WHO WE ARE SERVICES RESOURCES




Most recent stories ›
AgroInsight RSS feed
Blog

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.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Lazy farming September 3rd, 2017 by

In 1970, after studying Asian history and soil science at the University of California, 22-year-old Larry Korn boarded a ship bound for Japan. After travelling a bit he began working on farms, where he learned to speak Japanese and to love farming. A couple of years later, Mr. Korn heard about “natural farming” and a book, One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka. Mr. Korn travelled to Mr. Fukuoka’s small farm on the Island of Shikoku, in southern Japan, and spent the next two years working there and studying with Mr. Fukuoka.

Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was trained as a plant pathologist. He was the son of a village landlord who lost most of his farm during land reform after World War II. After working as a government customs inspector for a few years, Mr. Fukuoka decided to try to live a more natural life, and he returned to what was left of his family farm, just an acre and a quarter (5000 square meters) of rice fields. He was later able to buy 13 acres (5.2 hectares) of orange orchard.

Mr. Fukuoka began to question traditional Japanese agriculture, as practiced from about 1600 up to the late 1940s. Was it really necessary to weed, plow, fertilize and flood rice fields? Mr. Fukuoka experimented to see which of these practices could be skipped and eventually concluded that he could eliminate them all.

Instead, in the fall before harvesting the rice Mr. Fukuoka would broadcast rye seed in one rice field and barley seed into another field of standing rice. He always kept white clover growing in these fields, to fix nitrogen and suppress weeds. The rye and barley seeds would fall between the growing rice plants, among the clover and the weeds. When he harvested the rice, the rye and the barley plants would still be small, but would start to grow faster without the shade of the rice. After threshing the rice he would spread the straw back in the field as mulch, to keep the weeds down. The rye and barley would grow all winter, and a couple of weeks before harvesting them, Mr. Fukuoka would broadcast rice in the rye and barley, and after harvesting the rye and barley, the young rice plants would start to grow more vigorously. He harvested all his grain by hand, with sickles, with the help of family and students.

After two years of working on the farm, Larry Korn helped translate One-Straw Revolution to English, and found a publisher in the USA (Rodale Press). In 1979 Larry Korn hosted Mr. Fukuoka on his first trip to the USA, where he became a kind of celebrity, later making trips to India and other countries as well.

Forty years later, in 2015, Larry Korn treated the public to a delightful book about his experiences with Mr. Fukuoka.

Mr. Fukuoka’s “natural farming” was largely his own invention. It was not traditional Japanese agriculture which, to paraphrase Larry Korn, was lots of compost and lots of work. In his charming, self-effacing way, Mr. Fukuoka said that he was trying to avoid some of that work. He said that his style of agriculture could be called “lazy farming.” Even so, harvesting a grain field with sickles is a huge amount of work, especially since by the 1970s they could have used machinery. Larry Korn says that there were about five students on the Fukuoka Farm at any one time, and they were all working pretty hard. That is a lot of labor, actually, on such a small farm. But his rice yields were not bad, 5.9 tons per hectare, which was the average rice yield for Japan in 1979, according to Ricepedia.org. He was also building up the soil, forming a thick layer of rich, black earth, alive with earthworms.

I have made compost for nearly thirty years. I love the way it converts orange rinds, egg shells and old newspapers into rich, natural fertilizer. But as I was reading about natural farming, I realized that making compost really is a lot of work. At our house we usually cheat, and hire a day laborer to dig out the compost pit. We still make compost from kitchen scraps, but now we have started leaving the cut weeds in the garden as mulch, instead of tossing them into the compost pit. As soon as we started mulching we noticed that there was less weeding to do. And that is the mark of a good book: it gives you new ideas to think about.

Further reading

Korn, Larry 2015 One-Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green. 224 pp.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Mending fences, making friends August 13th, 2017 by

Clipston is a small village at the geographical centre of England, set in fields where arable and livestock farming has existed for millennia. All Saints Church was built in the early 13th century and still holds regular services. The local primary school has just celebrated its 350th anniversary. Bar some new houses and better roads, the village is recognizably the same from photographs taken over a hundred years ago.

I have visited Clipston regularly over the last forty years, ever since my parents moved there. The village and its surrounding agriculture looks much the same today as they did four decades ago: grazing cattle and sheep and fields of wheat and rapeseed (canola). But it was only a few weeks ago that I spoke to a farmer for the first time and began to appreciate how little I knew about the landscape that defines the village.

Clipston continues to thrive; the village website reveals a vibrant community, even though there’s no shop and public transport is limited. Clipston thrives in spite of rather than because of agriculture. Job opportunities in farming are few and prospects for new farmers are uncertain, as I learnt from talking to a local shepherd, Martin Fellowes. Most of the employed people who live in Clipston today work somewhere else, some travelling long distances each day. Fast trains from nearby Market Harborough reach the heart of London in just over an hour, a journey of about 100 miles.

People who choose to live in villages for their rural charm and tranquillity can sometimes find it difficult to cope with the everyday messiness of farming. The pervasive smell from spreading slurry on fields, drifting smoke from burning stubble or mud spread by tractors on roads are all sources of potential dispute between farmers, who rely on the land for their living, and other residents.

My chance encounter with Martin arose from a domestic issue. The sheep in the neighbouring field would occasionally get into my parents’ garden and munch merrily on flowers and foliage, much to the dismay of my mother and father. A single strand of barbed wire between field and garden was clearly inadequate. The only solution was to erect a sturdier fence, which is what I was doing when I noticed someone in blue overalls in the field. Martin came across when I waved my hand.

Martin explained to me that he’d just taken over the lease of the field and an adjacent one. I felt a little guilty about mentioning the sheep invasions since these were related to a previous tenant. He explained that “the fence is the responsibility of the land owner”. His replies were courteous but wary. I sensed that he had other things of greater concern to consider. I wondered later about Martin’s response to a letter in the Clipston Newsletter some years ago which said: “It is a terrifying prospect that land surrounding this lovely village could easily fall into the wrong hands.” The writer was fearful about a drop in the value of her house.

Martin’s demeanour changed when I told him that I also worked in agriculture. I pointed to my T shirt, which by chance featured a plant health workshop held in Rwanda. I asked him more about his job. “It’s difficult trying to get established as a farmer today”, he said. He was pleased to have a signed lease for the fields behind my parent’s house for his sheep for the coming year, even though the owner was selling up. He was renting other fields in another nearby village and I began to imagine the challenges of moving animals back and forward between different sites.

The sale of the land prompted some gentle mutterings on the price of land. In nearby Market Harborough housing estates are springing up all around the town. Farm land has become increasingly valuable, not only for housing but as an investment. The result is that it’s nigh on impossible for a new farmer such as Martin to own his own land. Leasing creates uncertainty, yet clearly Martin loved what he was doing and was willing to work hard.

I was surprised and delighted that Martin knew about a recent unexpected best seller on sheep farming, The Shepherd’s Life, written by James Rebanks, a shepherd in the north of England. Martin had been given this as a present and confirmed that the descriptions of sheep farming were spot on. “I’m not a big reader”, Martin confessed, but clearly the book had caught his attention. “Sheep farming is tougher up north”, he added, “but down here it’s also difficult to get established”.

People take the gently rolling hills and the seasonal changes in farming for granted. Not far from Clipston is an outstanding farm shop, one of several that have flourished in and around Market Harborough as the population has expanded. Stuffed full of fine food from impeccable sources, much locally produced, it is easy to imagine that this renaissance in food retailing indicates a stronger, more vibrant agriculture.

My short meeting with Martin was proof that new farmers are willing to have a go but that it will be an uphill struggle. Commuters who move to villages bring new life to a fragile rural economy, but living in the countryside also carries a responsibility to take a wider interest in agriculture.

Talking to farmers reveals how hard they work. If commuters move to the countryside for the scenery, it’s worth remembering that farmers have nurtured that land for generations. Sometimes a bit of fence mending goes a long way.

Read previous blogs

Modern ideas for an ancient land

Further information and reading

Clipston village website. What farming delivers for Northamptonshire (NFU infographic).

Rowland Parker (1975). The Common Stream. (An excellent book on the enduring life of an English village.)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Ethical agriculture October 25th, 2015 by

It’s much easier to be an ethical consumer than an ethical farmer. I can pay more for organic and Fairtrade produce, for example, to promote ethical practices. These and other certification schemes have achieved much, but they are only available to a few farmers. Ethical agriculture faces a much more intransigent problem, namely the millions of farmers who grow illegal crops, or crops that many people would like to ban.

Sumatra disease starts in fieldI worked on a clove project in Indonesia, financed by the UK, that spent 15 years figuring out how to control a deadly disease. The clove you know is a dried, unopened flower. It’s a valuable crop for smallholder farmers and millions of others who depend on the clove trade, but much less so for human health. Cloves were historically important (and much fought over) as a spice. But this use has greatly diminished. Now most cloves are used to make kretek cigarettes. It was this link to human health that was the main reason why the clove project stopped in 1990.

Good crop, bad crop: it depends which way you look at it. Stop smoking and you improve your health, yet what happens to the clove farmers? Replacing high value crops is never easy, as many attempts to eradicate poppies in Afghanistan reveal. Jeff has written earlier about replacing coca with bananas but wholescale shifts away from valuable drug plants will never happen. Farmers will continue to grow drug crops that consumers continue to demand. As a Pakistani government minister once explained to his US counterpart: “Why do we export opium poppies? Because your citizens want them.”

Clove is a legal crop and farmers deserve technical and extension support. It’s more complicated with illegal crops, though some have legitimate medicinal uses, such as coca. During my time in charge of a diagnostic laboratory we received samples of diseased poppies from Afghanistan from an FAO project. We examined the samples, never quite clear if our main purpose was to confirm the success of a disease deliberately released by a drug-control agency or give advice to farmers on how to control the disease.

Tobacco twistedI recently wrote some fact sheets on diseases of tobacco, to help growers and field support staff identify problems and reduce pesticide use. Yes, consumers are requesting organic tobacco, and pesticide-free tobacco would arguably be less dangerous to their health, though only marginally I suspect. One of my unexpected discoveries is that tobacco companies have some of the strictest policies I know on promoting biodiversity conservation and non-chemical methods for pest control. Smoking will damage your health but growing tobacco aims to have as little environmental impact as possible.

The US has aggressive policies to reduce smoking. Walking in New York recently it sometimes felt that tobacco was an illegal drug. The US is also a big tobacco producer and federal and state governments continue to fund research and extension for tobacco farmers. At one time there were 60,000 tobacco farmers in Kentucky. There are now 4500, so many have presumably either changed crops or left agriculture. Tobacco is still an important crop in a state where not so long ago 1 in 15 jobs depended on it, but clearly the crop is in decline, at least in the US.

P1100597Is it unethical to give advice to tobacco farmers on pest control? Doctors treat all patients, even murderers, and I think agriculturists have a similar responsibility to help all honest farmers, regardless of the crops they grow. I have never smoked and I’ve had relatives and friends whose health was damaged by smoking, yet many farmers and rural communities around the world still depend on crops which rightly cause huge health concerns but are still legal.

Consumers can choose what to buy and make decisions about ethical agriculture at little or no personal cost. Farmers don’t have the luxury of changing crops that many want to ban, including those that are legal but directly linked to ill-health. The sugar tax that Paul talked about in an earlier blog is apparently coming to the UK. Is sugarcane unethical? The US is legalising marijuana. Is cannabis now an ethical crop? It’s not clear that a moralising rich world understands the implications of their ethical choices on poor farmers. Farmers deserve all support they can get to grow what the market wants in a way that minimises impact on human health and the environment. A greener cigarette for a greener world is a small step in the right direction.

 

Blog stories referred to

Going bananas

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat

A time to smoke

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Design by Olean webdesign