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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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What do earthworms want? April 16th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Even seemingly simple tasks, like raising the humble earthworm, can be done in more ways than one, however all variations must follow certain basic principles.

In a video from Bangladesh, villagers show the audience how to raise earthworms in cement rings, sunk into the soil. The floor is covered with a sheet of plastic to keep the worms from escaping. The worms are fed on chunks of banana corm and the ring is covered to keep out the rain, but still retain some moisture.

My grandfather used to raise worms in a pressed-board box on his back porch. He fed them on strips of newspaper and used coffee grounds. So I knew that there was more than one way to raise worms, but I didn’t quite realize how many options there were, until I saw two small, family firms in Cochabamba, Bolivia this week at an agricultural fair. Both firms raise earthworms and sell the worms, the humus they make, and the excess moisture collected in the process (to use as fertilizer—applied on leaves or the soil).

mitt full of earthwormsOne company, Biodel, experimented with various types of containers. The worms died in plastic ones, but they thrived inside of aluminum cylinders, wrapped in foam (to keep them cool) inside of a metal barrel. A screened base with a tray collects the humus, while worm food (especially composted cow manure) is loaded into the top of the barrel.

worm rackA second company, Lombriflor, had a different devise. They use stacks of plastic-covered wooden trays on a slight slant, and they feed the earthworms corn plant residues, semi-composed cow manure, and kitchen scraps. Earthworms have their favorite foods. “Earthworms like all of the cucurbits (like squash), but nothing sour,” explained Silvio Gutiérrez and his wife, the company owners. “They don’t like citrus at all.” Earthworms will eat paper, but they prefer egg cartons.

So here we have a Bangladeshi cement ring, a Bolivian barrel and a set of wooden trays. It seems like a lot of different ways to raise worms, which is an important topic, because the night-crawlers, as my grandfather used to call them, help to enrich the compost, stabilize it and they improve the soil with the beneficial micro-organisms they release.

All of these worm brooders share certain core principles. The worms are kept cool, not allowed to escape, and are fed on organic matter (depending on what is abundant locally) and the earthworms are not allowed to get too dry or too moist.

The Bangladeshi earthworm video has been translated into Spanish and will soon be released in Bolivia. We hope it will inspire smallholder farmers to invent additional devices for raising the under-rated earthworm.

The Access Agriculture video-sharing platform will soon also host yet another video about rearing worms, featuring rural entrepreneurs in India who use woven polythene bags as containers.

Watch the video

The wonder of earthworms

¿QUÉ QUIEREN LAS LOMBRICES DE TIERRA?

Por Jeff Bentley, 16 de abril del 2017

Hasta tareas aparentemente sencillas como criar a la humilde lombriz de tierra, pueden hacerse en más de una forma, aunque todas las variantes deben seguir ciertos principios básicos.

En un video de Bangladesh, los aldeanos muestran a la audiencia cómo criar las lombrices de tierra en argollas de cemento, semi-enterrados en el suelo. El piso se cubre con una hoja de plástico, para que las lombrices no escapen. Las lombrices comen pedacitos de tallos de plátano y la argolla se cubre, para que las lombrices no se ahoguen con la lluvia, pero que no se resequen tampoco.

Mi abuelo solía criar lombrices en una caja de tablas de aserrín prensado en el corredor de su casa. Les alimentaba con tiras de periódico y borras de café. Así que yo ya sabía de más de una manera de criar lombrices, pero no me di cuenta de cuántas opciones había, hasta ver dos pequeñas empresas familiares en Cochabamba, Bolivia esta semana en una feria agrícola. Ambas empresas crían lombrices y las venden junto con el humus que hacen y el líquido que se recolecta en el proceso (para usar como fertilizante—aplicado a las hojas o al suelo).

mitt full of earthwormsUna empresa, Biodel, experimentó con varias clases de contenedores. Las lombrices se morían en los de plástico, pero prosperaban en los cilindros de aluminio, forrados en espuma (para mantener la frescura) dentro de un barril metálico. Una base de malla con una charola recolecta el humus, mientras la comida de lombrices (especialmente estiércol de vaca compostada) se pone a la parte superior del barril.

worm rackUna segunda compañía, Lombriflor, tiene otro dispositivo. Ellos usan bandejas de madera, una encima de la otra, livianamente inclinadas y cubiertas de plástico, y alimentan a las lombrices con residuos de plantas de maíz, estiércol de vaca semi-compostada, y restos de cocina. Las lombrices tienen sus comidas favoritas. “A las lombrices les gustan todas las cucúrbitas (como el zapallo), pero nada ácido,” explicó Silvio Gutiérrez y su esposa, los dueños de la empresa. “No les gustan los cítricos para nada.” Las lombrices comerán papel, pero prefieren maples de huevo.

Así que tenemos una argolla de cemento bangladesí, un barril boliviano y un juego de bandejas de madera. Parecen muchas maneras para criar lombrices, lo cual es un tema importante, porque las lombrices ayudan a enriquecer el compost, estabilizarlo y mejoran el suelo con los micro-organismos benéficos que liberan.

Todos estos criaderos de lombrices comparten ciertos principios de fondo. Las lombrices se mantienen frescas, no pueden escapar, y se les alimenta con materia orgánica (lo que esté localmente abundante) y a las lombrices no se les deja mojarse mucho ni secarse demasiado.

El video de Bangladesh sobre la lombriz de tierra se ha traducido al español y pronto será distribuido en Bolivia. Esperamos que ello inspire a muchos campesinos a inventar otras herramientas adicionales para criar a la subestimada lombriz.

La plataforma para compartir videos, Access Agriculture, pronto albergará otro video sobre la crianza de lombrices de tierra, presentando a empresarios rurales en la India quienes usan gangochos (sacos de yute plástico) como sus contenedores.

Ver el video

La maravillosa lombriz de tierra

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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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