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Seed fairs February 18th, 2018 by

Seed fairs are gaining in popularity around the world, and are a great way to encourage farmers and gardeners to conserve global biodiversity. But the fairs can do more than just provide an opportunity for people to exchange and sell seed, as I recently learned during a visit to Guatemala to make a farmer training video on farmers’ rights to seed, with a particular focus    on women in biodiversity management. In Guatemala, donor agencies and organisations have supported community biodiversity conservation initiatives for over a decade.

Our local partner, ASOCOCH, is an umbrella organisation of 20 cooperatives and farmer associations, representing some 9,000 farm families in the western highlands of Huehuetenango. On Sunday, one day before the actual seed fair starts, we visit the venue. The seed fair has become a large annual event, unlike in Malawi, where seed fairs are less regular. The fair attracts hundreds of people from across the highlands, some travelling long distances. One elderly woman told me she rode a bus for five hours to get there.

The seed fair is a lively, social event, with a Ferris wheel, stalls with amusement games and one with wooden, artistically carved horses with leather saddles on which people can sit and have their photo taken against a painted background of lush vegetation, complete with mountains and waterfalls. Visitors can buy sweets and nuts. A young boy gently pushes his wheelbarrow full of mandarins for sale through the crowds, while indigenous women sell traditional delicacies. Families with grandparents and kids relish the event as the region does not have such a large fair very often.

But there is more to the fair than having fun and eating. The seed fair is held on school grounds and I soon see farmers in intricately woven, traditional clothes lining up to register for classes. There are four large rooms where farmers can learn about potato, agrobiodiversity, climate change and women’s rights. My wife Marcella and I first attend the talks in the agrobiodiversity room, where Juanita Chaves from GFAR explains about farmers’ rights to seed. To my surprise this is followed by two presentations on aflatoxins in maize by staff from a local NGO. The presenters graphically explain the relation between mouldy maize cobs and the disfigurement of children and internal organs. As most farmers conserve their own maize seed they need to be aware of the risks of fungal infections. I am still a little puzzled as to how this relates to the seed fair and agrobiodiversity conservation, but after lunch all becomes clear.

We accompany the farmers who attended the aflatoxin sessions to the Clementoro Community Seed Bank, less than 10 kilometers away. The farmers see seeds stored in plastic jars, clearly labelled and neatly stacked on the shelves. In the middle of the room, a young agricultural graduate working at the seed bank shows farmers how they can detect if their seed is contaminated with aflatoxins by using a simple methanol test. “When you store your maize crop and seed, you need to be sure it has less than 13% moisture so that moulds will not develop,” the enthusiastic young woman explains. “Here at the seed bank, you can have your seed tested and conserved in optimal conditions,” she continues.

Seed is one of farmers’ most precious resources, and storing it at a community seed bank requires lots of trust. They need to know that their seed will be safely stored until they need it, either for the next growing season or even a few years later whenever the need arises. By organising seed fairs, seminars and visits to community seed banks, ASOCUCH is building trust through sharing knowledge and explaining clearly what they do.

The next day, we film the actual seed fair itself. There is an overwhelming abundance of crop varieties, fruits, medicinal and even some ornamental plants. Farmers and their families are clearly excited as seed and plant material changes hands. There is brisk trading between farmers. While some exchange materials, most sell and buy seed. People tell each other about the seeds they have on offer. ASOCUCH, with the support of GFAR, had also prepared a booklet with traditional recipes. Copies are spread on tables at the entrance and they run out like hot cakes.

There is a judging competition to find the best seeds.  Judges visit each stand, measuring maize cobs, counting seeds, weighing potato seed tubers and taking notes. Agrobiodiversity is a serious matter. At the same time, outside the schoolhouse, sheep are being rated by another set of judges. In the late afternoon, the results are shared with the audience. People had brought dozens of varieties and over a thousand accessions of various crops. The audience is excited, and so are we. This has been a fascinating two-day event, and the drive of the farmers and their organisations has made us hopeful for the future.  Local initiatives are where conservation begins, but they need the support of local authorities, governments and international organisations to increase their impact.

Everyone has had a good time. More importantly, farmers have made new contacts, acquired seeds of traditional varieties that may have been lost in some areas and helped others to preserve them in new areas. They have learned about saving seed, but most of all, the farmers have learned that they have certain rights to seeds—they can plant their own native varieties as they wish, for example—and that these rights mattter hugely in sustaining local agriculture.

Related blogs

Quinoa, lost and found

Homegrown seed can be good

Bolivian peanuts

We share

Further viewing

Farmers’ rights to seed – experiences from Guatemela

Farmers’ rights to seed – experiences from Malawi

Managing aflatoxins in groundnuts during drying and storage

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) and the European Union for funding the production of the video discussed here. Support in Guatemala was kindly provided by the AsociaciĂłn de Organizaciones de los Cuchumatanes (ASOCUCH).

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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.

Acknowledgement

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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Watching videos to become a dairy expert January 7th, 2018 by

Last week I wrote about Isaac Enoch, who is using drip irrigation to grow vegetables in South Sudan. This week we meet Tom Juma, who is also one of the registered users of the Access Agriculture video platform.

Tom Nyongesa Juma grew up in a small village in Bungoma, in Western Kenya, about an hour from the city of Kisumu. As a young man he earned a B.Sc. in forestry, and studied soil science for an M.Sc. He nearly finished that degree, but was frustrated by a lack of money to pay his school fees. After university, in 2008, Tom started to work for various NGOs, especially ones that gave him an opportunity to help farmers improve their yields of cereals and other crops.

Then in 2017, Tom decided to put his passion for agriculture into building his own model farm. He now has turkeys, chickens, sheep and three cows. Tom is building a barn to hold 30 milk cows. He is motivated by the desire to teach others, “the extension bit,” as he puts it. But Tom also sees the urgency of producing food for Kenya: “We have so many mouths to feed.” Tom wants his teaching farm to focus on young people. He is building the barn so it can accommodate learning visits by primary schools and others, to teach kids about agriculture. “I want to show that you can make a living by agriculture, and do it smartly”, Tom explains.

As a forester and a soil scientist, Tom feels that he is not really an expert on livestock, so he has educated himself, mostly through videos. He surfed the web for any videos on livestock and horticulture and estimates that he watched over 300 videos. Tom speaks three languages, but he still found some videos in languages he didn’t understand. He watched them anyway, learning by observing the images. From videos, Tom has learned about artificial insemination and placing ear tags on cattle.

Tom says that by this time next year, he will be educating young people, and will be using videos as a key element to do that, on his model farm. Tom says that the Access Agriculture videos are of good quality, “short and to the point.” He has watched Swahili versions of several Access Agriculture videos, including the one on yoghurt making and on making a rabbit house. “They were nicely translated and educational,” Tom says.

 

Related blogs

Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan

Why people drink milk

Related videos

Pure milk is good milk

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Hand milking of dairy cows

Videos in Swahili

Access Agriculture has 51 videos in the Kiswahili (or Swahili) language, here.

Acknowledgements

The photos are courtesy of Tom Juma.

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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.

ArtĂ­culo relacionado del blog

Head transplant: The art of avocado grafting

 

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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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