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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

 

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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

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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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Simple is beautiful March 12th, 2017 by

Grove seen down the slope copyA lot of time and effort goes into development projects, from writing proposals and getting funds through to building partnerships, doing the work and finally evaluating it to show that you’ve made a difference. Sometimes a simpler, direct approach is more effective, as my experiences with bamboo in Ethiopia have suggested.

I first learnt about the vast swathes of bamboo in Ethiopia twenty years ago. I was engaged in a pilot project to assess a largely untapped resource comprising huge natural stands and a patchwork of smaller plots dotted around peoples’ homes. Existing uses of bamboo included conversion into charcoal, building fences and making small household items, such as baskets. The resource assessment was the first step in suggesting profitable enterprises on a much larger scale.

Mats used for construction big building copyEach year the million hectares of Ethiopian bamboo produce new culms, as the woody, fast-maturing stems are known. There has been no shortage of ideas on what to do with this rapidly regenerating biomass. The most ambitious suggestion has been to burn bamboo and generate electricity. More modest proposals, though still requiring major investment, have included fashioning the bamboo into high quality flooring and decking for export to the North.

When I returned to Ethiopia ten years ago for a new bamboo project, I found little evidence of new enterprises or large scale industrial uses. The most striking discovery, though one that at first seemed commonplace, was the continuing operation of a workshop where people were trained to make handicrafts from bamboo. Some of the oldest ideas had been the most enduring.

Fuel bundles2 copyDuring the second visit I went to talk with a small group of shopkeepers who sold bamboo furniture to the better-off denizens of Addis Ababa. These were, as far as I could see, the same shops that had been present when I made my first visit in 1997. The shops were well-stocked with chairs, beds, tables and all the other furniture that middle class families were keen to have in their homes.

The furniture sellers and the handicraft makers were all beneficiaries of a much earlier initiative, some time back in the 1980s, when Ethiopia was run by the Derg, a revolutionary committee drawn from the army and police. The Derg admired the socialist ideals of China and one of the outcomes was a visit by Chinese technicians, who introduced Ethiopian artisans to new designs for bamboo arts and crafts. The Chinese supported the establishment of a workshop in a government-supported, small enterprises institute, where people were still being trained thirty or so years later.

In 1997, the bamboo furniture makers and the craftsmen seemed unremarkable to me because at the time I thought that chairs and baskets would never generate huge amounts of income. But as roads improve, cities expand, and the Ethiopian middle class comes of age, there is now solid demand for sensible furniture. Bamboo industries benefit farm communities with small plots, who send regular truck loads to the bustling workshops of Addis Ababa.

Save Generation Assoc staff and goods2 copyWhat of the other more ambitious schemes for bamboo? A quick search of the web for current bamboo activity in Ethiopia shows USAID giving a grant of $1.75 million in 2014 to ‘develop processes to make industrial and quality bamboo’. This grant will have a detailed proposal, plan of action and agreed outcomes, all requiring regular monitoring, reporting and so on. In other words, a hefty administrative overhead will eat into the available finds.

But this recent public/private enterprise may also mean that bamboo enterprises are finally going to succeed on a big scale – though there’s no guarantee that this will happen. Meanwhile the impact of a small gesture by China forty or more years ago to show solidarity with Ethiopia continues to reap benefits, an unexpected outcome of the otherwise tragic and violent period of Derg rule. Sometimes the most effective interventions are also the simplest.

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A common light December 4th, 2016 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

palm-with-lightsSocial media can be used to help manage a natural resource, as we saw recently in Bolivia. Every year, in Cochabamba, the municipal government puts up Christmas decorations, including strings of lights wrapped around trees. But no one bothers to take the lights down. A few still flicker from time to time, almost a year after being hammered onto the tree. The iron in the nails is toxic for the trees, and the nail holes are wounds that allow disease to enter. The workers climbing up and down the trees also damage some of them.

Cochabamba has a group opposed to cutting trees (No a la Tala de Árboles en Cochabamba). The group plants trees, holds meetings and raises public awareness through information. Members of the group began to notice these trash ornaments, and they knew that the wires and nails were bad for tree health. The city had already lost too many trees to construction, drought and disease (especially a phytoplasma on the China berry tree—Melia azedarach). Some members of “No a la Tala” posted photos of the dangling lights and brief notes on the group’s Facebook page.

tree-memeLocal groups can be quite large. This one has 13,025 “friends”, and they responded immediately. They coined a slogan, “put more lights in your brains, and fewer in our trees.” The newspaper and local bloggers began to run stories suggesting that old ornaments be cleaned up, and that new ones be more carefully done, and not placed in living trees. The city is slowly beginning to take action, removing some of the old strings of lights, and there is growing public concern that the ornaments can harm trees.
City trees are shared by many people, like any common property resource, such as the sea, or irrigation water, or grazing land. As the ecologist Garret Hardin noticed years ago in his paper “The Tragedy of the Commons,” (1968) a common resource is hard to manage when so many people use it. However, today social media can help communities to notice problems, and to organize themselves to create solutions.

Luces comunes

4 de diciembre del 2016, por Jeff Bentley

estrellas-en-palmeraLos medios sociales se pueden usar para ayudar a manejar un recurso natural, como vimos recientemente en Bolivia. Cada año, en Cochabamba, el gobierno municipal instala adornos navideños, incluso cables de lucecitas amarrados a los árboles. Pero nadie toma la molestia de bajar las luces. Algunas todavía chispean de vez en cuando, casi un año después de haber sido clavados al árbol. El hierro en los clavos es tóxico para los árboles, y los agujeros son heridas que dejan entrar enfermedades. Los trabajadores también hacen daño a medida que trepan y se bajan de los árboles.

La ciudad tiene un grupo, No a la Tala de Árboles en Cochabamba, que planta árboles, tiene reuniones y concientiza al público a través de la información. Miembros del grupo empezaron a fijarse en los adornos basurales, y sabían que los alambres y clavos dañaban la salud de los árboles. La ciudad ya ha perdido demasiados árboles a la construcción, la sequía y las enfermedades (sobre todo un fitoplasma en el paraíso—Melia azedarach). Algunos miembros de “No a la Tala” subieron fotos de la chatarra aérea y breves notas en la página Facebook del grupo.

luces-en-cerebroLos grupos locales pueden ser grandes. Este tiene 13,025 miembros y respondieron de inmediato. Crearon un lema, “pongan más luces en sus cerebros, y menos en nuestros árboles.” El periódico y bloguistas locales empezaron a publicar, sugiriendo que los adornos viejos tenían que ser limpiados, y que los nuevos tenían que colocarse con más cuidado, y no puestos en los árboles vivos. La ciudad lentamente empieza a tomar acción, bajando algunos de los viejos cables de luces, y hay cada vez más conciencia que los adornos hacen daño a los árboles.

Los árboles de la ciudad se comparten entre mucha gente, como cualquier recurso común, como el mar, el agua de riego o el terreno de pastoreo. Como el ecólogo Garret Hardin observó hace años en su artículo “La Tragedia de los Bienes Comunes,” (1968) un recurso común es difícil de manejar cuando tanta gente lo usa. Sin embargo, hoy en día los medios sociales pueden ayudar a la gente a fijarse en problemas, y organizarse para crear soluciones.

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