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The ice harvest April 23rd, 2017 by

Ice was once a natural resource of some value, harvested, processed and sold on international markets. The ice harvest has vanished, but not before evolving into our modern food chain.

In 1805, the 21-year-old Frederic Tudor was at a party in Boston, when his brother William playfully suggested that ice from nearby ponds could be cut and sold to wealthy customers in the Caribbean. Frederic, later to be known as the “Ice King”, seized on the idea, and the following year took a ship loaded with ice to sunny Martinique, where he taught the owners of the finer hotels how to make and sell ice cream.

The ice cream sold for a hefty price, but the ice itself soon melted, leaving Frederic with a staggering loss of $4000. Not one to be easily discouraged, he learned from his expensive lesson by experimenting with different ways to make the ice last longer. He compared types of insulation, including straw, wood shavings, and blankets, and designs for storage facilities until he had perfected an ice depot that could keep 92% of its inventory frozen for a summer season. Once he had succeeded, Frederic’s business and reputation soared.

Ice mover NSmallFor years, ice harvesters improvised techniques with pickaxes and chisels, aided by horses wearing spiked shoes, to avoid slipping on the frozen lakes. This was usually good enough to gather enough ice to be stored for sale in the summer in northern cities. Then in 1824, another Massachusetts man, Nathaniel Jarvis, invented a horse-drawn ice cutter, with parallel blades that would cut ice from frozen ponds into blocks of standard sizes, such as 22 by 22 inches (56 centimeters). This innovation allowed blocks of ice that could be loaded tightly onto a ship, without spaces in between. The ice was less likely to melt or shift in transit, and the ice trade took on a new life.

Ice began to be shipped to Charleston, New Orleans and other southern cities (especially to chill beer and preserve fish during the long, hot summers), but in one bold experiment in 1833, Tudor shipped 180 tons of ice to Calcutta, where he built a large ice depot to house his product. Residents of India could now buy an insulated box, and stock it with a block of Yankee ice that would keep food and drinks cold for days.

4380 keeping the fridge cool with iceBy 1856 over 130,000 tons of ice were being cut from ponds around Boston and shipped not just to India, but also to Latin America, the Caribbean, China and the Philippines.  But that same year, spurred by the profits to be made from ice, a British journalist, James Harrison, invented a practical, coal-powered ice compressor in Australia. “Natural ice” (cut in the wild) and “plant ice” (from factories) competed with each other in an expanding market. In the 1800s, some railroad cars and ships were fitted with ice-holding compartments that allowed fresh meat and other perishable produce to be shipped long distances.

At first, consumers preferred natural ice, believing it was cleaner and longer lasting, and it wasn’t until 1914 that plant ice in the USA gained dominance. Relatively inexpensive electrical refrigerators came onto the market in 1923. Once consumers had refrigerators, they no longer had to buy ice.

ice bhanAfter a century of lively commerce, the spectacular long-distance and large-scale trade of natural ice finally began to decline and eventually collapsed in the 1930s. However, the ice trade has left the modern economy with a legacy: the commerce in fresh food which continues to this day, although it is now based on refrigeration, not natural ice. And of course there is still a niche market for factory-made ice, sold for picnics, and (especially in developing countries) to fishmongers and other small-scale food dealers.
The ice trade also led to another innovation, the ice box, which allowed homeowners to keep food fresh, stimulating the trade in produce from countryside to town. Modern supermarkets with ice cream, frozen fish and fresh meat presuppose that the consumers have a refrigerator at home. Today, tropical countries like Ghana export mangos and papayas to Europe and North America. Because of refrigeration in Central America, more farmers are able to sell fresh produce to large, new supermarkets in cities like Tegucigalpa and San Salvador.

You can now find tropical produce in refrigerators around the world, and in a sense it started when a student at Harvard joked with his brother about shipping frozen pond water to the Caribbean.

Further reading

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1965 The Americans: The National Experience. New York: Vintage Books. 517 pp.

Cummings, Richard O. 1949 The American Ice Harvests: A Historical Study in Technology, 1800–1918. Berkeley and Los Angeles: California University Press.

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Stop erosion January 1st, 2017 by

stop-erosion-1When farmers have limited access to arable land and soils are poor, limiting soil erosion can make the difference between harvesting a crop or nothing at all.

Soils are indeed at the core of any crop production system. Without a healthy soil, crops cannot thrive. While measuring the effect of soil erosion at national and global scales is near impossible, all farmers see the difference when effective soil conservation techniques are in place.

Putting the right strategies in place to control erosion is becoming increasingly urgent as climate change is leading to rains falling more erratic and intense than before.

stop-erosion-2From the gentle rolling lands in Burkina Faso to the steep hills in northern Vietnam, I have seen the devastating effects of rainfall on poorly managed soils. On gentle slopes of even as small as five degrees, the torrential rains wash away the top soil and seal the top layer, after which no more water can penetrate the soil. To remedy this, farmers in Burkina Faso learned about making contour bunds (raised ridges every 20 meters across the field) to allow the rainwater to infiltrate. On steeper slopes, where the land is much more difficult to be ploughed by anaimals or machines, vegetation barriers or terraces are possible solutions to stop soils eroding.

stop-erosion-3Depending on the slope, type of soil, availability of labour and other resources a wide range of options are available to improve soil and water management. Networks such as WOCAT (the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies) support organisations working on the ground with farmers by making hundreds of sustainable soil and water management technologies available in an authoritative website.

While many development agencies and projects believe that encouraging smallholder farmers to use mineral fertilizers is the quickest way to solve low crop productivity, without proper soil conservation techniques farmers will see most of their money invested wash down the drain.

Related videos

Grass strips against soil erosion; Contour bunds; Till less to harvest more; Conservation agriculture; Grow more, earn more

And many more under Sustainable Land Management

Related blogs

Nurturing ideas, and seed

Other resources

The WOCAT SLM database: https://qcat.wocat.net/en/wocat/

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Waiting for rats September 11th, 2016 by

People usually have a good reason for ignoring free advice.

So when Tumpale Pindani, my Malawian colleague, asked me “How long will it take before the people in Malawi accept conservation agriculture,” I could tell that it had already been a long slog, even though I couldn’t answer her question. After all, conservation agriculture has worthy aims, such as improving soil fertility and halting erosion. Conservation agriculture includes many practices, such as minimum tillage, cover crops, and straw mulch. Most of these are old practices, widely used somewhere in the world, although none are used on farms worldwide. Some farmers have competing goals, besides soil conservation.

alefa-kakawoTumpale and I were visiting a field in Malingunde, in Central Malawi where Alefa had harvested groundnuts and was about to plant maize. So Alefa was rotating crops, which is one component of conservation agriculture. Alefa asked us how she could improve soil fertility, and Tumpale recommended composted manure, another component. Alefa listened with interest.

On the way back to the car Tumpale stopped and asked me to look at a boy sitting on the ground in a dry field. Most of the ground was bare, except for some spots where the few remaining maize stalks had been piled up, ready to burn. “Do you know what he is doing?” Tumpale asked.

kid-in-bare-fieldIt didn’t look like he was doing anything, just sitting there, toying with a short-handled hoe.

“He’s waiting for rats,” Tumpale explained.

The dry season is driest right at the end. And that is when older children look for rat holes. The kids pile up maize stalks where the rats like to hide, and burn the stalks, creating a clear, wide open field of bare earth and ash. There is nowhere for a rodent to hide.

Then the boys dig up the rat holes, and when the rats run out, the boys club them with the hoe, and take their prey home to eat.

It’s not as terrible as it sounds. I’ve had rat three times this year so far, twice in Uganda and once in Nigeria. Rat is a treat, especially if grilled on an open fire.

One conservation agriculture practice is to leave crop stubble in the field, where it slowly decomposes, protecting and enriching the soil. It’s a sensible recommendation. But people aren’t following this suggestion, at least not in Malingunde. During the scorching dry season there is not much else for cattle to eat, so after harvesting the maize, people take the corn stalks home, and feed the leaves to their animals. Women burn the bare stalks as fuel, for cooking. In this part of Malawi crop residues are more valuable at home than in the field.

Stalks that are not gleaned during the dry season may eventually be burned to clear the ground for gourmet rat hunting. Conservation agriculture is marketed as a package, or a brand, but that doesn’t mean that all recommended practices will be adopted. Some will have to take second place to existing needs, like the search for tasty rats.

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The desert recedes July 24th, 2016 by

In the 1980s desertification was a cause for alarm. The basic idea was that smallholders in the Sahel were grazing too many animals and cutting down too many trees. As a result, the Sahara was creeping into the Sahel, turning fields and pastures into desert. The reality turned out to be more complex than that.

By the 1990s, academics had debunked the idea that peasants caused desertification. In Gourma, Mali for example, there was no relationship between deforestation and domestic firewood consumption, because smallholders gathered deadwood as fuel, and did not down cut live trees (Benjaminsen 1993). In fact, the boundary line between the desert and the Sahel had not changed in the 16 years between 1986 and 1998. Rather, the boundary ebbed and flowed with changes in annual rainfall (Nicholson et al. 1998). The number of individual trees in West Africa did decline in the second half of the twentieth century, but this was largely because of the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s.

Remarkably, smallholder farmers in the Sahel were actually encouraging the natural regeneration of trees. In a hiking survey of 135 villages in Senegal, Patrick Gonzalez noted that when a tree sprouted, people would protect it, and when it was large enough prune it (Gonzalez 2001). This may strike some readers as wishful thinking, but William Critchley and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam have also documented farmers in the Sahel protecting small trees. Critchley et al. have made several videos on how farmers in the Sahel use various simple techniques to encourage trees. Farmers dig small pits that collect rain runoff. By applying manure in these pits the soil is improved and when a tree seedling germinates, farmers keep livestock from nibbling it away.

1975 copiaAs an added bonus, many of the trees that seemed to have died in the 1970s and 1980s still had life left in the roots. As the branches began to grow back from these “underground forests” farmers protected them as well.

In his video Managed regeneration, Critchley uses aerial photos of the village of Galma, Niger to show that dramatic recovery of vegetation between 1975 and 2002.

2002 copia It is worth noticing that the Sahel is recovering from the droughts of the twentieth century, and that smallholders do value trees, and take some steps to encourage reforestation.

neem treeDuring the drought decades, international projects funded nurseries of eucalyptus and other exotic trees in the Sahel, but most of these died (Gonzalez 2001). One might be forgiven for assuming that foreign trees are simply inferior to native species, but it’s not quite that simple. Eric Boa points out that in the Sahel the single most important tree across the transition zone from arid to semi-arid is not actually a native species, but the leafy neem, a native of South Asia which was introduced to Africa about 100 years ago.

Neem now grows from Mali to Sudan. Neem trees are fairly drought-tolerant, but even they declined in the early 1990s, probably because of the long dry spell. Some activists prefer indigenous species, such as Balanites aegyptiaca, but neem grows much faster, which is why people like it (E. Boa, email). In the past few years I have been impressed by the sight of great neem trees around farmsteads in Mali.

Rural people know as well as anyone that trees provide fuel, timber, shade for livestock, fruit and other services. No doubt future generations in the Sahel will encourage native trees, and continue to plant naturalized foreigners like neem, adapting to the slow rhythms of moister and dryer decades.

 

Further viewing

You can watch the videos here. Managed regeneration, and Parkland agroforestry.

Further reading

Benjaminsen, Tor A. 1993 Fuelwood and Desertification: Sahel Orthodoxies’ Discussed on the Basis of Field Data from the Gourma Region in Mali. Geoforum 24(4): 397-409.

Gonzalez, Patrick 2001 Desertification and a Shift of Forest Species in the West African Sahel. Climate Research 17:217–228.

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Save the trees June 26th, 2016 by

I was home Thursday evening, when my daughter, Clara, called us outside to see the forest fire. It was dusk and there was a bright, orange patch of flame dancing around the crest of the Andes, above Cochabamba. The jets of flame were so large we could see them leaping high above the tree tops, even from the city, far below on the valley floor. There had been no rain lately, so we imagined that within a few days the whole forest would be burning.

Now here, the word “forest” needs some explanation. This forest is a large swathe of pine and eucalyptus planted on the upper slopes of the Andes in Tunari National Park. Until the twentieth century, the mountain had been covered in native trees: short, gnarled, slow-growing hardwood trees with papery bark, called qhewiña in Quechua (Polylepis spp.). Throughout the mid twentieth century, wagon loads of the qhewiña wood were sold as firewood in the city of Cochabamba.

By the 1980s, these native trees were mostly gone. Then the Swiss government financed a project to reforest the mountain. Over the next few years, they planted pines and eucalyptus in the national park on the mountain above the city of Cochabamba, and in and around farm communities in the central departments of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca.

ruined building up closeBy Friday the fire we had seen from our home was largely out. On Sunday our curiosity got the better of us and with some of the extended family we drove 10 km above the city on a winding, dirt road, and parked at an abandoned pic-nic ground. Looking around, I realized that the Swiss planned Tunari National Park to be a peri-urban, family-friendly recreational park, where people would come for hikes and meetings in the pines. Among the trees above the city, the project left behind some children’s playgrounds and brick cabins where people could hold meetings or training courses. The buildings were abandoned years ago. The roofs have started to cave in and someone has stolen all of the rope from the children’s swings.

We hiked towards the site of the fire. There were isolated patches of smoldering fire, but no flames. A police fire-truck passed us on the way down, heading for the city. The fire fighters had also decided that the flames were out.

burned forest 2Once in the forest, we could see that the dried grass was thick on the ground, and that seems to have been the main source of fuel for the fire. We thought that some of the trees might survive. This forest has a fire almost every year, during the dry season, and many of the big pines and eucalyptuses have survived earlier burns.

We stopped at a ranger station to get more information. The staff explained that Tunari National Park has seven employees, and they respond as soon as they see a fire. When the fire is too much for the park staff to handle, they call on the departmental branch of the national police (the fire truck we had seen). The park service also relies on an energetic group of volunteers, a membership-based community organization called SAR (Search and Rescue) that looks for lost hikers and operates an ambulance, besides helping to put out forest fires. SAR was founded in 1988 and has no ties to the Swiss project that planted the forest.

By 1999, the original Swiss reforestation project morphed into another project, and no more trees were planted. Yet the original planted forests were not abandoned. The patchwork of organizations (the national park, the police and SAR) that come to the rescue are doing a competent job of saving the trees. The planted trees are now thick and healthy in most places.

The Bolivians put out the forest fires, but don’t care much for the cabins and other buildings left in the forest. I think that is a pattern; when donors invest in tangible, capital goods, local people tend to maintain certain kinds of investments (especially forests), even if the local people are not always willing to maintain buildings and some other investments.

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