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Puppy love February 5th, 2017 by

In the The Field Guide to Fields, Bill Laws colourfully depicts how fencing is a global and age-old practice. Fences mark field boundaries and they stop farm animals from straying.  Fences make it easier to look after animals but enclosed areas can make them more vulnerable to wily predators. During our recent trip in Bolivia we learned how farmers have come up with a clever way to protect their sheep from foxes.

puppy love 1After an amazing drive along winding mountainous roads of Chuquisaca, crossing a narrow improvised bridge just about the width of the car, and wading through riverbeds, we arrive at the farmhouse of doña Basilia Camargo early in the morning. Her husband is about to leave to mend some fences around their fields further up in the mountains. Doña Basilia and her husband keep their 15 sheep near the house in a corral fenced with brushwood and barbed wire.

puppy love 2I ask about the miniature house that has been built into the corral. The little mud house has a slanted roof to let the rainwater glide off, a small window and a door leading to the coral. It looks like a house for chickens, or a toy made by the children, but doña Basilia explains that it has a more serious purpose. She is raising a dog to protect the sheep from foxes.

Doña Basilia gets into the corral, and shows us an even smaller shelter in one of the corners. She calls it a “nest,” and she wriggles her hand through the small opening and brings out a little puppy that is only two weeks old, barely big enough to stand on its own legs. Most people only bring home puppies that have been weaned, but this puppy has a ewe as a substitute mother.

puppy love 3“I make the ewe lie down and then let the puppy suckle”, she explains. The dog will continue to suckle as it grows older, and will bond with the flock, following them to pasture and back to the corral.

It all has been properly planned. The small mud house that we saw along the fence is to become the house for the dog, once it has become bigger. When the puppy is old enough to follow the sheep, doña Basilia will take him with her, and spend two weeks herding the sheep. That should be enough for the dog to learn to tend the flock on his own.

Doña Basilia used to have a sheep dog but it died three years ago, and she has been trying since then to raise another one. Some dogs have died and others refuse to be trained.

She points to three dogs napping in the sun. “I tried training that dog there, but he is lazy and doesn’t like to walk. He goes out with the sheep, but comes back and just lies down near the house. I hope I will have better luck with this one,” she confides in us smilingly.

So while brushwood and barbed wire fences may be enough to keep the sheep in, a specially trained dog could defend them from foxes, both in the field and in the corral, where the dog will be sheltered from the cold in his own little house. Once more we were reminded of the marvelous ingenuity of local farmers to use their available resources to protect their valuable flock.

Further reading

Bill Laws, 2010. The Field Guide to Fields. Hidden Treasures of Meadows, Prairies and Pastures. Washington: National Geographic.

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Why people drink cow’s milk January 15th, 2017 by

Nutritionists and physicians have started to question milk-drinking, suggesting that many consumers eat far too much dairy. Dr. Michael Klaper has even suggested that milk is just “baby calf growth fluid”, designed to “turn a 65 pound calf into a 400 pound cow”, and that unless you have long ears and a tail, you should never drink the white stuff (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toZ7Mr-ClCE).

In other words, Dr. Klaper argues that cow´s milk should be avoided because it was designed as calf food. But his reasoning is absurd reductionism, because most of what humans eat was meant to be something else, not people food. Wheat grains were intended to be seed, not flour. Honey is supposed to tide the hive over the lean season, not to be added to pastry. Fish certainly did not evolve so that people could make sushi.

sun, cow, strange toolSo why do people eat dairy products?

Before agriculture, all humans were hunters-and-gatherers. They ate meat when they could (but seldom as much as people who get their food from the supermarket). They ate a bit of fat (wild animals can be pretty lean). Fish were part of the diet in many places and so were insects in a few areas where other sources of animal protein were scarce. Honey was occasionally on the menu, but no processed sugar. Some grains were eaten, but not much, because large-seeded grasses were not very common in the wild. The ancestral human diet was mostly fruit, nuts, roots, tubers and vegetables, and no milk.

peris Njenga dairy farmerThis began to change about 8500 BC when wheat and a handful of other crops were dom
esticated in the Near East (Zohary et al. 2012). Studies at the site of Çatal Hüyük, in what is now Turkey, suggest that farmers began to domesticate cattle at that same time. But the transition to agriculture was gradual, and early farmers still hunted; most of their meat still came from the wild. Livestock only began to provide most of the meat for Near Eastern farmers about 7500 BC, around 1000 years after the beginning of animal domestication (Helmer and Vigne 2007). It seems that then as now, farmers were adapting gradually, experimenting as they went.

loading milk cans on wagonDaniel Helmer (a specialist in the ancient Near East) and Jean-Denis Vigne (a zoo-archaeologist) suggest that during these early centuries of animal rearing, domestic animals were not kept so much for their meat, but for other products like traction, skin, hair, and manure, but most of all for milk. Archaeological evidence (especially remains of milk residues on pottery sherds) suggests that dairying was established by about 7000 BC in the Near East, and by about 5900-5700 BC in Britain, and in central Europe (Helmer and Vigne 2007).
Over the centuries, ancient farmers selected for cows that gave more milk. The modern dairy cow yields around 40 liters of milk a day during the first month of lactation, far more than the calf can drink. Milking allowed farmers to take food from their livestock every day, without killing the animals. The milk was rich in fat and protein, both of which were scarce in early agricultural diets.

piles of cheeseThere was one problem with ancient dairying; most people could not digest lactose, the natural sugar in milk. Human babies can digest the lactose in their mothers’ milk, but most lose this ability in adulthood.

Humans managed to eat milk products in two ways. One was to make cheese or other fermented products, where the yeast or lacto-bacteria broke down the lactose. The second way: some peoples evolved a genetic ability to absorb lactose, a trait governed by a single, dominant gene. Anthropologist William Durham asked why people would evolve the ability to digest fresh milk, if they could simply make it into easily digestible cheese. There must be a high adaptive advantage to being able to digest fresh milk, since in some populations, e.g. in Northern Europe, nearly 100% of the population has the genetic ability to digest fresh milk. It turns out that fresh milk is rich in vitamin D, which allows easy absorption of calcium. Durham reasons that this conferred a special advantage on people in cold countries, where they did not always get enough sunlight to synthesize their own vitamin D.

Fulani woman selling snacksIt is also possible that when people had been raising cows for centuries, and milk was abundant, people who could drink fresh milk were better fed than their neighbors, and so the milk-drinking gene spread through the population. That is my guess, but there is no doubt that the modern people who can drink milk are the ones whose ancestors tended cows in ancient Europe, Africa or South Asia.

If your ancestors were not dairying folks, you may be lactose intolerant. If you can drink milk, you can thank your forbearers who herded cows and put milk on the table.

Further reading

Durham, William H. 1991 Coevolution: Genes, Culture and Human Diversity. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Pp. 228-259.

Helmer Daniel and Jean-Denis Vigne 2007 “Was Milk a ‘Secondary Product’ in the Old World Neolithisation Process? Its Role in the Domestication of Cattle, Sheep and Goats.” Anthropozoologica 42(2):9-40.

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.

Further viewing

Access Agriculture has a small collection of videos for small-scale dairy farmers.

Pure milk is good milk ; Keeping milk free from antibiotics ;  Managing cattle ticks; Taking milk to the collection center ; Keeping milk clean and fresh ;  Hand milking of dairy cows

Related blog stories on the prehistory of food

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat, The sunflower: From Russia with love, and oil

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Cake for fish? Hold the coconut, please November 6th, 2016 by

cake-for-fish-1A good farmer training video inspires farmers to modify practices, for example, replacing an ingredient of a locally-made animal feed. But when changing ingredients, one has to know a lot about them, as we learned recently while teaching a video production workshop in Tamil Nadu, southern India.

Explaining the principles behind a certain technology or why something is done in a particular way helps farmers to better understand the innovation and to try it out with whatever resources they have at hand. The different examples shown in a video help to give farmers more ideas to work with.

In Tamil Nadu, one group of trainees was making a video on home-made animal feed, which only costs half as much as concentrated feed that one can buy in a shop.

cake-for-fish-2By interacting with various farmers, the trainees learned quite a few things. While shops sell specific feed for different animals, farmers make a base mix of grains, pulses and oil-cakes that they use to feed all their animals and fish. This saves the farmers time, while allowing them to still tailor the feed for each species of livestock. Depending on whether it is for cattle, goats, poultry or fish they will then add some extra ingredients, like dried fish (if the feed is for fish or poultry).

The trainees also learned that when you want to use a base mix for fish, you need to consider a few things. Farmers rear up to 6 different species of fish. Two species are surface feeders, two feed in the middle layer, and two species are bottom feeders. As you want the feed to be eaten by all fish, the mix should be milled to a course flour. When ground too fine, the feed will float and be available to the surface feeders only.

One other thing the team of trainees learned was that for fish you can use groundnut oil cake or cotton seed oil cake, but you should never use coconut oil cake (which is readily available and cheap in coastal India). Why? Well, if coconut oil cake is used in the base mix, two days after feeding the fish, an oily film will develop, blocking the pond from sunlight and oxygen and slowly killing the fish. The household can still use coconout oil cake in base feeds intended for livestock.

Clearly, oil cakes are not all the same and not all are interchangeable.

Good farmer training videos should present a range of different options and locally available resources, but they should also warn farmers of any possible risks. Videos for farmers should always say why an option will (or won’t work), as in this case: don’t feed coconut to your fish or the oil will block their sunlight and kill them!

Related video

Preparing low-cost concentrate feed

To watch the video in French, click here.

To watch the video in Tamil, click here.

To watch the video in Bangla, click here.

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Modern ideas for an ancient land July 10th, 2016 by

In his beautifully crafted book, A Shepherd’s Life, British farmer James Rebanks describes what it is like to grow up on a smallholding in the north of England, in the mountainous country called the Lake District. He describes how it feels to be sitting in a concrete school building, enduring a lesson on Esperanto (the artificial language), when one could have been helping one’s grandfather catch a badger. Or the frustration of watching a hay wagon turn over late on a summer day, and all the bales will have to be dragged up the slope and restacked in the gathering twilight.

Hill scene LD 1smallThe book catches the dynamic tension of blending an ancient herding way of life with newer technology. The sub-title calls it: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. Rebanks muses that if a Viking shepherd were suddenly resurrected on the mountainside on a fine day in late summer, he would feel at home, watching the men and women use their dogs to gather the sheep from the upland pastures. The Old Norse visitor would understand that the farmers were guiding their flocks to winter shelter.

Windermere smallFarming in the Lake District involves aesthetics as well as economics. For example, farmers take pride in rebuilding a handsome stone wall so that the flat, mossy slabs are back on top of the wall. At livestock shows, one particular old breed of sheep (Herdwick) is died red for the audience, as though the animal had rusted from the neck down.

Yet it is hard to make enough money in the sheep business. The price of wool is abysmal, thanks to competition with synthetic fibers. So farmers adapt in an effort to stay profitable. As Rebanks says of his grandfather’s career.

“(He) was an opportunist, like so many of his peers. If pigs paid, breed or fatten pigs. If Christmas turkeys paid, fatten turkeys. If selling eggs paid, get hens. If wool was wanted, grow wool. If milk paid, milk cows. If fattening bullocks paid, buy bullocks. Adjust. Adapt. Change.”

James Rebanks continues to adjust and adapt, unselfconsciously describing the various modern vaccines, antibiotics and topical ointments that he applies to keep his sheep alive and healthy. He mentions his new metal barn, which was no doubt fast to build, spacious and easy to connect to electricity. It is a practical place for tending the sheep in the dark winter evenings.

Paradoxically, Rebanks says “resisting change is key for us.” I think I know what he means. Farmers have to always accept new ideas with some rational skepticism. On the Rebanks’ farm, new improved breeds of sheep were more profitable than the ancient breeds, but only as long as feed and fuel were cheap. When costs rose, the hardier native breeds became more profitable again, and more farmers switched back to them. The local sheep could withstand the northern winters and grow fat on the upland pasture.

The point Redbanks makes is not that the old ways are always better, but that smallholders must constantly use their creativity to adapt and be inventive. Never forget or abandon the old technologies completely because some day they will be useful again. Old breeds of animals cannot be recovered once they have become extinct. As Rebanks puts it “some of the smartest people I know are semi-literate.” I couldn’t agree more.

Further reading

Rebanks, James 2015 The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. New York: Flatiron Books. 293 pp.

The website www.accessagriculture.org hosts videos for creative smallholder farmers (literate and illiterate), who are looking for new ideas to experiment with.

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Walking the past February 7th, 2016 by

Old, abandoned roads may not have the appeal of a ruined temple, but I find them strangely appealing. Many of these old roads were important for family farmers.

In Europe, carts and plows have been pulled by cows and oxen (castrated bulls) from Neolithic times, 8000 years ago, until the twentieth century. In the 1980s, when farmers in northern Portugal were trading their local breeds of work cows for Holsteins and tractors, the old farm roads were still clearly marked in local memory. Yellow work cows were still pulling carts down a few of these roads, and many abandoned ones still crisscrossed the forest between the villages. The old roads were designed to a standard width, which was just enough to let two oxen pass each other, pulling a cart. A bit tongue in cheek, the farmers called this width “de res a res” (from beef to beef). The passage of thousands of cart wheels had often carved deep grooves through the pine forest.

Bentley finds old roadEuropean settlers in North America also left the remains of narrow roads. After the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created in 1934 in Tennessee and North Carolina, smallholder farmers were gradually squeezed out. They left behind churches, cemeteries (still visited by descendants), log cabins (some maintained by the Park Service) and old, rutted roads, carved through the low hills. Unlike the churches and cabins, the old roads are largely ignored.

This last week in Belgium, I noticed traces of other old roads, when Paul Van Mele showed me around the countryside that he loves in Limburg: a gorgeous patchwork of fields and small forests of oak and ash trees. One of these woods was Duivelsbroek (the Devil’s Swamp), between the villages of Ellikom and Erpekom. Boardwalks now made it easier to walk through the muddier places, and a sign, which Paul translated for me, explained how the Devil’s Swamp got its name. It was too wet and the soil was too thin to cultivate. People didn’t want to farm this rough bit of wetland. The devil could have it.

deep well worn roadAnd yet there on a little rise in the Duivelsbroek was an old road for ox carts, and, like the Portuguese paths, wide enough for two oxen to pass in opposite directions.

Charming public information signs explained the landscape for the hikers and mountain-bikers, who now travel through the forest, but as near as I could tell, no sign mentioned the old roads. By contrast the old stone grain mills had been graciously restored and turned into restaurants.

Oxen are strong, but slow. The farmers leading the little carts would have been eager to find the shortest way from home to field, which is one reason they made roads through inhospitable places, like Duivelsbroek. The shortest route from hearth to field was often through a forest.

As machines replaced oxen in Europe, farm roads became wider, and paved, with fewer roads than before. The new roads were expensive to build and maintain, but also faster to travel, so people could take a slightly longer way home on their tractor than they had on their ox cart.

Previous generations left behind not just the rubble of their buildings, but also traces of their roads, often still visible in the forest. The old roads remind us that farmers have always had to think about getting to the field and bringing the harvest home.

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