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Nourishing a fertile imagination March 5th, 2017 by

New ideas spark the imagination of smallholders, whether they have experience with the topic or not. We saw this last week in Nanegaon, a village just outside of the booming city of Pune, India, where farmers reviewed four fact sheets written by our 12 adult students.

Hunamat Pawale reads fact sheetA fact sheet is only one page, so it has to narrow in on a specific topic. The first fact sheet suggested cleaning maggots from wounds on cattle with turpentine, a common disinfectant distilled from pine resin. One man, Hanumant Pawale, read the fact sheet quickly, pronouncing the text clearly in a booming voice. When he finished, several farmers began to speak, adding ideas they wanted to include in the fact sheet. The first woman said that here they treat the cows’ wounds with kerosene, which is cheaper than turpentine, and is available at shops in the village. Her neighbors mentioned other products to treat cattle.

tweezersWe had wondered how farmers removed maggots. One of the farmers went to get a pair of tweezers to show us the tool that he used for plucking maggots from a wounded cow. Tweezers may be too sharp for such a delicate operation, but every household has a pair of tweezers, and they work if you are careful not to poke the cow’s flesh.

The farmers shared another important insight with us: it is best to avoid letting maggots grow in wounds in the first place. The villagers keep their cattle healthy by looking for wounds. Cows lick their wounds, the villagers explain, and if people see a cow licking her wound, they know that she needs some care.

The authors of the fact sheets got excited about improving their fact sheet by taking the farmers’ ideas on board.

It was a great meeting, but there was one little problem. After the first woman spoke, only men took the floor. Later I mentioned this to Pooja, one of our participants.

“The women won’t speak if the men are there,” she says matter-of-factly.

After meeting with the dairy farmers I went with two young men, Ajinkya and Pradeepta, who were writing a fact sheet on mulch: a simple layer of straw or leaves put on the soil surface to keep in moisture. We met a farmer, Mukta Naranyan Sathe, who was just setting down a pile of small, delicate legumes onto a tarp, for threshing.

Mukta Narayan Sathe reads fact sheetMukta-ji had never heard of mulch, but she was interested. After reading the fact sheet, she understood that mulch helps to conserve water. But, she told us that she did not really need to conserve water, because Nanegaon has abundant irrigation, provided by seven or eight bore-hole wells.

Even so, the fact sheet still inspired her to think creatively. She imagined that a large plant could be mulched with whole straw, but for a fragile herb, like fenugreek, the straw would have to be cut into small pieces.

We were soon joined by Mukta’s great nephew, Ganesh Dhide and a friend, Shubhan Pawale. They read the fact sheet and then all of them began to imagine ways of making mulch. They said that instead of burning the leaves off of sugarcane (a common practice which makes the cane easier to harvest), they could use them as a mulch.

They added that they now have a clear idea of mulching and that if one person tries it, and it works, the others in the village will surely adopt the new ideas as well.

The villagers could tell us practical ways to cure wounded cows but didn’t know about mulching until the fact sheet caught their imagination. Even so, they thought of two new ways to make mulch not mentioned in the fact sheet: cutting straw for fenugreek, and using sugarcane leaves. Farmers are inherently creative, and relish new ideas. We do not know if the farmers will adopt any of the ideas in the fact sheets, but before trying a technology one must first imagine doing something new. Our readers had already taken that step.

Other blog stories on writing fact sheets

Chemical attitude adjustment

The rules and the players

Learning from students

On the road to yoghurt

A hard write

Guardians of the mango

A spoonful of molasses

Turtle hunters

Acknowledgements

The first photo is by Mohan Dhuldhar. The second one is by Ajinkya Upasani.

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Chemical attitude adjustment February 26th, 2017 by

Kannappan, C. Sekar, his wife, Bharathidasan, BagyarajAgricultural extension can work deep changes in farmers’ attitudes. Ironically, the extensionists themselves often think that a change in heart is difficult to achieve, so it was good to meet some inspired farmers last week in Tamil Nadu, India, while teaching a course with Paul Van Mele to agricultural researchers and extension agents.

We wrote four fact sheets with advice for farmers and we wanted to show the papers to real farmers, as a kind of peer review. One of the participants, Mrs. P. Tamilselvi, took us to the village of Seethapappi, where she works as an extensionist. The course participants, mostly agricultural researchers, formed small groups and found farmers to talk to.

We approached a farmhouse, where entomologist K. Bharathidasan called out, asking if anyone was home. When a surprised couple emerged, Bharathidasan introduced himself and soon had the farmers reading a fact sheet in Tamil on groundnut stem rot.

After Mr. C. Sekar read the fact sheet he talked about an organic agricultural concoction he used as a fertilizer and insecticide. He called it pancha kaviya, alluding to five ingredients it contained. Bharathidasan wrote down the recipe:

Mix 1) cow dung, 2) cow urine, 3) ghee, milk and curd, 4) coconut water and 5) jiggery (a candy) or sugarcane juice. Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Keep for 45 days. Filter the liquid directly into a sprayer and spray the crop.

This was only the first of many natural agro-chemicals farmers in this village described to us. Sekar also makes an organic pesticide with eight types of local plants. He adds them to cow urine and keeps them for 20 days. Then he filters the liquid and sprays it on his crops.

When Mrs. Sekar read the fact sheet she mentioned another organic pesticide. Two more farmers had their own recipe for a home brew to spray on plants.

Bagyaraj and farmer Prakash Kanna CROPPEDFarmer Prakash Kanna showed us a batch of pancha kaviya he’d made, a dull brown mix in a plastic drum. It had a strong, sour smell. He put it in irrigation water to fertilize his plants. He called it a growth regulator. (The pancha kaviya adds nutrients and beneficial flora and fauna to the soil).

The farmers said they also used marigold extract and gypsum powder to control various diseases in groundnuts (peanuts). And they enhance the soil with a beneficial bacterium, Pseudomonas, mixed with aged cow dung which helps the bacteria multiply and suppress fungi that cause disease.

That’s quite a lot of innovation.

Bharathidasan later told me that the farmers really liked the fact sheets, except for the references to chemicals. That wasn’t surprising given the many non-chemical options the villagers were using.

Later that week we visited another village, Panayaburam, slightly larger than Seethapappi, with a small cooperative office where the farmers met.

Here we quickly learned of a different set of attitudes. The farmers did mention neem oil and using a net to keep small insect pests out of vegetables, but many said that “here we only use chemicals.” One went so far as to say that if you used a mix made from cow dung on your plants, the other farmers would say that you were insane.

Anthropologists have long known that each village is unique; conclusions drawn in one village may not apply to neighboring ones. Even so, such a big difference in attitudes to chemicals was surprising. Seethapappi farmers said that they liked everything in the fact sheets, except for the chemicals. In Panayaburam farmers only wanted to know about pesticides to manage pests and diseases.

There is one major difference between these two villages. Organic-leaning Seethapappi has a KVK (farm science center), where farmers receive training and get advice. Extension agents in that KVK have generated a lot of excitement about making inputs from local materials. Panayaburam does not have a KVK, and farmers rely on the biased advice of agro-chemical dealers to keep plants healthy.

A KVK is a permanent structure, with a building and staff, working with farmers over the years. Extensionists may become frustrated with the pace of change because farmers seldom adopt a new technique instantly. Smallholders have to try out innovations on their own. Extension agents can and do make a difference in farmers’ attitudes about agrochemicals, even if it takes time.

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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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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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The future of agriculture is in the past October 23rd, 2016 by

With increasing urbanisation, fewer people have the chance to learn about agriculture. Our blogs tell stories that illustrate how it works, particularly through the experiences of farmers around the world.  But there are other ways in which the busy city-dweller can learn about crops and livestock.

precolombian-village-2I’m particularly interested in how young people learn about where their food comes from and the importance of agriculture to society. I’ve just been to the Museo del Oro Precolombino (Museum of Precolombian Gold) in San José, Costa Rica, a delightful place that many schoolchildren are taken to. It was an unexpected pleasure to see so much about agriculture and how early societies and communities began to move from harvesting nature’s bounty to growing their own crops.

The displays were in Spanish and English, clearly presented, not too long yet still informative. I read that from 2000 – 500 B.C. “agriculture encouraged the establishment of permanent villages and the development of … ceramics”. The horse did indeed come before the cart. Early crops included beans, yam and maize, still prominent in today’s diet. Coyol palm, whose sap is turned into an alcoholic drink, and pejibaye, a palm with edible, starchy fruits, were also shown and available in the streets outside the museum.

golden-frogThe museum displayed many exquisite gold objects, created to signify wealth, status and accompany their owners after death. There were fine ceramics on show, some used for ceremonial purposes, and a series of grinding stones (metates in Spanish) for making meal and flour out of grain. A photo-montage, as one exited the museum, showed indigenous people using techniques known from prehistoric time, including a Bribri woman grinding maize with a large stone. Such technologies are still in use today

Few museums in big cities pay much attention to agriculture, which is a great pity. Sophisticated systems for irrigation and storing crops were created a long time ago with skill and ingenuity, and deserve as much attention as visually appealing collections of artefacts, coins and costumes. At the Museo del Oro Precolombino you get to see both high art and quotidian endeavour. Without agriculture sustaining people and creating new wealth, there would be no fancy gold objects in the museum .

As Henry Hobhouse wrote in Seeds of Change, crops such as sugar cane, tobacco, tea, potato and cinchona have played a crucial part in shaping world history. The wealth of Great Britain is derived as much from trading in crops, as extracting minerals, for example. Yet you will be hard pressed to find much mention of agriculture in some of the great museums of major cities.

plough-model-detailAn irrigation channel is unlikely to excite a schoolchild, but I’m sure they would be fascinated by an amazing collection of miniature agricultural machinery I recently saw in the University of Padova in Italy. Lovingly worked in wood and metal, I marvelled at the fine detail of hand carts, grape presses and other examples of equipment used by farmers in Italy. There were five cases containing around 150 models, sadly languishing in a corridor and out of sight to the general public. We could all do more to showcase the industry, creativeness and intrigue of agriculture, not just in museums but in other public displays that everyone has the opportunity to see.

I found such an example in a small village in Cyprus, where the guide explained that he and a few others had wanted to celebrate the land and the dependency of local communities on agriculture. There were pitchforks, saws, axes, shovels and animal traps, as well as moulds for making bread. A timely and telling reminder that the things we depend on most for our survival and development come from agriculture, and that we should celebrate this more.

Museums dedicated to the past are a great way to showcase the evolution of agriculture and the shaping of societies. However, agriculture cannot really be fully understood without knowing more about the farmers of today. For example, the Access Agriculture video library offers everyone, including farmers or students, the opportunity to learn about agriculture and the people practicing this noble profession.

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