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A burning hunger June 24th, 2018 by

Towards the end of the dry season many families across the African savannas have exhausted their reserves of stored cereal crops. Vegetables are hard to come by in local markets. Bush meat is one way for rural people to supplement their meagre diet with protein during the well-named lean or hunger season. This is why development organisations have struggled for decades to curb the destructive practice of setting the bush on fire to hunt small wildlife.

One option to ensure some food and income during the lean season is to grow cashew and mango trees. But with increased labour costs and insecure markets, it is difficult for farmers to properly maintain their planted trees. Slashing the weedy and bushy undergrowth is often only done late during the flowering and fruiting season, by which time bush fires set by others may have spread into and destroyed entire plantations in no time.

Increasingly, development organisations are starting to realise that integrated farming systems and local value addition to food are the way forward. In a recently published video on the Access Agriculture video platform, the Beninese NGO DEDRAS neatly shows how growing groundnuts and soya beans in cashew plantations helps farmers produce a nutritious crop during the lean season, and thus discourage damaging bush fires. DEDRAS also made a training video with rural women on how to make cheese from soya, a good example of adding value.

In addition to tree crops, such as mango and cashew, farmer also manage other local species, such as nére (Parkia biglobosa) and the karité or shea nut tree (Vitellaria paradoxa). These wild indigenous trees, distincive features of the savanna, also provide fruits and nuts during the lean season. Neré and the shea nut tree have grown here for thousands of years and are relatively fire-resistant. Traditionally, néré seeds are dried, cooked and fermented to make “soumbala”, a local equivalent to bouillon cubes that brings taste to many dishes. But with an increased need for fuel wood, more néré are being cut down. While the fuel wood crisis has not received the attention it deserves, nutritionists have taken notice and have come up with a way to use fermented soya beans as a replacement for the local soumbala. This practice has been captured by the NGO AMEDD in Mali in a nice farmer training video, also hosted on the Access Agriculture video platform.

In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote about his experience with grasscutters in West Africa. Declining populations in the wild, along with the strong and continuing demand for meat, have inspired rural entrepreneurs to develop alternative sources. Across Africa one can witness how mainly women and youth have set up grasscutter, poultry, rabbit and other small livestock businesses.

The many training videos on small livestock, intercropping with legumes, and rural food processing offer viable alternatives to the hunting for bush meat. These enterprises may eventually prove more effective in reducing bush fires than lecturing rural people about their adverse environmental impacts. Positive solutions are always better at promoting behaviour change.

Related blog

Coming in from the wild

Waiting for rats

Related farmer training videos

Growing annual crops in cashew orchards

Preparing cashew apple juice

Making a condiment from soya beans

Making soya cheese

Parkland agroforestry

Harvesting and storing shea nuts

Making better shea butter

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Feeding grasscutters

Families, land and videos in northern Uganda January 14th, 2018 by

Enyang Bua Philips grew up in the remote Lira District of northern Uganda, an area which is only now emerging from the poverty and violence brought about by the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army. Philips studied agriculture in High School. Then he went on to earn a diploma in marketing. In 2016 he was one of the co-founders of the Lango Family Farmers’ Association, which he organized to help farmers with land, marketing and technical issues. The association has four staff and 569 members, including 333 women.

I asked Philips recently how he was able to encourage so many women to join the association. It wasn’t hard, he explained. The women were already organized in village-based, self-help groups, and when he told them about the advantages of belonging to a larger association, all of these groups and their members signed up.

Land grabbers are a serious threat to family farms in Uganda, where rural people are easily swayed by the promise of money. The land grabbing companies take land, strip it of its fertility by growing export crops, and then abandon the community. Philips and his colleagues teach the groups that they have the right to reject the land grabbers, who come to the villages promising money. “The land grabbers come in disguise,” Philips explains to the groups, telling them “There are no benefits, no money. (Not only do they make false promises), but when they go the land will be degraded and useless.”

Another way to protect the land is by ensuring that family farmers can benefit from it.

In March 2017, Philips read an article in the Farming Matters online magazine about the videos hosted on www.accessagriculture.org. He downloaded over 20 videos and has shown 10 of them to the members of the association. He takes his laptop to the villages. There is seldom electricity, so he uses his battery to show the video to groups of about 30 people. He starts by introducing the video; afterwards he explains and discusses it with the members.

Philips recently shared the video on managed regeneration of forests with several villages. Many of the local people were amazed to see crops growing among the trees. “Here people cut down all of the trees before planting a garden,” Philips told me over the phone.

While some of the Ugandan farmers still doubt the wisdom of growing trees and crops together, other local people have started experimenting with the idea. In each community, the Association helps people set up a demonstration plot, where they can try out innovations shown on the videos.

The farmer groups loved the videos on maize, on striga biology, and the one on mucuna, or velvet bean, a hardy legume that can be planted as a cover crop to regenerate degraded soils (such as the ones stripped by the land grabbers).

Mucuna seed can be hard to find in Northern Uganda, but these observant farmers quickly spotted wild mucuna growing on the edges of their fields. They are now gathering seed so they can plant it in damaged fields during the next rainy season, to see if they can bring some of their land back to life.

The internet is quickly spreading, but it will be a while before most farmers in Lira District are online. Meanwhile, a grassroots community organizer finds useful videos online, and shares them with groups of village farmers. That is one way that videos from the internet are reaching the most remote places.  This farmers’ association is not only helping farmers learn from videos, but also to understand the potential of the Internet as a source of knowledge.

Other blog stories about mucuna

The big mucuna

The big, bad beans

Other blog stories about northern Uganda

Winning the peace, with chilli and videos

Late night learning

The sesame cleaner

Watch videos in Luo

Luo is the language spoken in Lira and surrounding areas of Uganda and Kenya. Access Agriculture hosts 38 videos in the Luo language.

Honest farming November 19th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

You can’t teach a skill that you don’t practice, yet many agricultural scientists try to do just that, lecturing at universities or writing extension messages without spending time a farm. So I was pleased this week to meet a scientist who was getting on-farm experience, and loving it.

My wife Ana and I met Dr. Alberto Centellas on the small farm, about a hectare, which he works with a business partner in the Cochabamba Valley, here in Bolivia. We heard that he sold fruit tree seedlings, and we went to buy some. I had barely closed the farm gate when Dr. Centellas walked up to me, wearing a grin and a straw hat. Without waiting for introductions, Dr. Centellas (“call me Alberto”) began to show us his projects, passionately explaining each one.

Dr. Centellas is Bolivian, but he earned his Ph.D. in Brazil, in temperate fruit production. Then he worked for Embrapa, the Brazilian agricultural research agency, for eight years, followed by another stint at Proinpa, an agricultural research organization in Bolivia. Now he teaches fruticulture at the university in Cochabamba. Teaching and administration don’t always leave much time to spend in the greenhouse, so to hone his agricultural skills, Alberto works on the farm every Saturday.

He had planted new varieties of apples from Brazil, bred to yield fruit in warm climates. After just two years the little trees were head-high. The orchard was enclosed in a large net to keep out the birds. “We won’t harvest anything if we let in the birds.”

The Tahiti lemon trees were full of bright, round green fruits the size of walnuts. “These are seedless. You can just wash them and drop them whole in the blender, rind and all. They are perfect for mixing with cachaça (the Brazilian cane liquor).”

Besides lemon and apple trees, he also has a collection of pears, avocados, peaches and cherimoyas.

Like a lot of researchers, Dr. Centellas is regularly invited to conferences in other countries. But he uses his trips as more than talking shops. He also collects tree varieties. “But only from research centers,” he hastens to add. He gets new tree varieties from reliable sources where the trees are certified and guaranteed to be healthy.

The farm is also a serious business, called Tecnoplant, and it is state of the art. Avocado tree seedlings are expertly grafted and growing in the protected cover of a tidy greenhouse. Other trees have been planted in a small orchard.

Avocados are tricky. Unlike many trees, each variety belongs to one of several pollination groups, including A, B and AB. They yield more if the varieties are grown in mixed groves. Dr. Centellas has carefully set out one row of the variety Fuerte, and one of the variety Lamb Hass. The little trees are watered with drip irrigation and growing under plastic mulch, to keep out the weeds. This is cutting edge tree culture.

I ask Dr. Centellas what motivates him to invest so much time and effort in the farm. I thought he might say something about boosting commercial fruit production, or contributing to agricultural development, but I was pleasantly surprised when he said “I was teaching other people how to farm, and then I got tired of them asking me how many trees I had on my own farm. And I would have to answer that I had none.”

It is more honest to teach techniques that one actually practices. Farming helps Dr. Centellas to understand the real problems that farmers face, making him a better teacher.

Related blog story

Head transplant: The art of avocado grafting

EL AGRO HONESTO

por Jeff Bentley

No se puede enseñar una habilidad que uno no practica, aunque muchos científicos agrícolas tratan de hacer eso, dando clases en las universidades o escribiendo mensajes de extensión sin pisar tierra agrícola. Entonces me dio gusto esta semana conocer a un científico que sí ganaba experiencia agrícola, y le encantaba.

Con mi esposa Ana, conocimos al Dr. Alberto Centellas en la pequeña finca, tal vez una hectárea, que él trabaja con un socio en el Valle de Cochabamba, aquí en Bolivia. Habíamos escuchado que él vendía plantines de frutales, y fuimos a comprar. Yo apenas había cerrado el portón cuando el Dr. Centellas se me acercó, con una sonrisa y su sombrero de paja. Sin esperar que nos presentáramos, el Dr. Centellas (“llámeme Alberto”) empezó a mostrarnos sus proyectos, explicando cada uno con pasión.

El Dr. Centellas es boliviano, pero ganó su doctorado en el Brasil, en la fruticultura de climas templados. Luego trabajó para Embrapa, la agencia de investigación agrícola brasileña, por ocho años, seguido por un tiempo en Proinpa, una organización de investigación agrícola en Bolivia. Ahora enseña fruticultura en la universidad en Cochabamba. La docencia y la administración no siempre dejan mucho tiempo para estar en el invernadero, así que, para pulir sus habilidades agrícolas, Alberto trabaja en la finca todos los sábados.

Había plantado nuevas variedades de manzanos del Brasil, mejorados para dar fruta en climas calientes. Después de solo dos años los arbolitos estaban a la altura de unapersona. El huerto se encubría de una gran red contra los pájaros. “No cosecharemos nada si dejamos entrar a los pájaros.”

El limonero Tahití estaba lleno de brillantes frutos redondos y verdes, del tamaño de una nuez.  “No tienen semilla. Se los puede lavar y echarlos enteros al licuador, con todo y cáscara. Son perfectos para mezclar con cachaza (licor de caña brasileño).”

Además de limoneros y manzanos, él también tiene una colección de peros, paltos, durazneros y chirimoyas.

Como muchos investigadores, el Dr. Centellas es invitado frecuentemente a conferencias en otros países. Sin embargo, se aprovecha de sus viajes para hacer más que intercambiar información. También recolecta variedades de árboles. “Pero solo de los centros de investigación,” aclara. Recibe nuevas variedades de frutales de fuentes confiables, donde los arbolitos son certificados y garantizados de estar sanos.

La finca también es una empresa formal, llamada Tecnoplant, y es tecnología actualizada. Los plantines de palto están expertamente injertados y creciendo bajo la protección de un invernadero ordenado. Otros árboles se han plantado en un pequeño huerto.

El palto tiene sus mañas. A cambio de muchos otros árboles, cada variedad pertenece a uno de varios grupos de polinización, como el A, B y el AB. Rinden más si las variedades se cultivan en huertos mezclados. El Dr. Centellas ha cuidadosamente plantado un surco de la variedad Fuerte, y una de la variedad Lamb Hass. Los arbolitos se riegan por goteo y crecen bajo un mulch de plástico, para que no crezcan las malezas. Es lo último en la fruticultura.

Le pregunto al Dr. Centellas qué le motiva invertir tanto tiempo y esfuerzo en la finca. Pensé que diría algo sobre promover la fruticultura comercial, o contribuir al desarrollo agrícola, pero era una grata sorpresa cuando dijo “Yo enseñaba a la otra gente cómo tenían que producir ellos, y me aburrí de que me preguntaban cuántos árboles tenía yo en mi finca. Y yo tenía que responder que no tenía nada.”

Es más honesto enseñar las técnicas que uno realmente practica. El trabajar con sus árboles ayuda al Dr. Centellas a entender los problemas reales que enfrentan a los agricultores, y por eso es un mejor profesor.

Artículo relacionado del blog

Head transplant: The art of avocado grafting

 

Head transplant: the art of avocado grafting October 1st, 2017 by

Grafting is the surest way to get the fruit you want. If you grow a fruit from the seed, the new plant may not be the same as the one you planted.  Although grafting was practiced in ancient Greece and China, even American trees like avocados can be grafted, as my agronomist wife, Ana Gonzales, recently explained to me in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Ana has been grafting avocados for a couple of years now, in part because she knew someone who planted a grove of the small, but tasty Hass variety. He went to the trouble of flying in grafted trees from Chile. When the owner sold his land for a new housing development, Ana wanted to keep the variety going before the trees were all destroyed. She found an agronomist who ran a nursery and was willing to show her how to do the grafts. The second year she practiced on her own, and although she lost many of her trees that year, practice pays off and she’s pretty good at grafting now.

The first step is to grow the rootstock. We save all of the avocado seeds or pits at our house. We soak the pits in shallow water for a few days, before planting them in soil in a black plastic bag. It may take a year to grow into a seedling big enough to graft.

When you cut a tree you open the door for pathogens, so Ana starts by washing her tools in soapy water and disinfecting them with a weak bleach solution. She cleans the tools after working on each tree to avoid spreading fungi and bacteria which might kill the little plant.

I am a bit surprised when Ana takes the pruning shears to a flourishing seedling and cuts off its entire, leafy top. Now it looks more like a pencil than a tree. She uses a razor to slice a vertical cut into the stump of the decapitated seedling. This is going to be the rootstock of a new tree.

Next, she takes the scions, the small branches she has cut from the tree she wants to reproduce. When Ana began, she would go to orchards in the Cochabamba Valley to look for Haas avocados. She got several scions from trees still left on that housing estate that had once been an avocado grove. But it is better if you have the donor tree closer to hand. Freshness really matters in grafting.

The rootstock and the scion should be about the same diameter. Any mismatch in size and the two pieces of living wood don’t meld. Ana cuts the tip of the scion into a long, thin wedge and gently, but firmly slips it into the razor cut of the rootstock.

Ana says that sun and wind can dry out the graft and kill it. So she wraps a strip of paraffin tape around the wound, to bind the scion to the rootstock. She tears off a bit of newspaper, soaks it in water and wraps it around the top of her grafted tree, and then covers the newspaper with a small, new plastic bag and ties off the bottom of the bag, to keep it moist.

Ana sells most of the successful grafts, usually to family and friends. She sold one to a cousin and every time we visit we step out into the garden to check on Ana’s avocado tree, which is doing well.

 

Ana offers a guarantee. If the customer plants a tree and it dies, she replaces it. Most orchard deaths are due to careless transplanting or neglect. You never know what people are going to do to your little tree, but Ana gives her customers the benefit of the doubt and a replacement. She doesn’t want any disappointed customers. Human relations are fragile, like a grafted tree; it’s important to nurture them both.

Further viewing

Watch a detailed training video on grafting mango trees

An illusion in the Andes April 30th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

When five, roughly rectangular blocks appeared on the mountainside high above Cochabamba, I assumed they were just fields of oats. The pale green shade seemed about right for the feathery grain, and the cool climate was ideal for oats.

oat fieldsHowever, social media soon turned the checkered slope into a mystery.  Cochabambinos began writing into a popular website to ask about the odd shapes. Some rushed in with answers. There was even one far-fetched suggestion that the blocks were fields of ripening coca, even though this narcotic shrub only grows in much lower and wetter country. Some thought the patches were just oats.

Others said they were wild flowers, sprouting where fields had been left fallow. My wife Ana wrote to say that the patches were so light that they could only be the brilliant white flower, known as ilusión in Spanish. Her suggestion was ignored, so one sunny afternoon, Ana and I decided to check out the fields first hand.

Ana con las parcelas de ilusiónAlthough the fields with the mysterious blocks are as visible as a beacon, the Bolivian bourgeoisie are not avid hikers, and few of the city dwellers know how to get up onto the slope. We drove up one of the steep, narrow roads, peeked over a few ridges, and finally spotted the ivory-colored fields up close. It wasn’t quite like finding Machu Picchu, but it was delightful to see five little plots of ilusión.

Called “baby’s breath” in English, this hardy flower (Gypsophila muralis) is a native of northern Europe and Siberia, but has adapted well to the Andes, where it has become a poor person’s commercial crop. Baby’s breath has few pests and thrives on poor, stony soil. It is a low-input, low profit crop: a cheap flower that is complements and enhances bouquets of roses. A mourner with just a few spare pesos can buy a handful baby’s breath to take to a funeral.

The fields were surprisingly small, each just a few meters wide. They made up no more than a hectare all together. There were no houses near the fields, which were being tended by some absentee, peri-urban farmer, who trusted the isolated spot to keep his or her flowers hidden in plain sight, much to the bewilderment of the townsfolk below.  Every crop whether food, fiber or flower has its own signature color. A person who knows and loves plants can spot the difference between illusion and reality from miles away.

CUANDO LA ILUSIÓN SE VUELVE REALIDAD

Por Jeff Bentley

30 de abril del 2017

Cuando aparecieron cinco bloques, más o menos rectangulares en el cerro arriba de Cochabamba, me supuse que eran parcelas de avena. El tono verde claro parecía más o menos el del grano plumoso, y el clima fresco era ideal para la avena.

oat fieldsGracias a los medios sociales, los cuadraditos en la ladera pronto se volvieron un misterio. Los cochabambinos empezaron a escribir a una página web popular para preguntar qué eran las formas extrañas. Algunos se apuraron con respuestas. Había hasta una solución equivocadísima que los bloques eran parcelas de coca, a pesar de que el arbusto narcótico solo crece en zonas mucho más bajas y húmedas. Algunos sí pensaron que las pequeñas mantas eran avena.

Otros dijeron que eran flores silvestres, que nacieron donde las chacras se habían dejado en descanso. Mi esposa Ana escribió diciendo que las formas eran tan pálidas que solo podrían ser la brillante flor blanca, conocida como ilusión. Nadie hizo caso a su sugerencia; así que una tarde asoleada, con Ana decidimos descubrir las chacras de cerca.

Ana con las parcelas de ilusiónA pesar de que los bloques misteriosos son tan visibles como un faro, la burguesía boliviana no es muy fanática de las caminatas en el monte, y pocos de los citadinos sabían llegar a la falda de la serranía. En el auto subimos unos caminos angostos e inclinados, echamos un vistazo sobre algunos filos y al fin vimos de cerca los campos color de marfil. No era exactamente como encontrar Machu Picchu, pero nos encantó ver a las cinco parcelitas de ilusión.

La ilusión (Gypsophila muralis) parece delicada, pero en realidad, es un robusto nativo del norte de Europa y de Siberia, que se ha adaptado bien a los Andes, donde se ha convertido en un cultivo comercial de los pobres. La ilusión tiene pocas plagas y prospera en el suelo pobre y rocoso. Es un cultivo de baja inversión y baja rentabilidad: una flor barata que complementa y enriquece hasta a un ramo de rosas. Una persona que solo tiene dos o tres pesos en el bolsillo puede mostrar su respeto al muerto, llevando un ramito de ilusión al entierro.

Nos sorprendió que las chacras fueran tan pequeñas, unos pocos metros de ancho cada una. Las cinco no sumaron a más de una hectárea. No había ninguna casa cerca de las parcelas, que eran cultivadas por algún agricultor peri-urbano pero ausente, que confiaba en el lugar aislado para proteger a sus flores, escondidas en plena vista, desconcertando a los vecinos de la ciudad en el piso del valle. Cada cultivo, bien sea alimento, fibra o flor tiene su propio color único. Una persona que conoce y ama las plantas puede ver la diferencia entre ilusión y realidad a kilómetros de distancia.

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