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Spontaneous generation January 28th, 2018 by

A few days ago, I sat at my desk in Cochabamba, Bolivia, giving a talk over the Internet to graduate students who were taking a class in IPM (integrated pest management) at the University of Kentucky and the University of Arkansas. One professor, Rob Wiedenmann, was listening in from New Zealand, where he was on sabbatical, but still in touch.

I reviewed some ideas for the students about studying local knowledge of insects and plant diseases, and recent efforts to share ideas on pest control with smallholders via videos. I said that anthropologists have great respect for local knowledge, but those anthropologists had been looking at local knowledge of relatively large plants and animals, not pest control, insect ecology or plant disease. When I was in Central America in the late 1980s and early 1990s I was surprised to realize that Honduran smallholders didn’t understand how insects reproduced. The farmers didn’t know that male and female insects mated to produce fertile eggs which hatched into larvae. This gap in knowledge led to the farmers’ misperception that caterpillars that were eating the maize field had come out of nowhere, the result of spontaneous generation.

That caught Prof. Wiedenmann’s attention. “What can you say about US farmers?” he asked. He wondered what entomologists could do to help North American farmers monitor their insect pests. US farmers often don’t realize that pests are causing damage until it is too late to do anything about them. North American farmers don’t believe in spontaneous generation, but they might as well.

I thought I knew what Prof. Wiedenmann was talking about. I’d been reading Ted Genoways’ book This Blessed Earth, an intimate account of a year in the life of a Nebraska farm family, the Hammonds. These thoughtful, professional farmers were using state of the art technology, including harvesters that gathered in a dozen rows of soybeans at once while measuring the moisture content of the beans and following the furrows by using a GPS. But at harvest time the farmers were shocked to find out that stem borers had caused losses worth thousands of dollars.

I could see that sitting high up in the combine harvester could leave farmers with fewer opportunities to observe their plants. I wasn’t sure what to suggest as a remedy, but I said it is always good to spend more time with the farmers, whether in Arkansas or in Kenya, before jumping to conclusions about what they knew and understood, particularly when it came to pests and diseases..

“Yes, agricultural researchers are often leapfrogging over the lack of information,” Wiedemann quipped. Researchers rush to make recommendations for farmers, but without really understanding their perception or their production constraints.

Different styles of farming influence the ways one sees the world. US farmers have taken biology classes at school and understand that insects don’t come out of nowhere, but lack day-to-day contact with their crops. Tropical smallholders are often out in their fields, and are more likely to spot a pest before the crop is ready to harvest. Even so, most farmers the world over are busy and don’t have enough time to observe their crop regularly and systematically. This can lead to devastating crop losses. Whether farming on a large or a small scale, helping farmers to observe their crops better requires solid interaction with growers to develop and test possible solutions that work in the local context.


Thanks to Prof. John Obrycki for inviting me to give this virtual seminar.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Gonzalo Rodríguez 2001 “Honduran Folk Entomology.” Current Anthropology 42(2):285-301. http://www.jefferybentley.com/Honduran%20Folk%20Entomology.pdf

Wyckhuys, Kris, Jeffery Bentley, Rico Lie, Marjon Fredrix and Le Phuong Nghiem 2017 “Maximizing Farm-Level Uptake and Diffusion of Biological Control Innovations in Today’s Digital Era.” BioControl.

Related videos

Access Agriculture has over 30 videos on IPM, which you can watch here.

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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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Miners’ stories September 17th, 2017 by

Robert Gerstmann was a German engineer and professional photographer who spent much of his time from 1925 to 1929, and later on, taking pictures of the tin mines of Bolivia. There were only three tin mining companies in Bolivia then, and two were owned by foreigners. Gerstmann worked mainly for Mauricio (Moritz) Hochschild, who was also from Germany. The mine owners were eager to show off their work. Tin had replaced silver as the target mineral in Bolivia around 1885, and during the First World War the need for metal for arms had revolutionized Andean mining.

By 1925 Bolivian mines were largely state of the art, with massive diesel motors to power the mills and long cable winches to lower miners down the deep shafts. The mines were modernized with foreign investment and management, and fantastic profits from the tin went into just a few hands.

Taking photographs in the early 20th century was a clumsy business. The cameras were heavy and could only take one photograph at a time, using delicate glass plates. Gertsmann had to use a tripod and estimate exposure by trial and error. He had to develop the plates himself and make prints in his own darkroom. He was also an innovator, and in the early days of electricity he had found a way to run a cable into the mine galleries to flood them with light.

Despite the technical challenges, a skilled photographer such as Gertsmann was able to capture rich and detailed pictures. The owners gave Gerstmann the run of the mines, where the 30-year old’s curiosity took him from the head offices, to the tidy storerooms, the engine rooms with their monster machinery, and into the deep mines.

Gertsmann spent most of the rest of his life in South America, until his death in Chile in 1964. Recently, a group of Bolivian and foreign social scientists discovered Gertsmann’s photographs, including over 5000 prints, some original plates and 30 minutes worth of movies. Anthropologist Pascale Absi and sociologist-historian Jorge Pavez were intrigued by the scenes Gerstmann had captured and have published a selection of them as a book.

Absi and Pavez went one step further. They showed the selected pictures to retired mine workers, who told the story behind Gerstmann’s photographs. He wrote little himself, mostly noting the names of managers and engineers who appeared in his pictures. Laborers were labelled by their job description, e.g. mine cart operator.

Explanations by the retired Bolivian workers brought the photos to life. Two men are shown selling canned sardines and other goods in the company store (pulpería), created to entice workers to stay on the job as labor became more valuable. An engineer with a theodolite is measuring the length of the mine gallery, to tell how far the mine has advanced.  One photo conveys action and hard work, as a mine worker is shown drilling at the rock face. Yet a crucial feature is missing. The retirees explained that the worker had to pose, otherwise the drill would have made so much dust that one would have been unable to see the worker, even under Gerstmann’s bright light.

In another picture, a worker is drenched with water. A colleague has doused him with a hose to cool him off. It was often unbearably hot inside the mine.  In a moon-like landscape of dust and rock, women huddle in the cold to sort ore from barren rock. The retired miners can tell where the women are from by their distinctive clothing. For example, a woman in a white hat with a distinctive black ribbon is from Cochabamba. She has come over 100 km to take this job as a palliri (the Quechua word for the women who select the ore).

Photographs are a powerful communication tool which not only tell a story, but help to unlock people’s memories. Although the Gerstmann photos were taken to pad the egos of the mine owners, the pictures also reveal the lives of ordinary people from a bygone world of dangerous work and low pay, when shifts could be as long as 48 hours, and when injured workers were simply dismissed with no compensation. Photographers don’t always write very much, and by themselves the pictures don’t tell the whole story. But Gerstmann’s innovative pictures, when narrated today by people who lived through the times he recorded, have given us a rich and lasting record of Bolivia’s mining past.

Technical note

The digital photographs you take today may tell your story later. When I bought my first digital camera in 2001, Eric Boa taught me to label the pictures. I have labeled them ever since. The more text you include with your photos, the easier it will be for you and others to later read the story behind the picture.

Further reading

Absi, Pascale & Jorge Pavez (eds.) 2016 Imágenes de la Revolución Industrial: Robert Gerstmann en las Minas de Bolivia (1925-1936). La Paz: Plural Editores.

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Fighting farmers November 20th, 2016 by

Farmers belong to one of the most entrepreneurial professions one can imagine. They not only have to deal with the vagaries of climate and pests and diseases, but also fluctuations in market price, changing demands of retailers and preferences of consumers. As if this isn’t enough, a new threat is lurking on the horizon: farm machinery makers want to restrict the ability of farmers to mend their own machines, increasing costs and eating into farmers’ narrow profit margins.

fighting-farmers-1Generations of farmers have tinkered with tools and machines to make work on the farm easier. Those days may become history soon. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a United States copyright law, manufacturers such as John Deere want to legally stop farmers across the globe from fixing their own machinery if the design of that machine involves electronic devices protected by copyright. An extract from a recent Farm Hack blog post, “Farmers fight for the right to repair their own tractors”, summarises common fears about such property laws:

“While high-tech agricultural machinery has made the job of farmers more comfortable and more efficient in many regards, this same equipment has also proven to be a nightmare for farmers accustomed to equipment with simple control panels that don’t resemble something found on the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise. A generation of farmers capable of popping open the hood and fixing a broken engine with their eyes closed now have their hands tied. While much of the gruelling work involved with farming has eased, so has a sense of control.”

Complex, digitalised machinery designs and proprietary rights are hampering farmers’ creativity and independence, but a community of fighting farmers has stood up. For instance, Farm Hack is an online community of farmers, designers, developers, and engineers helping the community of farmers to be better inventors. They develop and freely share tools that fit the scale and ethics of sustainable family farms. Another initiative, the crowdsourced magazine Farm Show, showcases thousands of local farming inventions from the past three decades.

Initiatives such as fair trade, farm shops and other examples of short food supply chains show farmer creativity at its best. These innovations offer a better and more reliable income to farmers, instilling a sense of connection with consumers while retaining the independence that farmers cherish. The ability to develop and share innovations in farm machinery is an equally important part of that independence and identity that sustains the passion of one of the oldest and most noble profession in the world.

Related stories

Digital disruption on the farm | The Economist

Farmers fight for the right to repair their own tractors.

New high-tech farm equipment is a nightmare for farmers.

Inventing a better maize chopper

An image of future knowledge

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The future of agriculture is in the past October 23rd, 2016 by

With increasing urbanisation, fewer people have the chance to learn about agriculture. Our blogs tell stories that illustrate how it works, particularly through the experiences of farmers around the world.  But there are other ways in which the busy city-dweller can learn about crops and livestock.

precolombian-village-2I’m particularly interested in how young people learn about where their food comes from and the importance of agriculture to society. I’ve just been to the Museo del Oro Precolombino (Museum of Precolombian Gold) in San José, Costa Rica, a delightful place that many schoolchildren are taken to. It was an unexpected pleasure to see so much about agriculture and how early societies and communities began to move from harvesting nature’s bounty to growing their own crops.

The displays were in Spanish and English, clearly presented, not too long yet still informative. I read that from 2000 – 500 B.C. “agriculture encouraged the establishment of permanent villages and the development of … ceramics”. The horse did indeed come before the cart. Early crops included beans, yam and maize, still prominent in today’s diet. Coyol palm, whose sap is turned into an alcoholic drink, and pejibaye, a palm with edible, starchy fruits, were also shown and available in the streets outside the museum.

golden-frogThe museum displayed many exquisite gold objects, created to signify wealth, status and accompany their owners after death. There were fine ceramics on show, some used for ceremonial purposes, and a series of grinding stones (metates in Spanish) for making meal and flour out of grain. A photo-montage, as one exited the museum, showed indigenous people using techniques known from prehistoric time, including a Bribri woman grinding maize with a large stone. Such technologies are still in use today

Few museums in big cities pay much attention to agriculture, which is a great pity. Sophisticated systems for irrigation and storing crops were created a long time ago with skill and ingenuity, and deserve as much attention as visually appealing collections of artefacts, coins and costumes. At the Museo del Oro Precolombino you get to see both high art and quotidian endeavour. Without agriculture sustaining people and creating new wealth, there would be no fancy gold objects in the museum .

As Henry Hobhouse wrote in Seeds of Change, crops such as sugar cane, tobacco, tea, potato and cinchona have played a crucial part in shaping world history. The wealth of Great Britain is derived as much from trading in crops, as extracting minerals, for example. Yet you will be hard pressed to find much mention of agriculture in some of the great museums of major cities.

plough-model-detailAn irrigation channel is unlikely to excite a schoolchild, but I’m sure they would be fascinated by an amazing collection of miniature agricultural machinery I recently saw in the University of Padova in Italy. Lovingly worked in wood and metal, I marvelled at the fine detail of hand carts, grape presses and other examples of equipment used by farmers in Italy. There were five cases containing around 150 models, sadly languishing in a corridor and out of sight to the general public. We could all do more to showcase the industry, creativeness and intrigue of agriculture, not just in museums but in other public displays that everyone has the opportunity to see.

I found such an example in a small village in Cyprus, where the guide explained that he and a few others had wanted to celebrate the land and the dependency of local communities on agriculture. There were pitchforks, saws, axes, shovels and animal traps, as well as moulds for making bread. A timely and telling reminder that the things we depend on most for our survival and development come from agriculture, and that we should celebrate this more.

Museums dedicated to the past are a great way to showcase the evolution of agriculture and the shaping of societies. However, agriculture cannot really be fully understood without knowing more about the farmers of today. For example, the Access Agriculture video library offers everyone, including farmers or students, the opportunity to learn about agriculture and the people practicing this noble profession.

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