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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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Inventing a better maize chopper September 4th, 2016 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

It can take years to perfect even a simple maize chopper. Agricultural research is harder than it looks, as we see in this case where researchers also found inspiration in their students, in farmers and later in their customers.

The Center for Research, Training and Extension in Agricultural Mechanization, better known as Cifema, its Spanish acronym, is part of the public university (UMSS) in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Cifema started as a Swiss project in 1978 and has since split into an academic department and a company that manufactures and sells agricultural implements.

For years, Cifema specialized in animal-drawn tools, and made red metal ox-drawn plows that are now a common sight in the valleys of Bolivia. Much of Cifema’s work has been a long-term collaboration between agronomist Leonardo Zambrana and mechanical engineer Mario Huanca.

primer modelo corta forrajeIn 2004, Cifema set out to make one of their first motorized implements. With funding from the Swedish government, Zambrana, Huanca and their student Henry Cabrera made a prototype forage chopper for family dairy farms. The machine would cut plants into small, digestible pieces. With rising labor costs, the farmers needed a way to save time while making animal feed.

By 2006, the prototype was finished and Henry Cabrera had completed his studies. He took the machine home, to his parents’ farm in the remote, highland municipality of Pasorapa, Campero, Cochabamba. Two years later Henry returned to UMSS with new ideas on how to improve the maize chopper. The first version had been ingenious—the farmer would feed the maize stalks through two rollers into a set of four blades that would cut up the plant. But it needed to be more robust; it had small springs were easily broken and were a nuisance to replace.

So Zambrana and Huanca made a second, bigger version of the chopper, with no springs and with six blades instead of four. They took it to an agricultural fair in Cochabamba to show it off. A dairy farmer stopped to admire the machine and asked if he could try it out. So Cifema took the chopper out to the dairy farm, and demonstrated it.

The dairy farmer kept the machine overnight to try it for himself. Mario Huanca recalls going back the next morning to collect the chopper. He was astounded at the huge mound of maize that the farmer had chopped, but off to one side was a smaller pile of just the ears.

“Why didn’t you chop up the ears?” Mr. Huanca asked.

“I wanted to, but they got stuck in the machine, so I had to break them off.”

This was a problem. Henry Cabrera was from a farm so small that people ate all the maize grain, and only cut up the dry stalks. But the dairy farmer who borrowed the machine overnight grew special forage maize and the whole plant had to be chopped up, ears and all.

máquina enteraZambrana and Huanca made adjustments and by 2009 they had created a chopper with eight blades instead of six. It had fewer moving parts. Instead of rollers, the maize simply slid in under a plate, right into the whirling blades. Then they added a Japanese-made, gasoline-powered motor. The chopper cost 12,000 Bolivianos (almost $1,700), but it was so useful that eventually 50 families bought one, as admiring neighbors followed the first purchasers.

Cifema made further improvements to the chopper design as they saw which repairs were most often needed.  Cifema also realized that they needed to make the machine cheaper. Many of the dairy farmers already had a two-wheeled tractor. If that could be used as the power source the chopper could be made without an engine, saving $400 from the price tag. That sounds simple, but it requires a lot of original research on the pulleys.

Cifema is now figuring out how to run a chopper at 1000 RPMs, powered by a two-wheeled tractor engine that runs at half that speed.  Slow innovation is like slow food. Sometimes the ideas have to simmer for a while, but they are worth the wait.

INVENTANDO UNA MEJOR PICADORA DE MAĂŤZ

4 de septiembre del 2016

Por Jeff Bentley

Puede tomar años perfeccionar hasta una sencilla picadora de maíz. La investigación agrícola es más difícil de lo que parece, como vemos en este caso donde los investigadores encontraron inspiración en sus estudiantes, los agricultores y más tarde en sus compradores.

El Centro de Investigación, Formación y Extensión en Mecanización Agrícola, mejor conocido como  Cifema, es parte de la universidad pública (UMSS) en Cochabamba, Bolivia. Cifema empezó como un proyecto suizo en 1978 y luego se dividió en un departamento académico y una compañía que manufactura y vende implementos agrícolas.

Durante años, Cifema se especializó en implementos de tracción animal, e hizo rojos arados metálicos jalados por bueyes que ahora se ven por todos los valles de Bolivia. Mucho del trabajo de Cifema ha sido fruto de una larga colaboración entre el ingeniero agrónomo, Leonardo Zambrana y el ingeniero mecánico, Mario Huanca.

primer modelo corta forrajeEn el 2004, Cifema empezó a fabricar uno de sus primeros implementos motorizados. Con fondos del gobierno sueco, Zambrana, Huanca y su estudiante Henry Cabrera hicieron un prototipo de una picadora de forraje para pequeñas fincas lecheras. La máquina cortaría las plantas en trozos comestibles. Con alzas en los costos de la mano de obra, los agricultores necesitaban una manera de ahorrar tiempo mientras preparaban los alimentos para sus animales.

Para el 2006, el prototipo estaba listo y Henry Cabrera había terminado con su ingeniería. Él llevó la máquina a la pequeña finca de sus padres en el lejano municipio andino de Pasorapa, Campero, Cochabamba. Dos años más tarde, Henry volvió a la UMSS con nuevas ideas sobre cómo mejorar la picadora de maíz. La primera versión había sido ingeniosa—el agricultor metía el maíz entre dos rodillos hacia un juego de cuatro cuchillas que cortaban la planta. Pero tenía que ser más robusta; tenía resortes pequeños que se quebraban fácilmente y eran trabajosos de reemplazar.

Así que Zambrana y Huanca hicieron la segunda, más grande versión de la picadora, sin resortes y con seis cuchillas en vez de cuatro. La llevaron a una feria agrícola en Cochabamba para mostrarla. Un productor lechero se detuvo en admiración y pidió probar la máquina. Así que Cifema llevó la picadora a su finca, e hizo una demostración.

El lechero se quedó con la máquina toda la noche para hacer la prueba. Mario Huanca se acuerda de su visita la mañana siguiente para recoger la picadora. Él se quedó impresionado con el enorme montón de maíz que el agricultor había picado, pero a un lado había otro bulto más pequeño de solo las mazorcas.

“¿Por qué no picó las mazorcas?” preguntó el Ing. Huanca.

“Quería hacerlo, pero se trancaban en la máquina, así que tuve que sacarlas.”

Eso sí era un problema. Henry Cabrera era de una finca más pequeña donde la gente comía el grano, y solo se picaban los tallos secos. Pero el lechero que se prestó la máquina toda la noche producía maíz de forraje, y tenía que picar la planta entera, incluyendo la mazorca.

máquina enteraZambrana y Huanca hicieron ajustes y para el 2009 habían creado una picadora con ocho cuchillas en vez de seis. Tenía menos partes movibles y en vez de rodillos, el maíz se metía bajo una placa, directamente a las voraces cuchillas. Luego agregaron un motor japonés de gasolina. La picadora costaba 12,000 Bolivianos (casi $1,700), pero era tan útil que 50 familias se compraron una, a medida que sus vecinos se admiraban de la máquina y seguían a los primeros compradores.

Cifema mejoró el diseño más mientras veía las máquinas que sus compradores traían para reparar.  Los ingenieros se dieron cuenta que tenían que hacer una máquina más accesible. Muchos de los productores de leche ya tenían un motocultor, un tractorcito de dos ruedas. Si se podría usar el motocultor como la fuente de poder, se podría fabricar la picadora sin motor, ahorrando $400. Suena sencillo, pero requiere de investigación original con las poleas.

Actualmente, Cifema está averiguando cómo hacer funcionar una picadora a 1000 RPM, usando el motor de motocultor que se gira a la mitad de esa velocidad.  La innovación lenta es como la comida a fuego lento;  a veces las ideas tardan en servirse, pero valen la pena.

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An image of future knowledge January 21st, 2014 by

The master mechanic had a broad, intelligent face. His thick hands showed that he made a living working iron. He stood on his shop floor in Ixcán, in northern Guatemala, by the carcass of a rusty old tractor, dragged in from the sugar cane fields. The mechanic and his teenage assistants were rebuilding the wreck, even though they would have to make many of the parts themselves. Rural mechanics can be as creative and resourceful as the farmers they serve.

I asked if the mechanic had any diagrams of what the finished tractor would look like. One of the youngsters took a cell phone out of his pocket and displayed a photo of a gleaming new tractor. The master mechanic dismissed the picture. “I don’t need that,” he said, pointing to his head. “I know exactly what it will look like.”

But the young assistant had been so interested in his work that he had gone to an internet café and paid his own money to search the internet for that photo. After satisfying his curiosity he had the ability to download the image onto his phone. That was in 2011.

Six or seven years from now, youth that age will be the farmers and the small-town artisans, and they will be enriching their local knowledge and experience with digital information tools. They will demand more information and be able to do more with it than today’s smallholders and crafts people. One day villagers will download mechanical drawings, and perhaps videos on how to overhaul a tractor.

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