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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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Turtle hunters October 9th, 2016 by

Hunting (along with gathering wild plants) is humanity’s oldest profession. In ancient times, peoples thrived or vanished depending on their hunting skills. Experiences passed on from elders and life-long observations meant that hunters fully understood the behaviour of the animals they hunted. Ecological knowledge mattered more than anything else for survival.

As people began to domesticate crops, some animals adjusted their behaviour and began feeding in farmers’ fields. The first farms were surrounded by large areas of wild lands, and birds and mammals may have been some of the first pests.

turtle-hunters-1While visiting a primary school in Malawi during a fact sheet and video script writing workshop, I was surprised to see a poster with drawings of what it said were the common pests of cassava. Clearly, skills to manage larger pests are still highly needed in rural areas.

Nowadays, few people live from hunting, but it remains an important pass-time in many areas, and hunters are still occasionally called upon by farmers.

Whenever soya farmers in northern Benin have problems with wild rabbits, they supply local hunters with free bullets and entice them to organise night hunting sessions.

In a previous blog Bullets and birds I talked about Vera and Johan, organic farmers in Belgium, who negotiated with local hunters to keep pigeons from feeding on the young cabbage seedlings.

turtle-hunters-2Dominiek Gielen, my brother-in-law, told me how his father Tien used to spend hours in farmers’ fields after working his day shift in the coal mine. As patches of forests had been cleared and turned into farming land, moles had become a real pest to such an extent that Tien quickly knew all about moles and how to catch them, always at the same time of the day.

Last year, as we were making a training video on climbing beans in Uganda, I learned that moles were also a key pest for farmers there. And likewise, farmers call upon young, knowledgeable “mole hunters”. They put a bait in the tunnel, bend a stick and attach a rope in such a way that when the mole comes to the bait, it is snatched up and pulled out of its tunnel. Farmers pay 5000 Ugandan Shilling (1.3 Euro) for each mole they catch.

turtle-hunters-3The last few days, I have had the luck to be able to interact with farmers in Tamil Nadu, southern India, while training partners from Access Agriculture to produce farmer training videos. Many farmers here have so-called integrated farms, growing crops, trees, and rearing animals and fish on their farm. Fingerlings, or young fish, are the most expensive input of fish pond farming. Maran, one of the young members of the Koveri Inland Fish Farmers, told me how via the village canal that feeds water into his pond, 20 large turtles had entered the pond and were devouring his young fish. Turtles are such a common pest that Maran could call upon turtle hunters. By making noise and using spears the large turtles ended up as a feast for the hunters and their neighbours. On top, for each turtle caught Maran paid them 50 Rupees (about 0.66 Euro).

As the various examples above have shown, hunters have a unique set of skills and continue to provide specialised services to farming communities. Farmer training videos offer a unique opportunity to document and pay tribute to these professionals.

To watch training videos that include examples of farmers working with hunters, visit:

Soya sowing density

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond (available on www.accessagriculture.org  soon)

Related blog stories

Waiting for rats

Bullets and birds

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A hot plan October 2nd, 2016 by

In his 2006 book, The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly contrasts “planning” (which fails) and “searching” (which succeeds). He leads his readers to believe that development projects fail because they are planned.  But that is like saying that the cooks spoil the soup because they light the stove. Trial and error are certainly part of agricultural change, but planning is so important that even the smallest projects start with a plan, as Ronald Udedi and I learned last week when we visited Thako Chiduli, who teaches at St. Michael’s primary school in Mpyupyu, southern Malawi. Mr. Chiduli is also a smallholder farmer.

In a previous blog I told how another Malawian farmer, Mr. Mpinda, started growing chilli after he watched videos on this spicy fruit.

Like Mr. Mpinda, Mr. Chiduli also watched the chilli videos, several times. When I asked Mr. Chiduli what he had learned from the videos, he spoke easily for several minutes, describing the chilli videos in detail. For example, he had learned that seedbeds should only be one meter wide, so one would not step on them while working. He remembered that farmers can burn dry vegetation to control nematodes, the microscopic worms.

So when I asked Mr. Chiduli what new practices he had used in his chilli, I was a bit surprised when he said: “I don’t grow chilli.”

“Then why have you made such a study of the chilli videos?” I asked

“Because I am planning on growing it.”

When somebody tells me about a plan for the future, I am always slightly skeptical, so I like to ask a few specific questions, to see if the plan is well-thought out or not. So I asked Mr. Chiduli how much chilli he was going to plant.

“A hectare,” he said.

“A hectare?” I repeated in disbelief. A hectare is 10,000 square meters, or 2.5 acres. It is not impossible to farm that much chilli by hand, but it would be a challenge, and too much for a first timer.

I asked if we could visit his farm.

thoko-chidulis-houseWe were soon strolling through a typical Malawian village and into a small compound, where we met Mr. Chiduli’s uncle and his widowed mother, who was grinding meal with a mortar and pestle, to cook lunch on an open fire.

Below the home, Mr. Chiduli showed us a dry stream, which would be full of water when the rains came. He explained how he would plant his chilli just above the stream, so he could water his garden.

thoko-chiduli-in-fieldThe chilli would be planted on a small wedge of land between a path and a banana patch. I paced it off and made a quick calculation. The land was about 800 square meters, a good size for a chilli garden, but much less than a hectare. I’ve seen other people in Malawi make similar mistakes; estimating field sizes is a specific skill. After Mr. Chiduli and I resolved this simple error we agreed that his chilli plan was realistic.

Mr. Chiduli went on describing his plans in detail, how he would plant the variety “Dorado” and make a seedbed at the bottom of the garden, near the water, and carefully mix the soil with manure to enrich it. A month later he will transplant the chilli into rows, in the garden. It was a believable plan.

I have observed before that many farmer experiments are unplanned, such as fertilizing half of the field and then running out of manure, creating a spontaneous split plot trial. But farmer learning videos can also inspire rural people to dream of improving their incomes, and planning a complex innovation, such as starting a new crop

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