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Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan December 31st, 2017 by

In remote areas, in post-conflict countries, it may be difficult to get information from universities or extension agencies, but with a smart phone and an internet connection, anyone can watch videos and learn from them. While conducting an online survey of farmers who had previously registered on the Access Agriculture video platform, I recently had a chance to speak on the phone with some highly innovative people, like Isaac Enoch in South Sudan.

Isaac Enoch grew up in a village in what was then the south of Sudan, but the worsening war between the north and south drove his family across the border to Uganda. There was little for the kids to do in the refugee camp, so the teenage Isaac and his friends started to grow vegetables in small patches along the river. When Isaac got enough vegetables to fill a bucket he would hand the produce to his mother. He told me how impressed he was when she sold the vegetables in the market and came home with money. She began to buy books and shoes for her children, who had been going barefoot. Isaac says this was his first experience farming as a business.

In 2004, Isaac earned a B.Sc. from Makerere University in Kampala, thanks to scholarships for academic excellence which he was awarded from several UN agencies. He worked for several NGOs in the Sudan until he went on to get an M.Sc. from Bangor University in Wales, UK in 2007. After graduating, he went straight back to the south of Sudan, and he was there when the new nation of South Sudan was created in 2011, following 20 years of civil war. Isaac was part of a donor-funded project to promote cassava-growing with farmers, but he recalls that the returning refugees were not taking agriculture very seriously. So he said “I’ll show them how to do it.” He began growing vegetables on his own, before branching out by giving farmers seed, agreeing on a price once the produce was ready then coming back later to buy the vegetables. During this time Isaac was working in a rural area, with lots of land, but then violence broke out between different southern ethnic groups and between armed factions that had once been allies in the liberation movement. In these increasingly unsafe conditions, Isaac moved to Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

Land was scarce in Juba, so Isaac started a greenhouse on a small plot. He was not sure how to water his plants. At first he drew on his own imagination, poking holes in soft drink bottles, filling them with water and placing them near the plants. Then he saw how drip irrigation worked in a video on the Access Agriculture website. He followed instructions and installed drip irrigation in his greenhouse. In the video, the tanks are filled with hand-carried buckets of water. Isaac was able to fill the tanks with river water, using a small motorized pump.

This worked so well that he also began irrigating some land outside of the greenhouse. He covered the soil with mulch, to slow the rate of evaporation, and conserve water, an idea he also got from the video.

So much of the food sold in Juba is imported, even the cereals, that anyone who can produce crops locally has a ready market. Isaac is now starting a piggery, producing fodder using hydroponics. He learnt about this from a friend, who sent Isaac a link to a video. The original video showed special mechanized trays, but this seemed expensive to Isaac, so he is now growing hydroponic fodder in trays that he designed himself, and made by cutting jerry cans in half.

While many projects across Africa have failed to get community groups organized around drip irrigation, access to inspiring training videos can make a difference. Creative, motivated people are able to take ideas from the videos, and adapt them to local circumstances.

Related blogs

To drip or not to drip

Why drip irrigation isn’t sinking in

Related videos

Drip irrigation for tomato

Hydroponic fodder

Acknowledgement

Photos courtesy of Isaac Enoch

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No land, no water, no problem December 17th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

A hot, parched gravel patch on the edge of the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia may seem like a poor place to grow high value vegetables, but a group of agricultural students and a local entrepreneur are making it happen.

The entrepreneur, René Cabezas, is an agronomist who gives training courses in hydroponics, where vegetables are produced in tubes of water. Mr. Cabezas also produces hydroponic vegetables himself, and he recently bought in three metal frame houses—each about the size of a modest suburban home, about 7 by 15 meters—at a cost of 45,000 Bolivianos ($6400) each. Aldo Chipana and Arturo Siles, two thesis students, were showing Ana and I how the vegetables are grown. The metal frames were covered in a fine, plastic mesh, a fabric which keeps out insects, such as aphids and whiteflies. The structures were a big investment, and making them pay off will depend on using them carefully for a long time. Several agronomy students are working in the vegetable houses, writing their theses on the experience, and keeping some of the profits from the produce.

One house was full of tomatoes watered with drip irrigation three times a day, carefully regulated by an electronic timer and a humidity-measuring device. Mineral fertilizer had been dissolved in the water, feeding the plants with every drop. The tomatoes had no obvious health problems: which is astounding for the tropics, where the plants grow year round, and so do the pests and diseases. I thought of some of the commercial farms I had seen in Bolivia and elsewhere, where the tomatoes were under constant attack by pests and diseases and dripping with pesticides.

These tomatoes are planted in small pots of soil with lots of organic matter. The dry climate of the Southern Andes helps to avoid disease, but Aldo and his colleagues also prune off any unhealthy leaves. The fine mesh covering will limit the fungal spores that blow in, though in this sprawling neighborhood, houses are more common than fields, so there are few other vegetables in the vicinity to act as sources of infections. Ana and I were lucky to visit; Aldo and colleagues allow few visitors, who might carry pathogens on their shoes or clothing.

Like much of peri-urban Cochabamba, this south-side lot has no city water. People have to buy expensive water from tank trucks, from 7 Bs. to 15 Bs. ($1 – $2) for a 200 liter barrel. It seems like madness to irrigate vegetables with water at this price, but these tomatoes only use about 200 liters of water a day, for some 800 plants, thanks to the carefully controlled drip irrigation, which makes the most of every drop.

In another metal frame house, Aldo showed us the lettuce growing in plastic (PVC) tubes filled with water, laced with mineral fertilizer. Unlike the tomatoes, which are growing in pots, the lettuce was growing only in water, with no soil. Like the tomato plants, the lettuce was free of disease and of pesticides, producing the kind of vegetables that demanding consumers really want.

There was one unforeseen problem: the sun. There was simply too much light for the lettuce. Even with the roots sitting in water, the little plants were wilting. Aldo and his colleagues had found that a thick, black net provided the best shade while still allowing the lettuce to thrive.

I had seen hydroponics before, but usually at universities, research centers (and once even at an amusement park), so until seeing these vegetables I doubted that plants could be grown for a profit in tubes of water. Now I was starting to change my mind, seeing these young people invest their time and energy to make it work, raising a commercial crop on a stony lot that was unfit for conventional gardening. They were saving so much water that they could afford to irrigate even when water is expensive.

My dad was a hydrologist and used to be fond of saying that agriculture could never compete with a city for water. City dwellers could always outbid farmers for water. But dad was thinking of old-fashioned ditch irrigation. As irrigation technology improves and becomes more efficient in using water, agriculture can afford to buy water at high prices.

As climate change continues to make for a warmer, thirstier planet it is good to see creative solutions providing healthy produce, and doing so without pesticides.

Watch some related training videos

Drip irrigation for tomato

Hydroponic fodder

Related blog

To drip or not to drip

SIN TIERRA, SIN AGUA, NO HAY PROBLEMA

Por Jeff Bentley

Una parcela pedregosa, caliente y reseca en las afueras de la ciudad de Cochabamba, Bolivia, puede parecer un lugar equivocado para cultivar verduras de alto valor, pero un grupo de estudiantes de agronomía y un empresario local lo están logrando.

El empresario, René Cabezas, es un agrónomo que imparte cursos de formación en hidroponía, donde las verduras se producen en tubos de agua. El Sr. Cabezas también es productor de verduras hidropónicas, y hace poco compró tres casas de marcos de metal, cada una del tamaño de una modesta casa suburbana, de aproximadamente 7 por 15 metros, a un costo de 45,000 bolivianos ($ 6400) cada una. Aldo Chipana y Arturo Siles, dos tesistas, nos estaban mostrando a Ana y a mí cómo se cultivan las hortalizas. Los marcos metálicos estaban cubiertos por una fina malla de plástico, una tela que impide la entrada de insectos, como los áfidos y las moscas blancas. Las estructuras fueron una gran inversión y para rescatarlo hay que hacer un uso cuidadoso durante mucho tiempo. Varios estudiantes de agronomía están trabajando en las casas de malla, escribiendo sus tesis sobre la experiencia y manteniendo algunas de las ganancias del producto.

Una casa estaba llena de tomates regados con riego por goteo tres veces al día, cuidadosamente regulados por un control electrónico y un medidor de la humedad. Se había disuelto fertilizante mineral en el agua, alimentando a las plantas con cada gota. Por lo visto, los tomates no tenían ningún problema de salud: lo cual es asombroso en los trópicos, donde las plantas crecen durante todo el año, igual que las plagas y enfermedades. Me acordé de algunas parcelas comerciales que había visto en Bolivia y en otros lugares, donde los tomates estaban bajo constante ataque de plagas y enfermedades y la fruta chorreaba plaguicidas.

Estos tomates se habían plantado en macetitas con suelo rico en materia orgánica. El clima seco de los Andes sureños ayuda a prevenir las enfermedades, pero Aldo y sus colegas también podan las hojas enfermas. Lo cobertura de malla fina limitará la entrada de las esporas de hongos por aire, aunque en este vecindario en expansión, las casas son más comunes que los campos, por lo que hay pocas otras verduras en la zona que serían fuentes de infección. Ana y yo tuvimos la suerte de visitar; Aldo y sus colegas permiten pocos visitantes, que pueden llevar patógenos en sus zapatos o en su ropa.

Al igual que gran parte de la parte peri-urbana de Cochabamba, este lote de la zona sur no tiene agua potable. La gente tiene que comprar agua cara de camiones cisternas, desde 7 Bs. a 15 Bs. ($ 1 – $ 2) por un barril de 200 litros. Parece una locura regar las verduras con agua a este precio, pero estos tomates solo usan unos 200 litros de agua al dĂ­a, para unas 800 plantas, gracias al riego por goteo cuidadosamente controlada, que aprovecha al máximo cada gota.

En otra casa metálica, Aldo nos mostró la lechuga creciendo en tubos de plástico (PVC) llenos de agua mezclada con fertilizante mineral. A diferencia de los tomates, que crecen en macetas, la lechuga crece solo en agua, sin tierra. Al igual que los tomates, la lechuga estaba libre de enfermedades y de plaguicidas, produciendo el tipo de verduras que los consumidores exigentes realmente quieren.

Hubo un problema inesperado: el sol. Simplemente había demasiada luz para la lechuga. Incluso con las raíces en el agua, las pequeñas plantas se marchitaban. Aldo y sus colegas descubrieron que una gruesa red negra proporcionaba la mejor sombra y permitía que la lechuga prosperara.

Yo habĂ­a visto hidroponĂ­a antes, pero generalmente en universidades, centros de investigaciĂłn (y una vez incluso en un parque de diversiones), asĂ­ que hasta ver estas verduras, yo dudaba que las plantas en tubos de agua fueran rentables. Ahora estaba empezando a cambiarme de opiniĂłn, viendo a estos jĂłvenes invertir su tiempo y energĂ­a para hacerlo funcionar, sacando un producto comercial en un terreno pedregoso que no era apto para la horticultura convencional. Estaban ahorrando tanta agua que podĂ­an regar incluso cuando el agua es cara.

Mi papá era hidrólogo y solía decir que la agricultura nunca podría competir con una ciudad por el agua. Los citadinos siempre podrían pagar más que los agricultores por el agua. Pero mi papá estaba pensando en las zanjas de tierra, al estilo viejo. A medida que la tecnología de riego mejora y se vuelve más eficiente en el uso del agua, la agricultura sí puede comprar agua a precios altos.

A medida que el cambio climático continúa generando un planeta más cálido y sediento, es bueno ver soluciones creativas que proporcionen productos saludables y sin plaguicidas.

Aprender más de los videos

Riego de goteo para tomate

Hydroponic fodder

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Tomatoes good enough to eat November 5th, 2017 by

I was astounded years ago to learn that many farmers in Bangladesh had two completely different ways to grow vegetables. As my friend and colleague Harun-ar-Rashid told me, farmers sprayed pesticides as often as every other day on their commercial vegetables, yet grew a pesticide-free crop to eat with their families.

It’s not that I doubted Harun’s story. He’s a careful observer and an experienced Bangladeshi agricultural scientist, but I wanted to find out more about this odd contradiction. How could farmers simply do without pesticides on crops that usually required a lot of spraying? Harun’s explanation was that the farmers were worried about eating vegetables tainted with dangerous chemicals. But that assumed that there were viable alternatives to the intense use of pesticides.

Recently I got to see for myself how this double standard works. I was tagging along with some of my mature students, who were writing a video script on tomato late blight, the same vicious disease that also destroys potato crops. We were visiting family farmers who grew commercial vegetables in the village of Sordarpur, in the southwest of Bangladesh, near Jessore. The farmers had received a lot of training from extensionists and had thoughtfully blended the new information with their own experience.

On their commercial fields, as soon as the farmers see late blight symptoms on tomato, they begin spraying with fungicides. The growers monitor the tomato crop constantly and spray often, especially when foggy days are followed by sun, which is perfect weather for late blight.

Farmers go to their commercial fields every day to check their tomatoes and prune diseased leaves with scissors. Then they clean the scissors with disinfectant, to avoid spreading disease from plant to plant. Farmers can hire labor to do this in their commercial fields. They say that because of the fungicides, there are few diseased leaves in the commercial fields. The diseased leaves are collected in a bag or bucket to keep them from spreading disease to the healthy plants.

The farmers did confirm that they grow tomatoes differently in their small home gardens, where they grow around 10 plants and uproot the ones that get diseased instead of spraying them. The farmers said that about eight plants usually survive, enough to feed the family.

The farmers in Sordarpur graft their home garden tomatoes onto eggplant rootstock. Partly this gives the tomatoes a stronger stem, but the farmers also think that grafting protects the tomatoes from disease, although they are not sure why. (Grafting can provide disease-resistant rootstock for a disease like late blight which is transmitted in the soil and through the air).

Insect pests can also be a problem. In the home gardens, farmers control insect pests (such as aphids and fruit flies) by hanging up plastic pots painted yellow and coated with engine oil. The fruit flies are attracted to the color yellow and get stuck in the oil. The farmers are also starting to use sex pheromone traps, trying out this new practice mostly in the home gardens.

They make organic pesticides with mustard seed oil, which is used only or mainly in the home gardens. Store-bought chemical insecticides are used in the commercial fields.

Related blog

Read about the farmers in Abdulpur who sell seedlings to the folks in Sordarpur Specializing in seedlings.

For more on pheromone traps see The best knowledge is local and scientific.

Further reading

Lee, Jung-Myung 1994 “Cultivation of Grafted Vegetables I. Current Status, Grafting Methods, and Benefits.” Hortscience 29(4): 235-239.

Further viewing

Watch training videos on fruit flies and integrated pest management

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Abu Sharif Md. Mahbub-E-Kibria “Kibria” at the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh, and to Nazrin Alam (Practical Action Bangladeshesh) and Rakesh Khadka (Practical Action Nepal), for letting me go with them to Sordarpur. Kibria was kind enough to make valuable comments on two earlier versions of this story.

The photo of the pheromone trap is courtesy of Md. Mizanur Rahaman, Practical Action Bangladesh.

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Ashes to aphids October 15th, 2017 by

Anyone interested in organic farming will eventually come across the use of ash to protect crops from pests and diseases. The internet has made it easy for people to consult, and to copy each other’s training materials. But one has to be cautious when borrowing ideas, as we recently learned during a script writing workshop in Bangladesh.

During the first day of the course, the 13 trainees from Bangladesh and Nepal laid out their key ideas to write a fact sheet and a script on a particular problem.

All of our script ideas were hot topics, that is, they are problems that occur widely across developing countries, requiring good training materials with ideas that are both feasible for smallholders and environmentally friendly.

One of the selected topics was how to manage shoot and fruit borer in eggplant, a pest for which many farmers in South Asia spray pesticides twice a week, or more. Just knowing this makes you frown when this tasty vegetable is presented to you in one of the delightful Bangladeshi dishes.

Another group worked on aphids in vegetables and suggested using ash to manage these pervasive pests. When Jeff and I asked why ash is useful, the group gave us various reasons: because it is acidic; it contains sulphur; it is a poison; the ash creates a physical barrier which prevents the aphids from sucking the sap of the plant. These all sound like plausible answers yet some are incorrect. Ash is rich in calcium, like lime, and therefore not acidic, for example.

We do know that ash makes the leaves unpalatable to insects and corrodes their waxy skin, making them vulnerable to desiccation. The FAO’s website on applied technologies (TECA) suggests controlling aphids by applying wood ash after plants are watered. If not, the sun may cause the leaves to burn. Our simple question about using ash reminded me that the scientific basis for many local innovations is poorly understood. There are too few researchers to validate each technology and limited resources often focus on high-tech solutions (e.g. plant breeding) rather than low-tech farmer innovations.

We may not always know why local innovations work, which is all the more reason to be cautious when recommending substitutions. During this workshop, for instance, I learned that not all ashes are the same. Shamiran Biswas, an extensionist with a rich experience working with farmers across the country, explained: “When one field officer told farmers to sprinkle ash on his crop, a farmer who followed this advice saw his entire bean field destroyed within half an hour. We were shocked and tried to figure out what went wrong. It seemed that the farmer had used ash from mustard leaves, which some rural women add to their cooking fires when they are short of wood. But leaf ash from mango, mustard, bamboo and other plants may also be harmful when sprinkled on crops. The only ash that is fully safe to recommend is ash from rice straw or rice bran,” Shamiran concluded. He added that “ the ash should be cold and sprinkled on the crop when the leaves are still wet from the morning dew.”

Experienced extension agents like Shamiran are experts at explaining farmers’ ideas to outsiders, as well as explaining scientific ideas to rural people.

When people give advice to farmers, or develop farmer training materials, it is easy to copy ideas from the Internet. It is easy to assume that because ash is natural that it must be harmless. In fact, tree leaves are often full of toxic chemicals, to deter herbivorous insects; it stands to reason that the ash of the leaves may also be poisonous.

A natural solution can go wrong, even one as simple as applying ash.

To develop good farmer training videos, solid interaction with farmers is crucial. And collaboration with a seasoned, open-minded extensionist helps to orient us in the right direction.

Related blogs

Chemical attitude adjustment

The rules and the players

A spoonful of molasses

Further viewing

To watch videos that merge scientific knowledge with farmer knowledge, visit the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform. All videos are developed by people who value local innovations, and feature technologies that are validated by real farmers.

Acknowledgement

Shamiran Biswas works for the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh, an NGO working on food security and non-formal education.

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The blacksmiths of Ironcollo October 8th, 2017 by

Andean farmers have used iron tools since colonial times, including plows, harrows, picks, shovels and hoes. A favorite Bolivian tool is a long, triangular hoe, known as the qallu (Quechua for “tongue”). The qallu is ideal for working the steep rocky potato fields. Many farmers never leave home without their qallu.

In the valley of Cochabamba, the village of Ironcollo is home to the blacksmiths who make qallus and other tools. Ironcollo is strategically sited near the small market city of Quillacollo on the valley bottom. Farmers coming from the high Andes to shop in town can stop in Ironcollo on the way and have tools repaired or buy a new one.

Ironcollo is an old place. It is built over an archaeological mound, a large, artificial hill created gradually over the centuries as each generation of pre-Colombian people built their houses on the ruins of the people before them. Today the villagers are unsure exactly how long their ancestors have been working iron in Ironcollo, though they told me they were well established before the War for Independence from Spain, and that they made weapons for fighters in the Battle of Falsuri (1823). I have no reason to doubt them.

The narrow main street of Ironcollo is lined with shops, many of them owned by blacksmiths. I saw a large, industrial-made wood and leather bellows lying in the dust by one front gate. The label, pressed into the hardwood, says that the bellows is a model No. 102, made by Alldays and Onions of Birmingham, England. A museum in Marlsborough, New Zealand displays another copy of the same model, imported from Britain before 1888. Not only have the blacksmiths of Ironcollo been connected to global trade for some time, but their nineteenth century ancestors were making enough money to buy themselves decent equipment.

But times are tough now in Ironcollo. Where there were once 70 blacksmiths shops, there are now 30. Cheaper steel tools from Brazil and China are eating into their market. Not that the blacksmiths are going down without a fight. In 2011 they started holding an annual fair, inviting the public to stroll through the village and see how iron tools are heated in a charcoal forge until they are red hot, and then skillfully pounded into shape on an anvil.

We saw many tools on display in Ironcollo, but none of the larger ones were fitted with handles. No one was even selling handles at the fair. The smiths’ customers were still largely hardworking smallholders who know how to whittle a tree branch into a hoe handle.

Some blacksmiths have responded to changing market demands, making coat-racks and decorations for city people.My wife Ana and I met a woman blacksmith, doña Aidé, who took over her husband’s forge when he died, so she could support her children. The kids are grown up now, but she continues to make heavy-duty rakes that she designed herself. She also invented a new recipe, which she calls “the blacksmith’s dish” (el plato del herrero): steak cooked right on the hot coals of the forge, which she sells to visitors at the annual blacksmith’s fair.

An older blacksmith, don Aurelio, designed a new style of blacksmith forge, with a built-in electric fan. This saves labor, since the blacksmith doesn’t need an assistant to pump the bellows to fan the flames of the forge. Don Aurelio’s family makes and sells the electric forges to other smiths in the community, and beyond.

In 2013 the blacksmiths of Ironcollo formed an association. Community leader Benigno Vargas explained that they hope that this will be a way of getting support from the government, which is much more likely to fund a community group than unorganized family firms. But with or without official support, for now local farmers are still keeping the blacksmiths in business.

These blacksmiths have technical innovations, like the electric bellows and the coatracks and other metal products, but they have also innovated socially, with the annual fair, a professional association, and even a new way to prepare steak.

Near the end of the short main street, an elderly farmer stops us to admire the heavy, green rake we bought from doña Aidé. The farmer is from a remote village, and speaks little Spanish. She asks us in Quechua how much we paid for the rake before she marches off, wondering if she should invest 40 pesos in such a fine tool. Innovative farmers need imaginative tool makers who are tied into the local tradition of farming.

Further viewing

Family farmers make many of their own tools. Access Agriculture has videos for example on making a rabbit house, making a quail house and other devices. Many of the videos show how farmers use different tools. When farmers watch the videos, they are often interested in the tools they see in the videos.

Farmers around the world also rely on mechanics and other artisans to make and repair some tools, like the conservation agricultural tillage equipment for tractors and tools drawn by animals.

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