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Wilson Popenoe: plant explorer and educator June 4th, 2017 by

Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) is the only agricultural scientist to ever win a Nobel Prize (for peace, in 1970). Borlaug developed short-stem (dwarf) wheat varieties that were high yielding and disease resistant, a hugely significant scientific advance for the world’s leading staple crop. But the award was as much for his dogged efforts to distribute improved wheat seeds to India and Pakistan at a time when millions were at risk from famine, and both countries were at war.

Popenoe 2Borlaug’s Noble Prize ensured global recognition of his achievements and continues to be a role model for many researchers. However, there have been many others in agriculture who have inspired students and made important scientific advances and who should be better known. One such example is the American plant explorer and educator Wilson Popenoe (1892-1975).

I first came across Wilson Popenoe’s name during a visit to the Pan-American School of Agriculture in Zamorano, Honduras, in the early 1990s. An impressive campus and bustling student population exuded a real sense of zeal for agriculture. Here was a thriving centre for producing graduates who would return to their homes from Mexico to Peru and beyond, where they would start their own agricultural enterprises or strengthen existing ones with new ideas.

“El Zamorano”, as the school is commonly known, was the creation of Popenoe in many ways, although it was first proposed by Samuel Zemurray, the president of the United Fruit Company, who wanted to give something back to the countries of Central America, whose soils and climate were the foundation for the company’s wealth. El Zamorano was established in the central highlands of Honduras, far away from the profitable banana plantations on the north coast. The idea was that the school could work on other important crops such as maize and coffee and avoid becoming a place to train banana agronomists.

Popenoe 7When Popenoe became the first director of El Zamorano in 1941 (the school did not officially open until 1943), he had already worked for the United Fruit Company for many years. He retired in 1957, having made a lasting contribution to the training of thousands of students and establishing a first class educational facility that was much admired throughout Central and South America. Popenoe’s early career, before he joined the United Fruit Company in 1925, is less well known, though arguably led to equally important achievements.

His first job was as a plant explorer for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Popenoe was a protégé of David Fairchild, the first director of the Office of Seed and Plant Introductions, and himself a seasoned plant explorer. Popenoe left the USDA in 1925, having become fed up with the bureaucracy that kept him from the field work he loved. He relished hunting down new crop varieties and spent months carefully documenting the botanical and food characteristics of specimens on lengthy travels, often on horseback.

Popenoe worked sympathetically with local farmers to learn what they knew about different crops. An intriguing quote in Frederic Rosengarten’s biography of Popenoe reveals a keen awareness of farmers’ ingenuity: “Important food crops will be found as a rule,” said Popenoe, “from a region where their value (has already been) realized.” Popenoe recognized that farmers experimented, testing, selecting and propagating the best varieties.

Popenoe2Popenoe is best known for his work on avocados, meticulously recording new varieties in Central America. He also prospected for cinchona (the tree that produces quinine), citrus and many other tropical fruits during his extensive career. The most impressive thing about Popenoe was his dedication and persistence, coupled with a restless curiosity. He was largely self-taught, having rejected a scholarship to Cornell in favour of becoming a plant explorer.

There have been many plant explorers over the years, but relatively few who have focused on plants of economic importance and dedicated their whole life to them. Before he became a USDA plant explorer Popenoe had already been to Iraq and North Africa, aged 20, to collect date palms, dodging bullets as warring tribes fought over land and overcoming the loss of plants that perished before they could be shipped to the US. He suffered from malaria and dysentery many times yet still he persisted in his hunt for new crop varieties. He spoke five languages fluently and worked hard all his life for a better agriculture, through science and education.

Popenoe was hugely influenced in his early years by the endeavours of plant explorers such as Spruce and thrilled “at the tale of Lieutenant Bligh and his voyage in the Bounty, to bring the breadfruit tree from Tahiti to the West Indies.” Popenoe would doubtless be pleased to learn that his own remarkable endeavours were an inspiration for future agricultural scientists.

Reference

Rosengarten F (1991). Wilson Popenoe: agricultural explorer, educator, and friend of Latin America. National Tropical Botanic Garden, Hawaii. (photos that appear above have been scanned from this book)

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Teach your children well (with cocoa) January 22nd, 2017 by

Children in the UK know more about the developing world than ever before. Some of what they hear is exceptional, with brutal conflicts and spectacular natural disasters grabbing headlines. Fortunately, schools try to give a more complete view of life in poor countries, even if learning about major social problems– poverty, malnutrition for example –inevitably paints a rather bleak picture.

YPG cocoa opening slide copy reducedWhen I was asked recently to talk to primary school pupils, I decided to focus on a tropical food crop. I chose cocoa. Everyone likes chocolate, especially children. My aim was to explain how the plant was grown and beans were produced and sold, discussing the people involved at different stages in an attempt to explain why agriculture is so important.

In a small town 100 miles north of London, I reckoned few if any in my class of ten year-olds would know the cocoa plant. But I checked before starting the two-hour session, just in case. Sure enough, one girl had seen a cocoa tree in a greenhouse in a botanic garden. We began by making a long list of things that contained cocoa, including cocoa butter. We then discussed countries where cocoa was grown, using maps I provided.

The children quickly realised that cocoa grows close to the equator, because, as one girl said, “that’s where you get tropical rain forests – and they store lots of rain”. We went through the list of cocoa-producing countries. No one had heard of Guatemala, but several boys knew about Togo, because of another more famous export: professional footballers.

Emily or Emma helps the kids copyI planned an illustrated journey, going in stages from planting seed to producing cocoa beans, first showing large pictures on a screen before getting the children to look more carefully at photo-sheets. We began with photos of different cocoa gardens, one well-tended, another in decline and one with dead and dying trees. Next, we did seed to pod and then pod to bean. The children asked good questions about planting, flowering, pod production and shading of young cocoa plants with bananas and other plants.

I brought out three cocoa pods and said we were going to look inside. Eyes widened as the children carefully cut open the pods, exposing a perfect sequence from unripe to ripe and over-ripe pod (this was more luck than judgement). Handling the pods sparked the children’s curiosity, and they asked more questions: how do you know when the pods are ripe? They change colour. How long can you keep a pod after you’ve removed it from the tree? About a week.

The children tasted the flesh surrounding the beans in the ripe pod, pleasantly surprised at its fruity flavour. A few nibbled at the beans, equally surprised to discover these did not taste of chocolate. We moved on to the next sequence of photos: from pod to bean, then bean to truck. The children learnt about fermentation and drying, the challenges of selling and buying beans, and moving 63 kg bags from DR Congo to the port of Mombasa in Kenya for export, a journey that takes about two to three days by truck.

Group with cut pods CU copyThe children also cut open some dried beans. They graded them, as a buyer would do, then cut them open to check the quality, using a colour chart – as a chocolate maker would do. In two hours we’d gone from growing cocoa to exporting beans. Along the way the children had seen farmers in action, where they lived, the clothes they wore, and learnt about the importance of cocoa as a major source of income to nearly 30,000 farmers in DR Congo.

Today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders, and in a world where people are far removed from the source of their food, it is vital that we help people in the North understand the importance of agriculture to people in the South, and the need to help farmers succeed. Better yet, while stimulating young minds, to allow children to taste the real flavours of the South.

Acknowledgements

My thanks to Marianne Quinsee and Toni Boa of Little Bowden Primary School, Market Harborough, for enthusiastically supporting the visit, and to Andrew Daymond of the International Cocoa Collection at the University of Reading for providing the pods and beans.

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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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