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Not sold in stores October 14th, 2018 by

I love supermarkets; whenever I visit a new country I think of the local supermarket as a kind of interactive food museum, with its own unique groceries on display.

But the supermarket also has a stranglehold on what we eat and grow, as I learned last week when I heard a talk by Lauren Chappell, a plant pathologist at the University of Oxford. Dr. Chappell explained that carrots come in white, pink and even purple varieties, in a rich diversity of sizes and shapes. We only think of the long, tapered orange varieties as the one and only true carrot because supermarkets will only buy varieties like Nairobi and Nantes, the stereotypical carrots. Some British chefs love the white and purple “heritage carrots,” but you won’t find them at the supermarket.

It’s the same with apples. Supermarkets only stock a handful of varieties, so that limits what even small-scale commercial farms can grow. On a recent visit to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gardens at Wisley, in southern England, I was delighted to see a whole orchard filled with 40 different kinds of apples. There was a large, bright pink variety, Rubinola, with a marvelous, spicy flavor, and a green Russet with a lumpy, almost toad-like skin, but an amazing, tart clean taste. These varieties, curated by the RHS, are rarely sold in stores, but keeping them alive is an important safeguard of our planet’s biodiversity. This rich gene pool is crucial for future efforts to breed fruit and vegetables that are adapted to tomorrow’s climate and to upcoming pests and diseases.

Preserving diverse food crops is also essential for a rich and varied diet. Gardens and small farms help to preserve our edible biodiversity.

Various institutions also encourage people to conserve genetic resources, for example by promoting farmers’ rights to seed, as we will see in next week’s blog story.

Other related blogs

Bolivian peanuts

From uniformity to diversity

Innovative processing (such as an apple juice factory on a truck) can help people to save time, and to maintain their orchards of local fruit trees (see The juice mobile).

Videos on farmer rights to seed

Farmers’ rights to seed: Malawi

Farmers’ rights to seed: Guatemala

Asking the right questions August 12th, 2018 by

I once saw a quantitative survey turn to dust, literally. I was a young graduate student in Tucson, Arizona when an older anthropologist asked me if I would like to write up the results of a survey she had conducted on the city’s largely Hispanic south side. She swung open the doors to her storage shed, revealing a large, cardboard box. When the anthropologist tried to lift some of the forms out of the box, they crumbled in her fingers. Tucson’s warm, dry climate is perfect for termites, which had carved their galleries throughout the sheets of paper.

For that anthropologist, going door-to-door with her questionnaire had been the fun part of the survey. Analyzing the results and writing up the conclusions were harder. In the end the termites benefited the most from the survey.

A few years later, I found myself in northern Portugal, on a questionnaire study of smallholder farmers. I was part of a team of anthropologists and economists who designed the survey form, a straightforward task – or so we thought at the time. But at 20 pages, the form took about two hours to fill out. To encourage farmers to take part, we said that their answers would make policy-makers more responsive to agriculture, which may not have believable.

After we surveyed six parishes in the Entre-Douro-e-Minho province I went to live in one of them, Pedralva. There I learned how much the survey had annoyed the farmers. One couple had missed their irrigation turn while answering questions. One prosperous farmer complained how long the survey took and said that: “They even counted the eyes of the chickens!” That was an exaggeration (we had asked how many rabbits and chickens people had) but a sign of how frustrating farmers found the lengthy, prying survey.

Even worse, the farmers mistrusted the survey’s intentions. The farmers assumed that the tax bureau would be informed of the results, so they claimed to have harvested a fraction of their real yields, inadvertently making their well-adapted farming systems appear unproductive.

Eventually I learned to write shorter, more focused surveys, and to enter the data every night on a spreadsheet. And prizes can help to take the sting out of lost time. Once in the Chapare, Bolivia my colleagues and I rewarded each farmer we interviewed with three kilos of mineral fertilizer, left over from an earlier project. They liked the gift so much that one of them took the survey twice.

Sometimes four or five questions are enough. In Bolivia I once worked with a project that gathered hundreds of farmers for three “technology fairs” to watch other farmers demonstrate new ideas such as metal plows or fertilized quinoa. At the end we simply asked the fair goers what ideas they liked and which ones they wanted to try. The questionnaire was so short that a dozen agronomists could administer it in a few minutes. We could get feedback from some 200 farmers before breaking for lunch.

Of course times have changed. Surveys in the city or in the villages can now be entered electronically on a tablet. The questionnaires being filled out today are immune to termites, and you can send them out on-line.

But one thing remains the same. People still don’t like to answer long questionnaires. When you fill out a questionnaire in person, the respondents may be too polite to break off the interview, but with an on-line version, fatigue sets in quickly. On-line surveys yield the best results when they are short. Some respondents are willing to share more during follow-up phone calls or emails (as we have seen in previous blog stories (Families, land and videos in Northern Uganda. Watching videos to become a dairy expert, and Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan).

Whether on-line or in-person, a few simple questions may be as revealing as a long and tedious questionnaire that tries too hard to gather information. If do you need answers to lots of questions, consider rewarding people for the time they give you.

Further reading

The results of the first Portuguese survey eventually contributed to:

Pearson, S.R., F. Avillez, J.W. Bentley, T. J. Finan, R. Fox, T. Josling, M. Langworthy, E. Monke, & S. Tangermann 1987 Portuguese Agriculture in Transition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

My community study in Entre-Douro-e-Minho:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

The short survey in the Chapare (where people received a gift of fertilizer for answering our questions) contributed to:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2003 Desarrollo Participativo de TecnologĂ­a en el TrĂłpico de Cochabamba. Cochabamba: Development Alternatives, Inc.

The results from the questionnaire at the technology fairs:

Bentley, Jeffery W., Graham Thiele, Rolando Oros & Claudio Velasco 2011 “Cinderella’s Slipper: Sondeo Surveys and Technology Fairs for Gauging Demand,” pp. 276-301. In André Devaux, Miguel Ordinola & Douglas Horton (eds.) Innovation for Development: The Papa Andina Experience. 418 pp. Lima: International Potato Center. Originally published in 2004 as AgREN Network Paper No. 138.

Bentley, Jeffery W., Claudio Velasco, Félix Rodríguez, Rolando Oros, Rubén Botello, Morag Webb, André Devaux & Graham Thiele 2011 “Unspoken Demands for Farm Technology”. pp. 302-324. In André Devaux, Miguel Ordinola & Douglas Horton (eds.) Innovation for Development: The Papa Andina Experience. 418 pp. Lima: International Potato Center. Originally published in 2007 in International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 5(1): 70-84.

The Common Stream April 8th, 2018 by

A few months ago, Eric Boa (who writes this blog with Paul and I) sent me an extraordinary little book, The Common Stream, by Rowland Parker. It’s a singularly remarkable history of Foxton, a village in Cambridgeshire, England.

It may be the most complete history of any village anywhere, which is surprising given how ordinary the village appears today. Yet Parker, who lived there for most of his adult life, used Foxton to represent changes occurring to agricultural communities over the centuries across much of England, and to some extent elsewhere.

Parker picks up his story in ancient times, when a certain Roman living in his comfortable villa near what is now Foxton, forced the native Britons to move their huts onto straight streets. This theme of rich, powerful men knowing what was best for the peasants would continue for some time.

By the fifth century the Romans had left, and the Saxons began their slow, leisurely invasion. Over two or three generations, they rowed up the rivers, stopping where they wished, and settling on the best land, where they farmed and kept what they harvested. But it was too good to last. By the 900s land was being appropriated by lords and religious orders. By 1086, 90% of Foxton’s 200 inhabitants had almost no personal possessions. Most of the land belonged to a nun, the Abbess of Chatteris, whose word was the law. The common people had no money, but lots of work. They were old by the time they were 40. The diet was coarse bread, gruel, cheese, vegetables, pease (peas and other legumes), besides boiled mutton, and boiled bacon with the occasional chicken, egg or rabbit. And lots of ale.

By 1250 two-thirds of the peasants were still virtually enslaved, but some had been freed and self-government began to emerge. The villagers elected their own officials, such as constables and “ale tasters”, a popular position that obliged the office holder to visit the homes of people who made ale and take a sip (or more) to see that the brew met the standards for proper beer.

The Black Death killed half of the people of Foxton around 1348. By 1485, perhaps in response to the enduring loss of population, or a growing sense of social injustice, the lords of the manor and the abbeys began to set their slaves (bondsmen) free. But it was only a partial freedom. Peasant farmers had to pay a large entry fee to the manor to occupy land and a house. Still, the change meant that common people had a little money to spend and by the 1500s there was a weekly market in Foxton, selling meat and butter.

Relative prosperity improved through the 1550s, when villagers rebuilt Foxton, crafting fifty houses that were so well made that by the 1970s twenty of them were still standing, including one that Rowland Parker lived in.

But rural poverty was an enduring problem. Sometimes the poor were whipped, to stir them into productive action, but that did no good. Paupers could be paid a few coins from the “poor rate,” a local tax levied on farmers. Destitute women were also employed to collect stones (for road repair) by hand from the frozen ground in the winter, by the cartload.

In one strange episode in the 1860s “coprolites” were discovered just under the topsoil in the fields surrounding Foxton. These were nuggets of phosphorous that could be sold as fertilizer. Landowners hired gangs of men “as strong as horses” to peel the earth back like a carpet, remove the coprolites, and put the soil back. It was a short-lived boon to agricultural wage workers.

By the 1880s most villages in England had a railroad station. People left farming, if not the villages, commuting to industrial wage work. This was followed by an agricultural revolution led by machinery and fertilizer. In the 1880s twenty men would harvest a wheat field with scythes, walking together in a line. By the 1970s one worker in a combine harvester would bring in the grain. Parker notes ruefully that from 1885 to 1970 crop yields quadrupled as the workforce declined dramatically. One man replaced ten. “There is now more farming done in Foxton than there ever was before and hardly any people are doing it.” Poverty was finally eliminated after the Second World War by the introduction of universal social welfare. Parker observed that people were better fed, better dressed and that all the children were going to school. Modern farming has eased drudgery and improved harvests. Life is better now than it was in the Middle Ages

Rowland Parker was Eric Boa’s French teacher at The Grammar School for Boys in nearby Cambridge. It was only some years after leaving school that Eric learned that the austere Mr. Parker had spent many of his weekends interviewing elderly villagers and translating local manuscripts from Latin and Old English.

In 2014, Tim Martin reviewed The Common Stream for The Telegraph, in a series on the A to Z of forgotten books. Martin called Parker’s book a “miniature classic of social history.” Indeed it is, and it is well worth reading.

Further reading

Parker, Rowland 1976 The Common Stream. Frogmore, St. Albans, UK: Paladin.

Related blog

Mending fences, making friends

Robbing land from the sea March 25th, 2018 by

The low-lying Netherlands is famous for its polders, the land behind the dikes, reclaimed from the sea. Beginning about 1000 AD, people made dikes, or earthen dams, to protect communities from flooding. At first the water was simply drained through canals, but with time the land in the polders subsided, and by the 1400s water was being pumped out with windmills. Thanks to hard work, investment and some clever engineering, people still live in and farm the polders.

Much of Bangladesh is also right at sea level and densely populated. So why doesn’t Bangladesh have polders too? I wondered out-loud during a recent visit last October.

“But we do! Bangladesh has many polders,” my colleague Salahuddin retorted. He explained that there was a string of some 123 polders over much of southern Bangladesh, an area where several large rivers cut the delta into finger-like strips of lowland.

The polders were built between the 1960s and the 1980s, first by the provincial government of East Pakistan, and later by the Government of Bangladesh, after independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Each polder is ringed by a low earthen embankment (basically a dike), sometimes just two meters high and made by hand. The roughly oval-shaped polders are dozens of kilometers in circumference.

The Bangladeshi polders are drained by an ingenious network of canals, radiating like veins from the center of the polder to the edge, where the flow of water is controlled by a sluice gate in the embankment.The sluice gate is a concrete structure with metal doors that can be raised by a hand-crank to let the water out during the rainy season, and lowered during the dry season to keep out the saltwater.

Originally the wetlands of the delta region had been sparsely populated by fisher-farmers who grew low yielding rice varieties that tolerated brackish water. The polders soon became attractive places to live and settlers trickled in. The people who were born in the polders tended to stay there and so populations increased.

Some of the polders have benefited from some sort of project, and have been reasonably well managed. By 2018 the better polders are like gardens, with comfortable farm houses surrounded by shimmering green rice fields.

The polders have had their share of troubles. Sometimes one of the rivers changes course, depositing a bank of silt next to the sluice gate, so the water inside the polder cannot drain out.  Other problems are man-made. Loggers float timber down the canals, and when the logs reach the sluice gates, the workers take the easy route to the river. Instead of hoisting the logs around the sluice gate, the loggers force the timber through the delicate metal gates, twisting and denting them so they no longer open and close. Wealthy, powerful people sometimes block the drainage canals to raise fish in them. Or they string nets over the canal to catch fish. But this slows down the flow of water, allowing silt to settle and eventually block the canal. The canals are as wide as a highway, and can be just as difficult to maintain. So once the drainage canal stops working, villagers are unable to open them up again without help from outsiders.

The polders are essentially a government mega-project, which sounds at first like a recipe for disaster. But as one drives along the top of a polder embankment, the muddy river on one side and the tidy green fields and villages on the other, it is hard to ignore the fact that the government got something right.

Ironically, country that is flooded during the rainy season may be completely dry a few months later. Various initiatives are now promoting dry-season irrigation for high value crops besides rice, and the farmers in the polders are avidly buying motorized pumps. In many places the rich, black earth inside the polders is now producing two or three crops a year of rice, mung beans, mustard, watermelon and vegetables.

Such changes in the farming system are creating more wealth for the farmers in those polders that are well run. But it will take collaboration, for local government to protect the canals and embankments, for the private sector to provide farm supplies and buy the produce and especially for innovative farmers, to continue re-inventing the agriculture of this marvelous, human-made environment.

Further reading

In characteristic modesty it was some time before my friend Salahuddin told me that he had written his masters’ thesis on the polders of Bangladesh.

Salahuddin, Ahmad 1995 Operation and Maintenance of Small Scale Flood Control Projects: Case of Bangladesh Water Development Board. Master’s Thesis: Institute ofSocial Studies, The Hague.

See also Paul’s blog from last week on coastal Bangladesh: Floating vegetable gardens.

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to Md. Harun-ar-Rashid, Guy Jones and many others for enlightening me about polders on a recent trip to Bangladesh, supported by the Blue Gold Program, with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands. Thanks to Harun-ar-Rashid, Ahmad Salauddin, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading and remarking on previous versions.

The tyrant of the Andes August 20th, 2017 by

Near my home in Cochabamba, Bolivia, there is a park named after the most famous Viceroy of the Andes, Francisco de Toledo. A statue of the stern Viceroy frowns at passers-by, suggesting that Toledo was a tough administrator, but a recent history by Jeremy Mumford confirmed just how bad Toledo was for Andean farmers.

Francisco de Toledo was born in 1515 and was raised in the royal households of Spain. In 1565 King Phillip II appointed Toledo to be the Viceroy of Lima, to rule in the king’s name over a vast area that is now roughly the modern states of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Toledo’s instructions were to reform taxes, improve government and introduce the Spanish Inquisition to South America.

Before leaving Spain for his new post, Toledo read through reams of letters and reports from officials and travelers archived by the Spanish crown in Seville. He concluded that the main problems of the Andes were “drunkenness and idolatry.” Drunkenness was simply drinking low-alcohol, homemade maize beer (chicha); idolatry was observing rituals, including the prayers and offerings that farmers made at planting and harvest time.

Other Spanish writers had complained about indigenous drinking and the survival of pre-Hispanic spirituality. Toledo’s innovation was to decide that the best way to exterminate these humble pleasures was not with an inquisition (individual court cases), but with a “reducción general,” a general resettlement.

Prior to Toledo’s arrival, the Spanish had resettled indigenous peoples in the Caribbean, Mexico and Guatemala, but not in the Andes. Resettlement was a harsh and elegant idea. All native peoples were forced to settle into planned towns of about 2000 people, laid out with straight streets around a plaza with a church where the residents could receive Christian instruction. It was easier for colonial authorities to keep an eye on people if they were gathered into a town.

Toledo arrived in Lima in November, 1569, and left just 11 months later with a large entourage of officials for a five-year tour that would pass through Cusco, PotosĂ­, Chuquisaca, and Arequipa, in what is now the southern Andes of Peru, and highland Bolivia.

Although the crown was losing enthusiasm for native resettlement, Toledo pressed ahead, forcing Andean farmers to move from scattered villages to live in towns which were often a day’s walk or more from their fields. This made it hard to do the agricultural work that was the basis of the tribute that native people paid the Spanish.

Demanding a tribute was an old idea. Before the Spanish conquest, the Incas had also taxed the local people, in goods and in forced labor, but the Incas had enough local knowledge to leave farm communities with enough food to survive. The Spanish lacked this intuition and tried to maintain tribute at high, fixed levels, even as the native population declined. The results were disastrous.

About 1.4 million Andean people were assigned houses in town and ordered to destroy their old homes. Toledo’s laws for resettlement show how he created new layers of bureaucracy to oversee resettlement. But few reports have survived on what actually happened on the ground.

It seems that many Andeans continued to live near their farms, with or without permission. Farmers might report to the town center just once a year for major festivals. Other native people resisted resettlement through the courts, appealing and often being granted the right to form satellite settlements nearer their fields.

In spite of resistance, resettlement meant that many small villages were indeed consolidated into fewer large towns. Famines and epidemics ensued, in part because the crowded towns spread disease and because after paying tribute, people starved on the meagre amounts of food left. As the population declined, many Andeans escaped their tribute obligations by leaving to find work in the cities or on Spanish haciendas (large farms). The people who were left behind had to work just that much harder.

A viceroy, literally “vice-king”, reigned like a monarch over distant American provinces, with the power to make laws, wage war, and sentence people to death. Communication with the Spanish crown was slow. Over the years, many wrote letters of complaint to the king. Some were justified, as when native peoples protested corrupt priests or the resettlement. Other complaints now seem laughable, as when the encomenderos (the heirs of the conquistadores) whined that Toledo had stripped them of their authority (but not their rents). Toledo himself eventually grew tired of ruling the Andes and begged Philip to replace him. Twelve years after Toledo arrived he sailed back to Spain in 1581, a figure so unpopular that the king refused to grant him a high office, the usual reward for a returning viceroy. Toledo retired to one of his estates, where he died alone.

Toledo was an unbending idealist determined to stamp out what comfort a conquered people could find in a drink and in ancestral rituals. According to Jeremy Mumford’s analysis, Toledo’s resettlement ranks as one of the earliest and grandest feats of modern rural social engineering, mirrored 400 years later by other miserable failures such as Julius Nyerere’s model villages in Tanzania, or the Soviet collective farms.

The resettlement also failed to achieve Toledo’s two main aims in the Andes: chicha is still popular and so are Andean rituals, at least in Bolivia, where burnt offerings to the Pacha Mama (Earth Mother) are widely and openly practiced, even by the Hispanic middle class.

Agricultural policies must be drafted by pragmatists, not by idealists. And parks shouldn’t be named after tyrants.

Further reading

Mumford, Jeremy Ravi 2012 Vertical Empire: The General Resettlement of Indians in the Colonial Andes. Durham: Duke University Press. 293 pp.

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