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Lazy farming September 3rd, 2017 by

In 1970, after studying Asian history and soil science at the University of California, 22-year-old Larry Korn boarded a ship bound for Japan. After travelling a bit he began working on farms, where he learned to speak Japanese and to love farming. A couple of years later, Mr. Korn heard about “natural farming” and a book, One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka. Mr. Korn travelled to Mr. Fukuoka’s small farm on the Island of Shikoku, in southern Japan, and spent the next two years working there and studying with Mr. Fukuoka.

Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was trained as a plant pathologist. He was the son of a village landlord who lost most of his farm during land reform after World War II. After working as a government customs inspector for a few years, Mr. Fukuoka decided to try to live a more natural life, and he returned to what was left of his family farm, just an acre and a quarter (5000 square meters) of rice fields. He was later able to buy 13 acres (5.2 hectares) of orange orchard.

Mr. Fukuoka began to question traditional Japanese agriculture, as practiced from about 1600 up to the late 1940s. Was it really necessary to weed, plow, fertilize and flood rice fields? Mr. Fukuoka experimented to see which of these practices could be skipped and eventually concluded that he could eliminate them all.

Instead, in the fall before harvesting the rice Mr. Fukuoka would broadcast rye seed in one rice field and barley seed into another field of standing rice. He always kept white clover growing in these fields, to fix nitrogen and suppress weeds. The rye and barley seeds would fall between the growing rice plants, among the clover and the weeds. When he harvested the rice, the rye and the barley plants would still be small, but would start to grow faster without the shade of the rice. After threshing the rice he would spread the straw back in the field as mulch, to keep the weeds down. The rye and barley would grow all winter, and a couple of weeks before harvesting them, Mr. Fukuoka would broadcast rice in the rye and barley, and after harvesting the rye and barley, the young rice plants would start to grow more vigorously. He harvested all his grain by hand, with sickles, with the help of family and students.

After two years of working on the farm, Larry Korn helped translate One-Straw Revolution to English, and found a publisher in the USA (Rodale Press). In 1979 Larry Korn hosted Mr. Fukuoka on his first trip to the USA, where he became a kind of celebrity, later making trips to India and other countries as well.

Forty years later, in 2015, Larry Korn treated the public to a delightful book about his experiences with Mr. Fukuoka.

Mr. Fukuoka’s “natural farming” was largely his own invention. It was not traditional Japanese agriculture which, to paraphrase Larry Korn, was lots of compost and lots of work. In his charming, self-effacing way, Mr. Fukuoka said that he was trying to avoid some of that work. He said that his style of agriculture could be called “lazy farming.” Even so, harvesting a grain field with sickles is a huge amount of work, especially since by the 1970s they could have used machinery. Larry Korn says that there were about five students on the Fukuoka Farm at any one time, and they were all working pretty hard. That is a lot of labor, actually, on such a small farm. But his rice yields were not bad, 5.9 tons per hectare, which was the average rice yield for Japan in 1979, according to Ricepedia.org. He was also building up the soil, forming a thick layer of rich, black earth, alive with earthworms.

I have made compost for nearly thirty years. I love the way it converts orange rinds, egg shells and old newspapers into rich, natural fertilizer. But as I was reading about natural farming, I realized that making compost really is a lot of work. At our house we usually cheat, and hire a day laborer to dig out the compost pit. We still make compost from kitchen scraps, but now we have started leaving the cut weeds in the garden as mulch, instead of tossing them into the compost pit. As soon as we started mulching we noticed that there was less weeding to do. And that is the mark of a good book: it gives you new ideas to think about.

Further reading

Korn, Larry 2015 One-Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green. 224 pp.

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Five heads think better than one July 9th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Innovation fairs are becoming a popular way to showcase agricultural invention, and to link some original thinkers with a wider community.

On the 28th of June I was at an innovation fair in Cochabamba, held in a ballroom that is usually rented for weddings and big parties, but with some tweaking it was a fine space for farmers and researchers to meet. Each organization had a table where they could set out products or samples, with their posters displayed behind the presenters.

For example, at one table, I met a dignified, white-haired agronomist, Gonzalo Zalles who explained his work with “deep beds” for raising healthy, odorless pigs. I told Mr. Zalles about some pigs I had seen in Uganda (Smelling is believing), but Eng. Zalles explained that he makes a slightly more sophisticated bed. He starts by digging a pit, then adding a thin layer of lime to the base, followed by a layer of sand. In Uganda, some innovative farmers raise pigs on wood shavings, but Zalles uses rice husks as the final layer. He says they are more absorbent than wood shavings.

I asked if he added Effective Microorganisms (a trademarked brand of yeast and other microbes that are used widely, not just in Uganda, but also to make bokashi fertilizer in Nepal, see The bokashi factory). But no, in Bolivia, swine farmers are using a mix of bacteria and yeast called BioBull, which is made by Biotop, a subsidiary of the Proinpa Foundation in Cochabamba.

José Olivera CamachoAt a nearby stall I caught up with José Olivera of Biotop who was displaying not just BioBull, but other biological products as well, including insecticides and fungicides for organic agriculture. José travels all over the Bolivian Altiplano selling these novel inputs to farmers. He may soon have another product to sell, if research goes to plan at the Panaseri Company, in Cochabamba. Panaseri collaborates with Proinpa to produce food products from the lupine bean, packaged for supermarkets under the brand Tarwix.  At the Panaseri stand, Norka Ojeda, a Proinpa communicator, explained that the Tarwix factory buys lupine beans (tarwi) from farmers and washes out the poisonous alkaloids, rendering the nutritious tarwi safe to eat. (Read more about lupines at Crop with an attitude).

tarwixThe people at Panaseri originally disposed of the alkaloids without any treatment. But they became concerned about the environmental impact, so they installed filters at their plant to remove the toxins from the water. Now researchers at Biotop are studying the possibility of using the alkaloids as ingredients in new botanical insecticides.

Linking researchers to farmers’ associations and companies seems to be bearing fruit. Raising swine without the bad smell is crucial for keeping livestock near cities, where it is easy to get supplies and the market for the final product is nearby. Inventing new bio-pesticides is key to keeping chemical poisons out of our food.  Many heads think better than one.

Acknowledgements

The innovation fair was hosted by FundaciĂłn Valles, Fundesnap and other partners of the Fondo de InnovaciĂłn on 28 June 2017, with funding from Danida (Danish Aid).

Further viewing

Watch a video on tarwi here.

CINCO CABEZAS PIENSAN MEJOR QUE UNA

Las ferias de innovación se están volviendo una manera popular de mostrar la invención agrícola, y para organizar a algunas personas creativas en una comunidad mayor.

El 28 de junio asistí a una feria de innovación en Cochabamba, en un salón de eventos que normalmente se alquila para bodas y quinceañeras, pero con algunos ajustes sirvió perfectamente para el encuentro de agricultores e investigadores. Cada organización tenía una mesa donde podían mostrar sus productos o muestras, con sus pósteres a la vista detrás de los interesados.

Por ejemplo, en una mesa conocí a un destacado agrónomo con una cabellera blanca, Gonzalo Zalles quien explicó su trabajo con “camas profundas” para criar a chanchos sanos sin olores. Le conté al Ing. Zalles de los cerdos que yo había visto en Uganda (Smelling is believing), pero él explicó que él hace una cama un poco más sofisticada. Empieza cavando una fosa, agregando una capa de cal y una de arena. En Uganda, Algunos agricultores innovadores crían a los cerdos en aserrín, pero el Ing. Zalles usa cáscara de arroz como la última capa. Él dice que es más absorbente que el aserrín.

Le pregunté si él agregaba los Microorganismos Efectivos (una marca registrada de levadura con otros microbios que se usa ampliamente, no solo en Uganda, sino también para hacer fertilizante tipo bokashi en Nepal, vea The bokashi factory). Pero no, en Bolivia, los porcicultores usan una mezcla de bacteria con levadura llamada BioBull, un producto de Biotop, que es un subsidiario de la Fundación Proinpa en José Olivera CamachoCochabamba.

En otra mesa encontré a José Olivera de Biotop quien mostraba no solo el BioBull, sino otros productos biológicos, incluso insecticidas y fungicidas para la agricultura orgánica. José viaja por todo el Altiplano boliviano vendiendo esos insumos novedosos a los agricultores. Él pronto tendrá otro producto para vender, si la investigación va bien con la compañía Panaseri, en Cochabamba. Panaseri colabora con Proinpa para producir empaquetar tarwi (lupino) para supermercados, bajo la marca Tarwix.  En el stand de Panaseri, Norka Ojeda, comunicadora de Proinpa, explicó que la fábrica de Tarwix compra tarwi de los productores y lava los venenosos alcaloides, para que el nutritivo tarwi sea sano para comer. (Lea más sobre el tarwi aquí: Cultivo con carácter fuerte).

tarwixLa fábrica de Panaseri tiene que descartar los alcaloides, pero la empresa se cuestionó del impacto ambiental, así que instalaron filtros en su planta para quitar las toxinas del agua. Ahora los investigadores de Biotop están estudiando la posibilidad de usar los alcaloides como ingredientes en nuevos insecticidas botánicos.

Vincular los investigadores con asociaciones de productores y empresas parece dar fruto. Criar cerdos sin malos olores es crucial para la porcicultura cerca de las ciudades, donde es conveniente comprar la comida de los cerdos y vender los productos finales. El invento de nuevos bio-plaguicidas es clave para evitar de envenenar nuestra comida. SĂ­ parece que varias cabezas piensan mejor que una sola.

Agradecimientos

La Feria de InnovaciĂłn fue auspiciada por la FundaciĂłn Valles, Fundesnap y otros socios del Fondo de InnovaciĂłn el 28 de junio del 2017, con financiamiento de Danida (Ayuda Danesa).

Para ver más

Vea el video sobre tarwi aquĂ­.

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Finding solutions May 28th, 2017 by

Farmers may doubt the worth of an innovation, until they meet other people who have tried the idea on their own land. In 2015, the village of Korelach in West Pokot, Kenya, was suffering. The land was so eroded and degraded that it was getting difficult to raise crops. Many people were leaving the community. Then they got some help from researchers at the nearby University of Eldoret, who were looking for a community with challenging soil erosion problems. The researchers soon realized that the immediate culprit was sand extraction. Brokers from the city would come and load a lorry with sand in the dry river bed. A crew of local men could earn 3000 shillings ($30) for shoveling the truck full of sand, but no other villagers benefited. The sand would be sold in nearby cities for up to 60,000 shillings ($600), to use for construction.

carrying pale of water on headAs more sand was extracted, the dry river bed became a gully so deep that people could hardly walk to the other side of it. It was getting increasingly difficult to cross the river to farm or visit neighbors. When the researchers explained to the villagers how much the brokers were earning from the sand, the villagers said “We cannot let this gully hold us off; we need to hold on to it and fight it off.”

The villagers banded together and stopped the sand digging. With the next rainy season, the pits in the riverbed began to fill up with sand. The gully became easier to cross, and the riverbank stabilized. A minister from a church in Korelach convinced the local government to drill a well (a borehole) on the river bank, where women could pump their own water close to home, and avoid long walks to fetch water.

This success created enough trust for the researchers to propose new soil and water conservation techniques for the village. In May, 2016 the university took five farmers from Korelach to Tigray, Ethiopia, to learn about the new techniques. However, the results were disappointing: in part because the Kenyan farmers had to speak to their Ethiopian peers through interpreters, but also because the expense of international travel meant that the project could only take a few Kenyan farmers.

On their return, the five farmers were unable to convince the rest of the community to try the new techniques. The other villages had not been to Ethiopia, and were still skeptical that the land could be improved with simple techniques.

Then in December 2016, the researchers tried a different tactic. They took a whole bus load of farmers from Korelach to Machakos, on the other side of Kenya. This had several advantages, explained Professor Wilson Ng’etich of the University of Eldoret. First, the bus could hold more people, so women and youth were able to go on the trip, while only senior men had been to Ethiopia. Second, most Kenyans speak Kiswahili in addition to their local language, so the farmers from Korelach could speak freely to farmers in Machakos.

The farmers from Korelach were impressed with what they saw: “Those guys in Machakos have worse land than us, but they are taking better care of it than we are.”

After the visit, researchers were able to help the people of Korelach set up their own experiments with soil and water conservation, such as small, hand-made earthen “sand dams” to slow the rain runoff, so water would soak into the soil instead of washing it away. The farmers also tried cover crops, such as legumes that build soil fertility by fixing nitrogen and leaving biomass on the soil.

Now Korelach is ready to try other ideas, such as planting fruit trees and multi-purpose legumes (that not only enrich the soil, but also feed people).

“We didn’t want to be the solution bringers. We wanted to strengthen the idea that villagers can solve their own problems,” explained Dr. Syphylline Kebeney of the University of Eldoret.

The farmers are also starting to get a more positive vision of the future. One farmer could imagine her fruit trees so vividly that she said “I’m seeing myself with a gunny bag full of mangos on my back going to market.”

This experience shows that cross-site visits can spark farmers’ interest to overcome their own discouragement, engage in collaborative research and see a different future for their land.

Acknowledgement

The work in Korelach was sponsored by the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) of the McKnight Foundation.

Further reading

Watching other farmers on a video can often be as convincing as a meeting in real life, as we have seen in some earlier stories.

Call anytime

Stop erosion

Friends you can trust

New crops for Mr. Mpinda

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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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