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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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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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