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Tuta on the move July 2nd, 2017 by

The tomato is a remarkably versatile plant, with a huge number of different varieties, most of which are easy to grow. It is a popular crop with many farmers, a reflection of the strong demand from consumers in many countries. But the tomato is also prone to many pests and diseases and physiological disorders. The tomato plant is closely related to the potato and both suffer from similar diseases, including late blight, bacterial wilt and a host of viruses.

Twine for tomatoes copyTomatoes tend to be grown in small plots or in polytunnels and glasshouses, so I still recall my surprise a few years ago when I saw my largest tomato field ever in Mato Grasso state in Brazil. Double rows of tomatoes several hundred metres long were planted on a gentle downward slope. A team of workers were tying the plants to twine stretched between large poles of eucalyptus set about five metres apart. A tractor stood by, ready to carry new poles along the rows

It was an impressive operation, though I worried about the efficiency of large scale production as I watched the workers working hard to remove vigorous weeds. I also saw a number of serious diseases when I walked a short distance along the rows. More recently, I came across more large fields of tomatoes in Kyrgyzstan, during a series of visits in Chuy district with Alieve Nur and colleagues. Alieve works for Ailana, a local food processing company that produces tomato purée and tomato juice and cans vegetables and fruit.

P1040311 copyAilana have 126 contracted out-growers, most of whom have started to grow tomatoes in the last few years. The fields were set up in a different way to those in Mato Grosso. The tomatoes were direct-drilled by tractor, rather than being planted out as seedlings. The method appears to work, though there were a few gaps where no seeds had been apparently sown – or had failed to grow. They were bushy tomatoes so didn’t need staking. Which is just as well, since the largest field I saw was 52 ha. Imagine a rough square with each side 700 metres long. It would take over 30 minutes to walk around all four sides.

The other unusual thing I noticed was the absence of any major pests and diseases and weeds. The tomato plants were only a month old so maybe this was too early in the season for infections and infestations to develop. Or maybe the crop had been treated with pesticides, though there was no direct evidence of this taking place. During my day out I was presented with odd bits of leaves that were drying out or showing minor damage. Nothing to worry about, I said. But when you have a large area of a valuable crop any sign of disease can cause anxiety and precipitate hasty spraying.

Damaged fruit cut open 3 copySo far Tuta has only been found in glasshouses around Bishkek. It is unclear whether it will cause as much damage in open fields as it does in enclosed spaces, where favourable conditions lead to rapid spread of the highly damaging caterpillars. Nor is it clear how a farmer with a 52 ha field is going to control Tuta. This is a huge area for putting out pheromone traps, for example, and an expensive task as well.

There is some hope that the long, cold winters may wipe out Tuta every year, though continuous production in heated glasshouses will provide a refuge and the insect has an uncanny ability to survive hard times and re-emerge to attack afresh. In the UK my colleague Martin McPherson suggested to me that the high risk of late blight in open fields discourages farmers from this method of production.

Demand for tomatoes is growing in Kyrgyzstan and the season is short, so it makes sense to maximize production from fertile soils in open fields. Water is freely available. Farmers will now be closely monitoring the current tomato harvest for Tuta damage. Fortunately, wholesale buyers of tomatoes, such as Ailana, are already thinking about how to help farmers cope with this new threat. For the many people with a small garden plot of tomatoes it’s less clear who will be giving them advice.

Reference

Esenali Uulu T, Ulusoy MR, Çaliskan AF, 2017. First record of tomato leafminer Tuta absoluta in Kyrygyzstan. EPPO Bulletin. doi: 10.1111/epp.12390

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A farm in the city June 25th, 2017 by

Orchard and fields copyAerial views of the fertile plains of Kyrgyzstan reveal a dominant pattern of long, narrow fields, endlessly repeated into the distance. The colours of the fields give some indication of what’s being grown. In early June the wheat is almost ready to harvest and the green swathes are starting to go yellow. Maize fields are lush, the plants growing vigorously. Cotton, another popular field crop, is still establishing and cover is more patchy.

Large-scale farming in Kyrgyzstan is no longer the centrally-planned, target-driven model of the Soviet era. Farmers may be free to plant what they want, but market forces still determine the range of crops that are economically viable. The demand for wheat is steadily increasing and cotton has ready markets in Turkey, a close partner of Kyrgyzstan.

P1040244 copyBut there’s much more to agriculture in Kyrgyzstan than field crops. One gets a view of a more diverse production as the plane descends to land at major cities such as Bishkek and Osh. The irregular spaces between the long, narrow fields are filled with mostly fruit trees. Orchards can occupy up to several hectares, particularly in Osh district and in the southwest of the country generally, but many are relatively small. A smattering of polytunnels (small greenhouses) around the outskirts of Bishkek points to a year-round capacity to produce vegetables, meeting some of the local demand during the long, cold winter.

Then, just before the wheels touch the tarmac, small plots of vegetables and fruit can be seen around many houses. One of the privileges of the work Jeff, Paul and I regularly experience is to meet small-scale farmers, but this is usually in a rural setting and not in cities. A quick glance at Google Maps shows that while the centres of Bishkek and Osh are densely packed, gardens are still a prominent feature in the spreading suburbs.

P1120610 copyMr Orunbai Dosmatov, senior entomologist at the phytosanitary laboratory for Osh province and guide for my three-day visits to the southwest of Kyrgyzstan, invited me to stay at the family home in Osh city. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was looking forward to learning more about urban agriculture. The family home was fronted by a vegetable plot about 25 metres by 25 metres, complete with tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, pumpkins and maize.

Just beyond this was an orchard of cherries, the trees laden with juicy and flavoursome fruit. Orunbai told me that a local trader would organise the harvesting for an agreed price. Running your own farm in addition to a full-time job requires careful management. Cherry picking is a time-consuming task, even with family members to hand. At the back of the house, lucerne (alfalfa) was being grown to feed the three goats held in a covered area attached to the side of the house. Hay was stored in an open loft for the winter months.

There were more fruit trees in a separate field on the other side of the short track up to the main house. Orunbai had one cow on a summer pasture. Water flowed freely through the garden, diverted from a natural stream that flowed from the hills behind Osh. Ironically, despite the natural abundance of water, the supply to the house was restricted and unreliable.

P1120626 copyA grapevine wove in and out of a high metal frame outside the upper floor rooms which I occupied during my stay. A tandoor oven below my bedroom window was used for baking delicious bread. Yet it takes a lot of hard work to make good, local food. The crops have to be planted, weeded and tended. The goats need to be fed and looked after regularly. The garden may produce 30 cabbages in one go and so the family has to sell them or preserve them for later. Fruit can be turned into jam, though there’s a limit on how much of this you need throughout the year.

Later I was invited to Orunbai’s brother’s house in Kyzl Kiya, the main city in Batken region and around two hours from Osh. I saw another intriguing mix of vegetables and fruits, with large baskets of cherries ready to sell.

P1040433 copySalaries are low so city farming helps salaried people, even highly educated ones, to feed their families, save money and perhaps even earn a bit of extra income. Some years ago, I watched people sell berries, mushrooms and home-grown vegetables outside Tallinn railway station in Estonia. The value of each vendor’s produce was little more than 30 euros (around $34), a small sum but clearly valuable enough to warrant the cost of setting up the stall and hanging around all day for customers.

Field crops dominate agriculture in Kyrgyzstan but there’s also a strong tradition of growing your own food. The shops may be full of fresh produce, a welcome change from limited choice and uncertain availability during Soviet times, but it is expensive. Producing your own food is a way to eat well and cheaply and to combine the benefits of city and rural life. Orunbai is rightly proud of his urban farm and is showing the way for his sons and daughters to grow their own.

Related blogs

To drip or not to drip (peri-urban agriculture)

Things ain’t what they used to be (Kyrgyzstan)

Smelling is believing (peri-urban agriculture)

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Nurgazy and Akmaral for assistance with translation. And of course to all the Dosmatov family who made my stay so memorable.

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Things ain’t what they used to be July 3rd, 2016 by

Patchwork fields at anglesHidden away in the vast mountains of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is a largely forgotten former republic of the Soviet Union which gained independence in 1991.

As I landed in Bishkek a few weeks ago I marvelled at the sharp contrast between soaring, snow-capped mountain, and plains with multi-coloured strips, mature fields of wheat and freshly planted maize, sunflower and other field crops. On the ground there are plenty of hardy fruit trees, such as apples, pears, apricots, plums and other stone fruits. I watched a family pick cherries from trees they had planted in a hedgerow, making maximum use of their agricultural land. Kyrgyzstan is still hugely dependent on agriculture. A short growing season means that farmers have to be creative. There is plenty of water, if you have access to irrigation.

I heard mixed stories about the profitability of large scale field crops, much of this linked to the phrase that cropped up repeatedly: “after the collapse of Soviet Union”. In the winter of 1991-92 state farms lost their support and the new Kyrgyz Republic could no longer count on the USSR to absorb its exports, leaving farmers exposed to unfamiliar, global competition. Cotton, a major commodity during the Soviet era, is still widely planted in Osh district, in the warmer south, though areas have decreased.

The Kyrgyz language is related to Turkish, and expanding links with Turkey offer new opportunities for trade. Savvy buyers from Turkey have introduced improved cotton varieties, as have the Chinese, only a few hours away by road from Osh. Foreign buyers provide technical advice and training to farmers. Turkey and China also sell agrochemicals. The private sector is taking up some of the slack of a once dominant state-controlled agriculture. Farmers welcome the new sources of support.

Israil, Myrzabamov Payzulla, Tumar, OrunbayRussia’s influence has not entirely disappeared. They will build and equip a new plant diagnostic laboratory in Osh, and advisors from Moscow were discussing the start of construction during my visit. As they arrived in shiny 4 x 4 vehicles, the similarities to a development project in Nepal or Nicaragua were difficult to ignore.

The agricultural scientists I talked to constantly said how difficult it was for farmers to afford things, part of a general post-collapse pessimism. But it is easy for those who work in laboratories to underestimate farmers. I saw farmers who were investing in their farms and who appeared optimistic about the future. In a recently planted cotton field near Aravan, on the edge of Fergana valley, I was impressed by the size of Israil’s farm, the health of his plants and a modern tractor working the land. Israil has been growing cotton for the last five years, after deciding it was more profitable than wheat.

Farmers now have the freedom to change the crops each season, no longer bound by central planning that may have limited agricultural potential but created a dull kind of certainty. And, encouragingly, there are newcomers to agriculture with no previous experience of farming. Tima and his business partner, Mirlan, had left secure jobs in Tima examines plantsfinance and telecommunications to start a strawberry farm, complete with drip irrigation. They asked me to examine some unhealthy strawberry plants in a newly planted field on the edge of Bishkek, the capital city. They were learning the hard way that small-scale agriculture can be risky, particularly when you are growing a crop for the first time.

Tima and Mirlan wanted a change in lifestyle and were attracted by the commercial potential of fruit growing. Tima and Mirlan had done their homework before planting, sourcing the best plants and following recommended planting procedures. But Tima also told me that strawberry farmers were not so keen to share information and experiences. After years of working in enforced collectives I have read that farmers in ex-Soviet republics value their independence. On the way back to Bishkek we met Dilmurat, an experienced strawberry grower. He was more than happy to talk about what he did. Maybe my presence made a difference, but I think farmers everywhere want to learn and the best way to do this is to be open and share experiences.

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