash, all derived from Cucurbita pepo. The other ancient North American crops included the little barley (Hordeum pusillum), goosefoot or lambsquarters (Chenopodium berlandieri), erect knotweed (Phalaris caroliniana) and sumpweed or marsh elder (Iva annua).

young sunflowerBesides the little squashes and the radiant sunflower, the other native crops now survive only as weeds. As North America was one of the last centers of domestication, the crops may still have been robust enough, just wild enough, to reproduce themselves as weeds. As my wife Ana noticed, the sunflower itself is a hardy, fast-growing, weedy-looking plant before it starts to flower (pictured).

Except for the sunflower and the squashes, all the other North American crops were slowly abandoned, probably because they were much less productive than other crops (maize, beans and the larger squashes) which arrived from Mexico, about 100 BC. But the sunflower was valued for food (including oil), dye and even medicine.

sunflowers in the sloughs envAnother 1700 years later, the settlers in North America were uninterested in growing the sunflower, although they happily adopted maize, beans and squash. The settlers certainly knew of the sunflower, but they had a diet that was fairly rich in animal fats, especially from pork, and may have found it too tedious to process the oily little sunflower seeds. But many wild species of sunflower still thrived all over the continent.

The sunflower was taken from Mexico to Spain in the 1500s and slowly spread across Europe, largely as an ornamental, eventually reaching as far east as Russia. The sunflower might have ended as an obscure garden flower, if religious taboo had not dealt it a winning hand. During lent, the Russian Orthodox Church banned butter and lard, but sunflower oil was too new to appear on the list of banned oils. The demand for sunflower oil surged, leading V. S. Pustovit of Krasnodar to breed a sunflower with a much larger seed head. Named the Russian Mammoth, this variety was introduced to the USA in 1893. The sunflower slowly gained in importance, but did not become an important crop in the USA until the 1950s

At first the crop was almost entirely exported as oil to Europe, but stiff competition from Europe and Argentina ended that market, and most US sunflower is consumed domestically.

Modern plant breeding saved the sunflower. By 2010 there were 750,000 hectares of sunflower planted in the USA, worth $634 million at the farm gate. About 60% of the crop is used as oil and meal, and 10 to 20% is for snack food and baking. About a quarter of the sunflower harvest is made into birdseed: in 2006 the USA spent $3.35 billion feeding wild birds, roughly equal to the GDP of Fiji.

Under the changing pressure of economic demand, a crop can evolve quickly, from garden flower to Lenten oil to bird food. Once abandoned as a crop in its center of origin, the sunflower is now here to stay, thanks to a little love from Russia and plant breeders.

Further reading

Selig, Ruth Osterweis 2004 Origins of agriculture in Eastern North America, pp. 258-272. In Ruth Osterweis Selig, Marilyn R. London and P. Ann Kaupp Anthropology Explored (Second Edition). Washington: Smithsonian Books. 473 pp.

Smith, Bruce D. 2014 The domestication of Helianthus annuus L. (sunflower). Vegetation History and Archaeology 23(1):57-74

USDA 2015 Sunflower seed. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/soybeans-oil-crops/sunflowerseed.aspx

 

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