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Battling the armyworm September 23rd, 2018 by

In the 1500s, when men on sailing ships were casually spreading crop plants from one continent to the next, maize came to Africa. Fortunately many of the maize pests stayed behind, in the Americas. But slowly, trade and travel are re-uniting maize with its pests. A caterpillar called the fall armyworm is the latest American pest to reach Africa, and in two years it has spread across the continent, threatening one of Africa’s staple food crops.

Just as maize originally came to Africa without its American pests, the fall armyworm arrived without its natural enemies, including a couple of dozen species of tiny parasitic wasps. This has helped the armyworm to spread faster.

Governments panicked over the arrival of the fall armyworm. Some tried massive campaigns to eradicate it manually, as in Rwanda, where large teams of people destroyed the caterpillars by hand. Others began widespread campaigns to spray farmers’ fields with insecticide. Fortunately, there are alternatives to insecticides, as explained in two new videos, directed by Paul Van Mele and beautifully filmed by Marcella Vrolijks, both of AgroInsight.

The videos explain that fall armyworm damage often looks worse than it really is. The caterpillars eat gaping holes in the maize leaves and defecate what looks like wet sawdust all over the plants. But the plants usually recover and produce a full ear, in spite of early damage to the young plant.

Conveniently for farmers, the fall armyworm is also a cannibal. Each one lives alone in the maize whorl and eats any smaller armyworm that comes in. So a maize plant rarely has to suffer more than one armyworm at a time.

Although the armyworm left its specialized natural enemies behind, once it arrived in Africa it met with generalist, native predators like ants, earwigs, ladybird beetles and other beneficial insects that soon began to attack and eat the caterpillars.

The FAO (the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization) organized farmer field schools to teach farmers armyworm ecology and control. Farmers who took these schools were soon using techniques from Latin America, such as applying soil to the maize whorls. But farmers in Kenya also created innovations of their own, such as rubbing cooking grease onto the maize plant to attract ants to kill armyworms, and sprinkling fine sand mixed with tobacco snuff into the maize whorls.

Farmer field schools are an excellent way to teach insect ecology, but field schools only reach a small percentage of the farmers who need the new information. Fortunately, the farmers who have not been able to take field schools will be able to learn from those who have, by watching the fall armyworm videos, which are available for free in English, French, Amharic, Kiswahili and Ki-Embu, with Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish versions coming soon. More translations will help to spread the word about non-chemical control of fall armyworm.

Watch or download the fall armyworm videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Related blogs

Armies against armies

Innovating with local knowledge

Further reading

Poisot, Anne-Sophie, Allan Hruska, Marjon Fredrix, and Koko Nzeza 2018 Integrated management of the Fall Armyworm on maize: A guide for Farmer Field Schools in Africa. FAO.

Our current knowledge of fall armyworm ecology owes a lot to earlier research in Latin America, including:

Andrews, Keith L. and JoseŐĀ Rutilio Quezada 1989 Manejo Integrado de Plagas Insectiles en la Agricultura: Estado Actual y Futuro. El Zamorano, Honduras: Departamento de Protecci√≥n Vegetal, Escuela Agr√≠cola Panamericana.

Acknowledgement

The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Photos by Eric Boa.

The scientific name of the fall armyworm is Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae).

Dick’s Ice Box September 2nd, 2018 by

In 2005, a few years before my Mom died, she took some of her grown children and grandchildren to Dewey, Utah, a ghost town on the Colorado River, to show us one of the strangest structures I’ve ever seen. On a blistering day in July we walked through the sage brush and the red sand to a canyon wall. Mom led us through a neat little door through the cliff-face into a darkened room, surprisingly cooler than the outside and big enough for a dozen people to crowd in.

Mom‚Äôs grandfather, Richard Dallin ‚ÄúDick‚ÄĚ Westwood had carved this room from solid stone. Dick‚Äôs children called the place ‚ÄėDad‚Äôs Ice Box.‚ÄĚ Dick would stack winter ice from the Colorado River into his ice box to keep food cold all through the summer. ‚ÄúThey could even keep butter in here,‚ÄĚ Mom added proudly. My great-grandfather lived from 1863 to 1929; there was no electricity in Dewey and household refrigerators were rare before 1927.

Off and on between 1901 and 1916 Dick ran the ferry at Dewey, where the wagon road from Moab, Utah to Grand Junction, Colorado crossed the Colorado River. The trip was a hundred miles (160 km), so travelers often spent the night at Dewey, where my great-grandmother Martha had a little boarding house and diner. The family had a small farm and some cattle that provided meat and other provisions. The ice box filled with food was important for Martha’s business.

That day in 2005, my Mom told us that Dick carved the ice box with dynamite. The rectangular doorway and the spacious room it led into were clearly the work of a craftsman. Carving stone with dynamite is a dangerous business, a good way to lose life or limb, and I always wondered how Dick knew what he was doing.

This remained a mystery until this year, when my cousin, Richard ‚ÄúRick‚ÄĚ Westwood wrote a book about our great-grandfather. It finally helped me make sense of Dick‚Äôs Ice Box.

Dick held many professions, from sheriff to muleskinner to Shakespearean actor, but until I read Rick‚Äôs book I never realized that Dick was also a miner. From childhood I knew that Dick had staked a mine claim, which he named ‚ÄúThe Silver Dick.‚ÄĚ I was aware that my great-grandfather had a sense of humor, but until I read Rick‚Äôs book I didn‚Äôt know that the Silver Dick was a working silver mine. Discovered in August 1908, it may have been the only one in Southeastern Utah. Dick worked the mine until 1909 when he filled a box car with valuable ore, enough to make his fortune. Sadly, this never happened, because the shipment was stolen by railroad workers en route to buyers. But Dick‚Äôs mine enriched him with the skill of working sandstone with dynamite.

The Ice Box may have been partly inspired by the root cellar, a small structure dug into the ground, topped off with a timber roof. Many families in Utah stored their food in root cellars. During their early years in Dewey, Dick and Martha‚Äôs root cellar burned down. Martha would later tell my grandmother how devastating it was to lose all their stored food. Dick took the loss stoically, saying: ‚ÄúOh we‚Äôll get us another sack of flour and another bag o‚Äô taters (potatoes) and we‚Äôll be as good off as ever.‚ÄĚ But losing the root cellar may have inspired Dick to think of a fire-proof place to store the household food. As luck would have it, Dick was well placed to get ice. Rick explains that in the early 1900s, the Colorado River used to freeze so hard in winter that Dick could drive his family over the river in a wagon drawn by a team of horses. The ferry was sited between two sharp bends in the river, near the modern-day Dewey Bridge. In the spring the ice would break with great force, and some big slabs would pile up on the bank, where they were relatively easy to collect.

In her history of ice, Elizabeth David observes the sunken ice houses made by Scandinavian farmers, but in the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century USA, ice houses were typically wooden barn-like structures, made and operated by professional ice mongers, not by smallholder farmers. Dick’s Ice Box is the only one I know of carved into a sandstone cliff.

The ice box was crucial for running a family business on a small, desert farm.

Farmers’ creativity is often stimulated by new ideas, as we often say in our weekly Agro-Insight blog. Those ideas can come from science or from a technology the farmer learned somewhere else, even by mining. Dick was flexible, tough and creative. He took misfortune in stride, and adapted, just like many of the farmers we still meet today.

Acknowledgement

I thank my cousin, Rick Westwood, for letting me read his book manuscript. Thanks also to Rick and to my brothers Brett and Scott Bentley for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this story. I gratefully acknowledge Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele who gave me thoughtful feedback on this story, as they always do.

Related blog story

The Ice Harvest

Further reading

Richard E. ‚ÄúRick‚ÄĚ Westwood is publishing his excellent biography, Sheriff Richard Dallin Westwood later in 2018.

See also:

Westwood, Richard E. 2010 Westwood Family History, Vol II. R. Westwood: Highland, Utah.

My great-grandmother, Martha Wilcox (1871 to 1962) wrote an autobiography, edited by her daughter, Grace Westwood Morse:

Autobiography of Martha Anna Wilcox Westwood Foy, privately printed in 1983.

And for the definitive story of ice boxes:

David, Elizabeth 1994 Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices. London: Faber and Faber. 413 pp.

Innovating with local knowledge July 22nd, 2018 by

Local knowledge is dynamic and farmers are fast to adapt traditional practices when the need arises, as we saw during a recent filming visit.

The fall armyworm arrived in Africa only in 2016 and is creating panic among farmers and governments alike. International development organisations are quick to ring the bell and up the competition to bid for public funds to respond to evident emergencies.

But farmers can‚Äôt always wait for solutions to be developed by researchers or for government support. In an earlier blog, ‚ÄúArmies against armies,‚ÄĚ I wrote about John Fundi from Embu County, Kenya, who combined various observations on how ants behave to develop his own solution. Ants like fat and caterpillars, so if you smear fat on the maize stalks you can attract the ants to move up on the plants and eat the caterpillars.

Aaron Njagi shared another interesting innovation based on keen observations. As an herbalist, Aaron knows a lot about which plants can be used to cure people and which ones can be used to kill or repel insect pests. The herbal pesticide that he uses to kill caterpillars in his vegetable crops proved inadequate to control the fall armyworm, so Aaron immediately figured that this pest was not like any other. His herbal mix needed extra strength.

‚ÄúJust one drop of aloe vera in water is enough to cure people from respiratory problems, so I decided to add the strength of this plant to the mix of plants I use to control the other caterpillars,‚ÄĚ he says. On top, he adds chopped chilli for extra bitterness and strength, and then boils the lot. Once the water has cooled down a little, Aaron removes the plants from the water and adds a little snuff tobacco.

‚ÄúAfter fermenting the mix for a week in the shade, I can now use it,‚ÄĚ he continues, ‚Äúbut you need to dilute it as it is very powerful. I also decided to add a little washing powder before spraying it, so it sticks better to the maize plants.‚ÄĚ

Farmers know when something works, and when something doesn’t work. Everywhere we went, we heard that pesticides did not kill the fall armyworm. But Aaron’s mixture works. That he is already asked by his neighbours to spray their fields with his herbal medicine further testifies how fast farmers can innovate.

Related blogs

Armies against armies

Agro-Insight has written many blog stories on Local innovation and Pest management

Related videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Acknowledgement

The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Armies against armies July 15th, 2018 by

Some battles are harder to win than others. Last year farmers in much of Africa were faced for the first time with a new species of armyworm and saw their maize crops attacked. The fall armyworm had come from Latin America and was unknown to farmers, extension workers and governments. Responses across the continent differed, but quite some governments attempted to stem the tide of fall armyworms with pesticides. In Zambia, the government used the army, deploying soldiers across the country to spray farmers’ maize fields.

But the pest is not easily killed by pesticides and the worry is that this approach will cause more harm than good. The fall armyworm begins life as a caterpillar before becomimg an adult moth. The moth is nocturnal and lives for about two weeks during which it lays its eggs in batches of 100-300 tiny eggs. The small, whitish fluffy spots are mostly found on the underside of maize leaves. When the tiny caterpillars emerge en masse they look like an army, ready to invade the plant. Some armyworms drop off the leaves, hanging on a fragile thread and then carried by the wind to attack neighbouring maize plants. After feeding just a few days on the surface of leaves, the young armyworms hide inside the leaf whorl of young plants. On mature maize plants they tunnel through the husk and chew on soft maize kernels. Either way, the armyworms are protected from pesticide sprays.

Last week, Marcella and I were in Embu County in Kenya, making two farmer training videos on how best to manage the fall armyworm. I was particularly curious to find out if farmers had come up with their own solutions. After all, they have not had a lot of time to experiment. But necessity is the mother of invention, and when livelihoods are at stake farmers can be quick and inventive in finding effective ways to manage damaging pests.

John Fundi, a young farmer in Ugweri village, told us how he merged two independent observations to come up with a life-saving solution. ‚ÄúWhen my wife cooks in the kitchen, I have seen that when some of the cooking fat is spoiled on the floor, these tiny black ants come and feed on it. And when we dry our maize after harvest, I have seen that some of these ants also carry caterpillars from the maize ears. So I thought that perhaps these ants can help me control the fall armyworm.‚ÄĚ

John with his wife and young son now go to their field when the maize is just a few weeks old. With their fingers they smear a little bit of solid cooking fat to the base of the maize stalk. With a small pack of cooking fat, they can easily cover half a hectare. ‚ÄúIn no time, the tiny black ants will come to feed on the oil and while they are on the maize they also find any armyworms. Even when we cannot see the tiny caterpillars inside the whorl, the ants will find and kill them,‚ÄĚ John says with a satisfying smile. When the maize plant starts to develop maize ears, John and his wife repeat the treatment, smearing the fat at the base of the stalk and one metre high on the stalk.

Neighbours who had sprayed pesticides in vain found it difficult to believe that John’s innovation would work. But as they have seen the results of using cooking fat with their own eyes all have started to copy John’s method. With the videos we hope that examples of innovative farmers like John will inspire farmers and governments across Africa to try out low-cost and simple methods.

In agriculture, armies of ants can do the job of national armies for free ‚Äď and without the costly and damaging effects of spraying pesticides.

Related blogs

Agro-Insight has written many blog stories on Local innovation and Pest management

Related videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Other videos we made that relate to ants used in pest control are:

Weaver ants against fruit flies

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Acknowledgement

The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Making a lighter dryer June 10th, 2018 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Fundación Valles, an NGO in Bolivia that does agricultural research and development, has developed a peanut dryer that uses sunlight to help prevent groundnuts from developing the molds that produce deadly aflatoxins. The prototype model had an A-shaped metal frame, raised off the ground, and was covered in a special type of light yellow plastic sheeting known as agrofilm, able to withstand long exposure to sunshine. The dryer kept out water, and with air flowing in from the ends of the dryer, the peanuts could dry even on rainy days.

Two years ago, in Chuquisaca Fundación Valles worked with farmers to develop cheaper versions of the dryer, making the A-shaped frames from wooden poles, instead of metal, and began distributing large sheets of agrofilm, 2 by 12-meters, for which farmers paid $14, half the original cost. Fundación Valles encouraged the farmers to continue adapting the original design of the dryer. In May 2018 I visited some of these farmers together with agronomists Walter Fuentes and Rolando Rejas of Fundación Valles, to find out what had happened.

When Augusto Cuba, in Achiras, received the agrofilm from Fundación Valles in 2016, he did not put it to immediate use. The weather was dry during several harvests, but during the rainy days during the peanut harvest in May, 2018, don Augusto put the agrofilm to the test. He took a plastic tarp to his field and laid it on the ground. He covered it with freshly harvested groundnuts, cut the agrofilm in half, and then placed the six meter length on top.

Don Augusto ignored the basic design of the dryer. He didn’t want to go to all of the trouble of cutting poles and building the raised platform of wooden poles. His design was much simpler and portable: as he worked in the field he could remove the agrofilm when the sun came out, and put it back when it started to drizzle again. The main disadvantage, however, was that the air did not flow over the covered nuts; humidity could build up, allowing mold to develop.

The original tent-like dryer has several limitations. It is expensive, and as don Augusto pointed out to us, it is a lot of work to make one from wood. At harvest, peanuts are heavy with moisture. The pods lose about half their weight when dried. So farmers dry their peanuts in the field, and sleep there for several nights to protect the harvest from hungry animals. A solar dryer must be carried to the field, yet these may be up to an hours’ walk from home and involve climbing up and down steep slopes. Farmers who are using the original solar dryer, as designed by Fundación Valles, are those who have their fields close to home. Yet even taking a simple tarp to the harvesting site would be an improvement over drying the pods on the bare ground.

Later I had a chance to discuss don Augusto‚Äôs method for drying peanuts with Miguel Florido, an agronomist with Fundaci√≥n Valles, and with Mario Ar√°zola, the leader of APROMANI (a peanut farmers‚Äô association). They were concerned that don Augusto¬īs design would trap in too much moisture, especially if it was misty all day and the farmer never had a chance to remove the agrofilm. We agreed that a dryer had to have a few simple agronomic criteria; it had to keep out the rain, keep the groundnuts off the ground, and let air flow through.

After discussing don Augusto’s case, we agreed that a dryer also has to meet some of the farmers’ criteria: it has to be cheap, portable and able to handle large volumes of peanuts, while keeping them out of the rain.

Aflatoxin contamination is a serious problem worldwide, and while it can be addressed, inventing a simple technology is hard work. Researchers start with a problem and some ideas to solve it, like air flow and keeping peanuts dry. But it is only after offering farmers a prototype that researchers can see the farmers’ demands. For example, designing a stationary dryer helps researchers to see that farmers need a portable one. Making and using a small dryer in the field highlights the need for a larger one. These types of demands only emerge over time, as in having a long, slow conversation, but one that is worth having.

HACER UN SECADOR M√ĀS LIGERO

Por Jeff Bentley, 10 de junio del 2018

Fundación Valles, una ONG en Bolivia dedicada a la investigación y el desarrollo agrícola, ha desarrollado un secador de maní que usa la luz solar para ayudar a evitar que los maníes (cacahuates) desarrollen los mohos que producen aflatoxinas mortales. El modelo prototipo tenía un armazón de metal en forma de A, levantado del suelo, y estaba cubierto con un tipo especial de lámina de plástico amarillo claro conocida como agrofilm, capaz de soportar la exposición prolongada al sol. El secador no dejaba pasar el agua, y con el aire que entraba desde los extremos del secador, los maníes podrían secarse hasta en días lluviosos.

Hace dos a√Īos, en Chuquisaca, la Fundaci√≥n Valles trabaj√≥ con los agricultores para desarrollar versiones m√°s baratas del secador, haciendo los marcos en forma de A de postes de madera, en lugar de metal, y comenz√≥ a distribuir grandes l√°minas de agrofilm, de 2 por 12 metros, para lo cual los agricultores pagaban $14, la mitad del costo original. La Fundaci√≥n Valles alent√≥ a los agricultores a seguir adaptando el dise√Īo original del secador. En mayo de 2018 visit√© a algunos de estos agricultores junto con los agr√≥nomos Walter Fuentes y Rolando Rejas de la Fundaci√≥n Valles, para averiguar qu√© hab√≠a pasado.

Cuando Augusto Cuba, en Achiras, recibi√≥ el agrofilm de la Fundaci√≥n Valles en 2016, no lo puso en uso de una vez. No hac√≠a falta porque hac√≠a sol durante varias cosechas, pero cuando los d√≠as lluviosos durante la cosecha de man√≠ en mayo del 2018, don Augusto puso a prueba el agrofilm. √Čl llev√≥ una lona de pl√°stico a su parcela y la puso en el suelo. Lo cubri√≥ con man√≠ reci√©n cosechado, cort√≥ el agrofilm por la mitad y lo coloc√≥ sobre su cosecha.

Don Augusto no copi√≥ el dise√Īo b√°sico del secador. No quer√≠a tomarse la molestia de cortar postes y construir la plataforma elevada de postes de madera. Su dise√Īo era mucho m√°s simple y port√°til: mientras trabajaba en el campo, pod√≠a quitar el agrofilm cuando sal√≠a el sol y volver a colocarlo cuando comenzaba a lloviznar nuevamente. La principal desventaja, sin embargo, era que el aire no flu√≠a sobre el man√≠ cubierto; la humedad podr√≠a acumularse, posiblemente permitiendo que se forme el moho.

El secador original en forma de carpa tiene varias limitaciones. Es caro, y como nos se√Īal√≥ don Augusto, es mucho trabajo hacer uno con madera. En la cosecha, los man√≠es son pesados con la humedad. Las vainas pierden m√°s o menos la mitad de su peso en el secado. Entonces los agricultores secan su man√≠ en el campo y duermen all√≠ varias noches para proteger la cosecha de los animales hambrientos. Un secador solar debe llevarse al campo, aunque puede tardar hasta una hora a pie desde su casa e implica subir y bajar pendientes fuertes. Los agricultores que s√≠ usan el secador solar original, tal como lo dise√Ī√≥ Fundaci√≥n Valles, son aquellos que tienen sus campos cerca de la casa. Sin embargo, incluso llevar una lona simple al sitio de cosecha ser√≠a mejor que secar las vainas sobre el puro suelo.

M√°s tarde tuve la oportunidad de discutir el secador de don Augusto con Miguel Florido, un agr√≥nomo de la Fundaci√≥n Valles, y con Mario Ar√°zola, el l√≠der de APROMANI (una asociaci√≥n de agricultores de man√≠). Les preocupaba que el dise√Īo de don Augusto atrapara demasiada humedad, especialmente si estaba nublado todo el d√≠a y el agricultor no pod√≠a quitar el agrofilm. Acordamos que un secador deb√≠a tener unos pocos criterios agron√≥micos simples; deb√≠a proteger el producto de la lluvia, evitar contacto entre el suelo y los man√≠es y dejar que el aire fluyera.

Después de discutir el caso de don Augusto, acordamos que un secador también debe cumplir con algunos de los criterios de los agricultores: tiene que ser barato, portátil y capaz de manejar grandes cantidades de maní, mientras los mantiene fuera de la lluvia.

La contaminaci√≥n por aflatoxinas es un problema serio en todo el mundo, y aunque se puede solucionar, inventar una tecnolog√≠a simple es un trabajo duro. Los investigadores comienzan con un problema y algunas ideas para resolverlo, como el flujo de aire y el man√≠ seco. Pero es solo despu√©s de ofrecer a los agricultores un prototipo que los investigadores pueden ver las demandas de los agricultores. Por ejemplo, dise√Īar un secador estacionario ayuda a los investigadores a ver que los agricultores necesitan uno port√°til. Hacer y usar un peque√Īo secador en el campo resalta la necesidad de un m√°s grande. Este tipo de demandas solo surgen con el tiempo, como en una conversaci√≥n larga y lenta, pero que vale la pena tener.

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