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Specializing in seedlings October 22nd, 2017 by

Remarkably little has been written about how smallholders provide services to other farmers. As roads have improved in Bangladesh, big cities are now supplied with produce from across the country, not just from surrounding villages. Recently I met a community of farmers who sell vegetable seedlings to other farmers in southwestern Bangladesh. These innovative farmers live in the village of Abdulpur, near Jessore, and produce seedlings of cauliflower, tomato, eggplant and other popular vegetables. The plants are sold when they are just a few weeks old.

Everywhere in the village we saw neat seedbeds, filled with a dense, green blanket of germinating vegetables, each bed covered in a tunnel of plastic sheeting, stretched in place over a sturdy bamboo frame. During the first week, farmers cover the transparent plastic sheets with rice straw. Emerging seedling should not get too hot. Every day the plastic is removed to water the seedlings. This is safer than relying on the rain, which can be heavy enough to damage the delicate seedlings. The plastic covers also keep the seedlings warm at night. The farmers were taking good care of the plastic and were able to use the sheets several times, saving on expenses and reducing waste.

The seedling growers produce some of their own seed and buy some at the shop, from dealers in the community who sell packaged seed.

The farmers who buy the seedlings arrive in three-wheeled cargo motorcycles from other communities. The customers are farmers who will plant the seedlings in their own fields. They load the trays of seedlings and grow vegetables for the big markets in Dhaka. The seedling specialists are a new niche market and an encouraging sign of the growing sophistication of the vegetable trade in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh used to be synonymous with poverty. This is changing rapidly. The villagers are now living in houses made of brick instead of straw mats. The farmers are wearing newer, nicer clothing than they were even 15 years ago when I first started visiting Bangladesh. It’s clear that the rural economy is improving.

One sign of increasing globalization, the farmers of Abdulpur have recently begun to export vegetables directly to Malaysia. They are also growing organic produce, on special order from a supermarket in Dhaka. Family farmers are quick to spot new opportunities

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Abu Sharif Md. Mahbub-E-Kibria (Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh), Nazrin Alam (Practical Action/Bangladesh) and Rakesh Khadka (Practical Action/Nepal) for taking me on their field visit to Abdulpur and sharing the results with me.

Further viewing

Watch a video on making an onion nursery.

Making a chilli seedbed.

Insect nets in seedbeds.

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Homegrown seed can be good July 23rd, 2017 by

African leafy vegetables are important for nutrition, and increasingly for sale. Shops in Africa are now starting to sell packets of seeds to farmers and gardeners. But seed produced by farmers is also sold informally, in small town markets.

Sophina Tembo and her vegetablesA recent study in Kenya suggested that this informal seed could be fairly good. Marcia Croft and colleagues compared 24 lots of seed for two kinds of African leafy vegetables: amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) and nightshade (Solanum spp.). For each kind of seed, the study compared six lots of informal seed with six lots of formal seed. Since few companies in Kenya sell vegetable seed, the six lots of formal seed were made up of one lot from a Kenyan seed company, and five lots from an international research agency (AVRDC) in Tanzania.  The germination rates for the informal seed were acceptable: 59% for amaranth and 84% for nightshade, while less than 30% of the formal seed sprouted. The article does not explain why the formal seed had such an abysmal germination rate. Perhaps in future studies the formal seed will perform better.

Man and woman harvest vegetablesThe study raises questions: How good is vegetable seed in other African countries? And, how fresh was the seed in the shop and in the AVRDC collection? (Perhaps the formal seed had sat on the shop shelf for a long time). And future studies should clearly separate commercial seed from the collection of a research center.

The Kenyan seed customers themselves form two distinct groups. The study showed that the customers of  African leafy vegetable seed include poorer farmers (who have less land to grow their own seed), men and families with a salaried wage earner, weekend gardeners who don’t have time to produce seed.

Smallholders and gardeners could demand more seed in the future. To supply them, the study concludes that the informal seed markets should be strengthened, rather than supporting formal market development for African leafy vegetable seed. Good seed will benefit the poor, and gardeners trying to grow healthy food for their families.

Read the article

Croft, Marcia M., Maria I. Marshall, Martins Odendo, Christine Ndinya, Naman N. Ondego, Pamela Obura & Steven G. Hallett 2017 “Formal and Informal Seed Systems in Kenya: Supporting Indigenous Vegetable Seed Quality.” The Journal of Development Studies. DOI: 10.1080/00220388.2017.1308487.

Further reading on seed in Africa

Andrade-Piedra Jorge, Jeffery W. Bentley, Conny Almekinders, Kim Jacobsen, Stephen Walsh, and Graham Thiele (eds.) 2016. Case Studies of Roots, Tubers and Bananas Seed Systems. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), Lima: RTB Working Paper No. 2016-3. ISSN 2309-6586. 244 p. http://www.rtb.cgiar.org/blog/publication/case-studies-root-tuber-banana-seed-systems/

Van Mele, Paul, Jeffery W. Bentley and Robert Guéi (eds.) 2011 African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp. http://www.agroinsight.com/books.php

Further viewing

The onion nursery. https://www.accessagriculture.org/onion-nursery

Making a chilli seedbed. https://www.accessagriculture.org/making-chilli-seedbed

Managing vegetable nematodes. https://www.accessagriculture.org/managing-vegetable-nematodes

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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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Crop with an attitude January 29th, 2017 by

A plant has a personality and, like people and countries, some have stronger characters than others. Take the lupin bean (Lupinus mutabilis), for example. It is an oddly erect legume that forms a sort of cone shape, and its glorious flowers make the plant wildly popular with gardeners in many countries. In Bolivia it is called “tarwi”, from Quechua, the language of the Incas.

tarwi in bloomWhile making a video in Bolivia, my colleagues and I asked doña Eleuteria in the village of Phinkina to tell us what she planted after harvesting tarwi. She surprised me by saying that sometimes she followed tarwi with potatoes. That’s astounding, because potatoes are such a demanding crop that Andean farmers often rest the soil for years before planting a field to potatoes. Otherwise the soil may be improved by adding tons of chicken manure. Bolivian farmers in the Andes don’t buy manure for other crops, just the fussy and valuable potato.

I followed up by asking Reynaldo Herbas, from the village of Tijraska, if he had ever planted potatoes right after tarwi. “Yes, and it does very well. Planting tarwi is like fallowing your soil, or like using chicken manure,” he explained.

Tarwi seeds are also rich in oils and proteins and doña Eleuteria regularly feeds lupin beans to her children. Like some other Bolivians doña Eleuteria make a nutritious snack by boiling the seeds, but it’s a lot of work. The grains need to be soaked in water for three days before boiling, then left in the running water of the river for several days to wash out the bitter alkaloids.

Agronomist Juan Vallejos from Proinpa (a research institute) confirmed that tarwi takes a lot of water to process. This is ironic, because tarwi is recommended for dry areas with impoverished soils. Sweet varieties without the bitter alkaloids do exist, but in Bolivia the search for these sweet lupins is only just starting.

sorting tarwi or lupine seedWhile visiting doña Eleuteria to learn about processing seed, she showed us how to pick out the bad grains of tarwi, to ensure that the crop planted from them would be healthy. (The main disease is anthracnose, caused by the fungus Colletotrichum gloeosporioides). We asked doña Eleuteria what she did with the diseased grains. We thought that she might say that she buried them to keep the disease from spreading. But no, she buries the discarded grains because raw lupin beans are toxic, whether they are healthy or diseased.

“I do bury them,” she explained, “because they are so bitter that if the chickens eat them they will die.”

Agronomist Vallejos explained that tarwi plants are so packed with alkaloids that sheep and cattle will not touch a crop growing in the field. However, the lupin plant is drought resistant and even withstands hail, which often mows down other food crops in the Andes. Local governments in Bolivia are starting to promote tarwi as a way of adapting to climate change.

A plant may have a complex personality, with sterling qualities as well as some tragic defects. Tarwi or lupin is in many ways a perfect crop: well-suited to the punishing climate of the High Andes while nutritious for people and good for the soil. The downside is that you need lots of water to process the beans and to leach out the poisons that can kill your unsuspecting chickens.

Acknowledgements

For this story in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by Paul Van Mele and Marcella Vrolijks of Agro-Insight and Juan Vallejos and Maura Lazarte and others from Proinpa. The visit was funded by the McKnight Foundation.

Further reading

Calisaya, J.J.,  M. Lazarte, R. Oros, P. Mamani 2016 “Desarrollo Participativo de Innovaciones Tecnológicas para Incrementar la Productividad de los Suelos Agrícolas en Regiones Andinas Deprimidas de Bolivia.” Read at the Community of Practice meeting, McKnight Foundation, Ibarra, Ecuador 11-16 July. See the paper here.

Further viewing

The farmer training video Growing lupine without disease can be viewed and downloaded on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform in English, French, Spanish, and shortly also in Quechua and Aymara.

CULTIVO CON CARÁCTER FUERTE

Por Jeff Bentley

29 de enero del 2017

Una planta tiene una personalidad, y como la gente y los países, algunos tienen más carácter que otros. Considere el lupino (Lupinus mutabilis), por ejemplo. Es una leguminosa que crece casi en forma de cono, y gracias a sus flores gloriosas la planta es querida por jardineros en muchos países. En Bolivia se llama “tarwi”, del quechua, el idioma de los Incas.

Mientas mis colegas y yo filmábamos un video en Bolivia, pedimos que doña Eleuteria en la comunidad de Phinquina nos contara qué sembraba después de cosechar el tarwi. Ella nos sorprendió cuando dijo que a veces sembraba papa después del tarwi. Es increíble, porque las papas son tan exigentes que muchos agricultores andinos descansan el suelo durante años antes de sembrar papas. Si no, el suelo tendrá que mejorarse agregando toneladas de gallinaza. Los agricultores en los Andes bolivianos no compran gallinaza para otros cultivos, solo la mimada y valiosa papa.

Luego le pregunté a Reynaldo Herbas de la comunidad de Tijraska, si él jamás había sembrado papas después del tarwi. “Sí, y produce muy bien. El sembrar tarwi es como descansar sus suelo, o como usar gallinaza,” explicó.

Marcella films Eleuteria soaking tarwiLos granos de tarwi son ricos en aceites y proteínas y doña Eleuteria a menudo los da de comer a sus hijos. Igual que algunas otras bolivianas, doña Eleuteria hace una merienda nutritiva con los granos cocidos, pero cuesta mucho trabajo. Los granos tienen que remojarse en agua durante tres días antes de cocerse, para después dejarlos en el chorro del río durante varios días más para expulsar los amargos alcaloides.

El Ing. Agrónomo Juan Vallejos de Proinpa (un instituto de investigación) confirmó que el tarwi toma mucha agua para procesarse. Es irónico, porque el tarwi se recomienda para zonas secas con suelos empobrecidos. Existen variedades dulces, sin los alcaloides amargos, pero en Bolivia recién empieza la búsqueda por esos lupinos dulces.

Cuando visitamos a doña Eleuteria para aprender cómo ella procesa la semilla, nos mostró cómo quitar los granos malos de tarwi, para asegurarse que el cultivo que siembra será sano. (La enfermedad principal es la antracnosis, causada por el hongo Colletotrichum gloeosporioides). Preguntamos a doña Eleuteria qué hacía con los granos enfermos. Pensábamos que diría que los enterraba para que las enfermedades no se diseminaran. Pero no, ella entierra a los granos descartados porque los granos crudos de tarwi son tóxicos, bien sea sanos o enfermos.

Eleuteria Sanchez burries bad lupine seed as chicken will die if they eat it“Los entierro,” explicó, “porque son tan amargos que si las gallinas se los comen podrían morirse.”

El Ing. Vallejos explicó que las plantas de tarwi están tan cargadas de alcaloides que las ovejas y vacas no tocan al cultivo en la parcela. Sin embargo, la planta de tarwi es resistente a la sequía y hasta aguanta a la granizada, que a menudo arrasa con otros cultivos en los Andes. Los gobiernos locales en Bolivia empiezan a promover el tarwi como una adaptación al cambio climático.

Una planta puede tener una personalidad compleja, con cualidades de oro igual que algunos defectos trágicos. El tarwi o lupino en muchas maneras en el cultivo perfecto: bien adaptado a los desafíos del clima altoandino, mientras es nutritivo para la gente y bueno para el suelo. Su lado oscuro es que requiere de mucha agua para lavar los venenos que pueden matar a tus gallinas inocentes.

Agradecimientos

Para escribir este cuento en Cochabamba, Bolivia, tuve la buena suerte de estar acompañado de Paul Van Mele y Marcella Vrolijks de Agro-Insight y Juan Vallejos y Maura Lazarte y otros de Proinpa. La visita se financió por la McKnight Foundation.

Para leer más

Calisaya, J.J.,  M. Lazarte, R. Oros, P. Mamani 2016 “Desarrollo Participativo de Innovaciones Tecnológicas para Incrementar la Productividad de los Suelos Agrícolas en Regiones Andinas Deprimidas de Bolivia.” Trabajo presentado en la reunión de la Comunidad de Práctica, McKnight Foundation, Ibarra, Ecuador 11-16 de julio. Ver la presentación aquí.

Para ver más

El video educativo para agricultores Producir tarwi sin enfermedad está disponible para ver y bajar en inglés, francés, español, y pronto también en quechua y aymara, en la plataforma Access Agriculture que se dedica a compartir videos.

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Big meeting, small message November 13th, 2016 by

Everyone wants to see lots of farmers benefitting from agricultural innovations, managing risks more effectively and creating new pathways out of poverty. Success in pilot projects is always encouraging but it is no guarantee that this will translate into bigger gains for the masses.

everyone-planting-beans-copyI recently witnessed a golden opportunity in Rwanda to spread the word about iron beans, one of several biofortified crops developed under the umbrella of Harvest Plus, a major donor-funded programme on nutrition which works closely with national governments around the world. A quartet of development practitioners working with HarvestPlus recently won the World Food Prize.

Rwanda is famous for its ability to mobilize lots of people. They have a special word: Umuganda, a ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’. To some there’s a strong element of ‘come or else’, yet my experience of events in Gakenke district suggested clear enthusiasm and interest in attending.

meeting-with-tent-copyThe first event was a mass planting of ‘iron beans’ close to the main road, a prominent place that was both easy to reach and easy to see. The Governor of the North Province was there, as was a government minister, appointed to strengthen ties from national to local level. It was clearly a significant occasion and I watched in awe as over 100 people placed seed in prepared furrows, adding a dollop of fertilizer. It was a powerful way to promote a nutrient-rich variety of a key staple crop.

Everyone then moved a short distance to a much larger community meeting. New people arrived, swelling numbers to around 1500. As the audience settled on a gentle slope, a singer moved sinuously with microphone in hand, keeping them amused as the assembled dignitaries took their seats in a tented enclosure facing the crowd. My heart sank a little as I waited for long speeches. Managing a large meeting requires skill and active participation keeps people engaged. If they get bored they can leave, even in Rwanda.

I was unsure about the purpose of the community meeting. Was this an extension of the bean planting Umuganda? I could see a display of bean varieties at the end of the tent, but as the singer departed we turned to other things. A short line of people formed on the flat ground between the tent and the slope. It was a mixed group with a common purpose, but each seeking a different outcome. They had all come to petition the authorities about a problem or wrong-doing.

lady-in-crutches-speaks-copyMy friend Jean Claude Izamuhaye explained what was going on. “This woman is disabled, and so is her husband. She wants help with health insurance.” Another lady had problems paying school fees for three daughters. There was a land dispute that a man wanted resolving. Each case was dealt with courteously. A moderator relayed questions to the Governor, Minister and local officials present. A village leader commented on a case.

The large crowd also responded, and not always favourably. One petitioner was deemed to have a frivolous case and was pelted with clumps of grass by neighbours as she retook her seat. The petitions lasted for over an hour. I waited for someone to say something about the beans and point to the display, but nothing happened. When the meeting ended lots of people crowded around the bags of beans, eager to learn about the different varieties on show.

lots-of-people-interested-in-beans-copyAt this point I was mentally urging someone to stand on a seat and give a short message about the beans, encouraging farmers to talk to knowledgeable staff from extension, dressed in distinctive green T shirts, who had been present throughout the meeting as silent observers. Now was the time, I thought, to form small groups and talk about the iron beans or even some other hot topic – the meeting took place soon after maize lethal necrosis disease was found in Rwanda. The extension workers all knew how serious this was.

The farmers milled around, the extension workers talked amongst themselves, and gradually people drifted off, back to their homes and offices. Someone had thought it was a good idea to have an attractive display of bean seeds, in full view of 1500 people, mostly farmers, but that was it. A golden opportunity to ‘scale-up’ an innovation was only partially seized.

Piggybacking on a community meeting held to resolve social issues needs to be done sensitively, so as not to disrupt the main reason why people came. But with a little thought and effort – getting the agreement of the meeting organisers to talk briefly about beans to everyone assembled, then tagging on a short Q&A session at the end – so much more could have been achieved.

Read more about the World Food Prize 2016

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