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High in the Arctic September 10th, 2017 by

A large supermarket in Anchorage displays an impressive selection of fruit and vegetables, including organic produce. Unsurprisingly, most of the goods on sale are grown outside Alaska. Farming this far north is challenging, with only a short growing season, unpredictable weather and moderate temperatures. Local initiatives such as the “Alaska Grown” campaign, are encouraging people to develop new agri-businesses. You have to be enterprising to succeed, as I recently discovered.

A popular option is to grow salad crops and soft fruits in high tunnels. Tough polyethylene sheeting is draped over sturdy metal frames, protecting the plants within. Peonies, popular at weddings because of their showy, robust flowers, are also grown. They flourish in Alaska during the summer, which is off-season in the lower 48 states, when it is too hot to grow peonies yet high season for weddings in the US.

Rhodiola, a native medicinal plant and member of the botanical family Crassulacaea, is another commercial success. But the most unexpected crop I came across was cannabis, legal in Alaska since 2014. Some is grown outside in high tunnels, but it is so profitable that many growers have invested in custom-built indoor facilities. Plants are regularly fed and watered using a hydroponic system. Artificial lighting ensures year-round production, whatever the weather outside.

A family friend introduced me to Bruce and Judy Martin on the Kenai Peninsula, who are part of the first wave of cannabis growers. Bruce worked in construction for many years and wanted a change. He originally designed a building to service boats during the winter. Fishing is big business in Alaska, both commercially and for visiting tourists, and the boats need regular maintenance. Bruce’s plan started well, but when a major contract collapsed he and Judy decided to move into cannabis growing.

A kilo of cannabis buds will earn Bruce and Judy between $2500 and $6000 a pound, or around ÂŁ4500 – ÂŁ10,000 per kilo, depending on quality. Bruce explained the set up: “We have a total growing area of 2,000 square feet (185 square metres), covering two rooms. In the first room, we take cuttings from the mother plants and suspend them in large tanks, where water and nutrients are regularly sprayed to encourage root development. After about three weeks they are moved to larger pots before being transferred a further three weeks later to the main production facility.”

Although Alaska legalised cannabis growing for medicinal and recreational use and sale in 2015, it wasn’t until 2016 that the legal framework was fully in place for producers to start supplying licensed outlets. Bruce and Judy harvested their first crop in December 2016 and have been regularly producing around ten kilograms per month of buds and leaves. The leaves are less valuable than the buds (around $1500 per kilogram) because they have lower amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound for which cannabis is renowned. Bruce explained that there was still a steady demand for leaves to produce “edibles”, which the Alaska Division of Public Health describes as “foods and drinks … made with marijuana or marijuana oils”, such as “cookies and other treats”.

Growing cannabis even on a modest scale requires major investment. “It cost us around half a million dollars to set up the production facility” said Bruce. Judy mentioned the many certificates they’d had to get before being allowed to start selling and the need to test cannabis batches for potency. “Testing is mandatory and costs us $2000 each month,” said Judy. Plus, Bruce and Judy lose two kilograms of product required for the tests. Costs are high, regulation is intense and official monitoring of operations is relentless. A monitor shows feeds from multiple security cameras, keeping a watchful eye on what happens outside the building and all nooks and crannies within.

I have mixed feelings about commercial cannabis growing for recreational use, but the more I look at the overall trade the more it makes sense. Regulating cannabis reduces criminality, safeguards consumers against adulterated products and also creates jobs. And there are significant numbers of people using cannabis for medicinal reasons, where there are proven benefits. The US’s experience with Prohibition (of alcohol) shows that an outright ban doesn’t work: better to regulate, educate and normalise consumption while advising people of potential and harmful side-effects. It is surely much better to treat adults in a mature way when it comes to cannabis, as clearly shown by the Alaska Division of Public Health.

Alaska has already earned around $2 million in taxes from growers and shops. In a neat political move, Bruce told me that “cannabis taxes on the Kenai Peninsula go straight to supporting schools.” Despite the long and successful campaign to legalise cannabis in Alaska there is already a ballot measure to repeal the 2014 decision, due to be voted on by all registered voters in October 2017. There are still diehards who see cannabis use, even for medicinal purposes, as sinful and leading inevitably to harder drugs, but the evidence for this happening is weak. Maybe the loss of funding for schools – which were facing major budget cuts – will help swing the vote and maintain the hard-won status quo.

The intense regulation of cannabis in Alaska suggests that the state is itself equivocal about legalisation, though the main reason for the tight scrutiny is because the US federal government still prohibits the “use, sale and possession of all forms of cannabis”. Banks are nervous about handling money associated with the trade and all transactions are in cash. Cannabis growers cannot ask for advice from cooperative extension staff, since they are partly funded by the Federal government.

This doesn’t seem to matter, since Bruce and Judy get advice from fellow growers nearby and there is an active online community buzzing with information about all aspects of cannabis production. I admire their hard work and commitment. Bruce and Judy have taken a calculated risk in becoming cannabis growers, but so far, their hard work and diligence has paid off. They’re also bringing a little cheer to fellow Alaskans.

Thanks to
Richard and Linn especially, for making the visit possible. And to Bruce and Judy for their warm  welcome and open discussions.

Read other blogs
Ethical agriculture

The ruffled reefer

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The joy of business July 16th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

On the 29th of June in Cochabamba, I watched as 39 farmers’ associations met with 183 businesses, in a large, rented ballroom, where tables just big enough for four were covered in white tablecloths and arranged in a systematic grid pattern.

cacao y árbolesAll day long the farmers and entrepreneurs huddled together, in 25-minute meetings, scheduled one after the other, for as many as 15 meetings during the day, as the farmers explained the virtues of products like aged cheeses, shade-grown cacao, and bottled mango sweetened with yacón (an Andean tuber). Some businesses had come to buy these products, but others were there to sell the farmers two-wheeled tractors and other small machines.

mango en alĂ­mbar de yacĂłnEach association or business had filled out a sheet listing their interests and products. The organizer used computerized software to match up groups by interest, and set a time for the meetings. The time was tracked by a large, computerized clock, projected onto the wall.

At the end of each of the 25 minute meetings, each table filled out a one-page form stating if they had agreed to meet for another business deal (yes, no, maybe), and if so when (within three months, or later), and the amount of the probable deal. By the end of the day, the farmers and the business people had agreed to do business worth 56 million bolivianos, equivalent to $8.2 million.

Business representatives came from five foreign countries: Belgium, Peru, the Netherlands, Spain, and Argentina, to buy peanuts and other commodities. But most of the buyers and sellers were from Bolivia and only 6% of the trade was for export.

The meeting was self-financed. Each farmer’s group paid $45 to attend and each entrepreneur paid $50. This is the ninth annual agro-business roundtable, so it looks like an institution that may last.

Business is a two-way street. For example, one innovative producer of fish sausages made deals to sell his fine products to hotels and supermarkets, but he also agreed to buy a machine to vacuum pack smoked fish, and another deal to buy trout from a farmers’ association.

la boletaWith over 400 people lost in happy conversation on the ballroom floor, I barely noticed the three staff-members on the side, sitting quietly at a table, typing up each sheet from each deal, using special software which allows the statistics to be compiled in real time. This will also help with follow-up. Two months after the roundtable, professionals from Fundación Valles will ring up the group representatives with a friendly reminder: “You are near the three month mark when you agreed to meet and buy or sell (a given product). How is that coming?”

Miguel Florido, facilitator, explained that in previous years the roundtable brought in $14 million in business, but that was mostly with banks and insurance companies, signing big credit deals, or insurance policies. Now the money amount has dropped a bit, but people are buying and selling tangible, local products, which is what the farmers want. It can be difficult and time-consuming for smallholders and entrepreneurs to meet each other, but with imaginative solutions buyers and sellers can connect.

Acknowledgment: this roundtable was organized by FundaciĂłn Valles and Fundesnap.

LA ALEGRĂŤA DEL NEGOCIO

El 29 de junio en Cochabamba, observé mientras 39 asociaciones de agricultores se reunieron con 183 empresas en un salón de eventos, lleno de mesas que eran el tamaño perfecto para cuatro personas.

cacao y árbolesTodo el día los agricultores y empresarios se juntaron, en reuniones de 25 minutos, hasta 15 reuniones durante el día, donde los productores explicaban las bondades de productos como quesos añejos, cacao producido bajo sombra, y frascos de mango endulzados con yacón (un tubérculo andino). Algunas empresas vinieron para comprar esos productos, mientras otros estaban en plan de vender motocultores y otras pequeñas máquinas a los agricultores.

mango en alĂ­mbar de yacĂłnCada asociaciĂłn o empresa habĂ­a llenado una hoja detallando sus intereses y sus productos. El organizador usĂł software computarizado para juntar los grupos segĂşn sus intereses y fijar una hora para sus reuniones. La hora se controlaba con un reloj grande y computarizado que se proyectaba a la pared.

Al final de cada una de las reuniones de 25 minutos, cada mesa llenaba un formulario indicando si habían quedado en volver a reunirse para hacer negocios (sí, no, tal vez), y cuándo (dentro de tres meses, o más tarde), y el monto probable del trato. Al fin del día, salió que los agricultores y las empresas habían fijado tratos por un valor de 56 millones bolivianos, equivalente a $8.2 millones.

Asistieron empresas de cinco países extranjeros: Bélgica, Perú, Holanda, España, y la Argentina, para comprar maní y otros productos. Pero la mayoría de los vendedores y compradores eran bolivianos y solo 6% de la venta era para exportar.

La reuniĂłn era auto-financiada. Cada asociaciĂłn de agricultores pagĂł $45 para asistir y cada empresa pagĂł $50. Esta es la novena rueda anual de agro-negocios, asĂ­ que parece que es una instituciĂłn duradera.

El negocio es una calle de dos sentidos. Por ejemplo, un productor innovador de chorizos de pescado quedó en vender sus finos productos a hoteles y supermercados, pero también compró una máquina para embalar su pescado ahumado al vacío, e hizo un acuerdo para comprar trucha de una asociación de productores.

la boletaCon más de 400 personas felices, bien metidas en charlas en el salón, pasan desapercibidos tres miembros del equipo a un lado, sentados en una mesa, pasando a máquina las hojas escritas a mano en cada una de las reuniones. Las tres personas usan un software especial que permite compilar las estadísticas ese rato. Los datos ayudarán con el seguimiento. Dos meses después de la rueda, profesionales de Fundación Valles llamarán a los representantes de los grupos para hacerles recuerdo: “Ya casi son tres meses desde que quedaron en volver a reunirse para comprar (o vender) su producto ¿cómo van con eso?”

Miguel Florido, facilitador, explica que en los años previos, la rueda trajo hasta $14 millones en negocios, pero mayormente con bancos y aseguradoras, firmando contratos para créditos o seguros. Actualmente se mueve un poco menos de dinero, pero la gente vende y compra productos tangibles, locales, que es lo que los agricultores quieren.

Agradecimiento: La rueda de agro-negocios se organizĂł por FundaciĂłn Valles y Fundesnap.

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Five heads think better than one July 9th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Innovation fairs are becoming a popular way to showcase agricultural invention, and to link some original thinkers with a wider community.

On the 28th of June I was at an innovation fair in Cochabamba, held in a ballroom that is usually rented for weddings and big parties, but with some tweaking it was a fine space for farmers and researchers to meet. Each organization had a table where they could set out products or samples, with their posters displayed behind the presenters.

For example, at one table, I met a dignified, white-haired agronomist, Gonzalo Zalles who explained his work with “deep beds” for raising healthy, odorless pigs. I told Mr. Zalles about some pigs I had seen in Uganda (Smelling is believing), but Eng. Zalles explained that he makes a slightly more sophisticated bed. He starts by digging a pit, then adding a thin layer of lime to the base, followed by a layer of sand. In Uganda, some innovative farmers raise pigs on wood shavings, but Zalles uses rice husks as the final layer. He says they are more absorbent than wood shavings.

I asked if he added Effective Microorganisms (a trademarked brand of yeast and other microbes that are used widely, not just in Uganda, but also to make bokashi fertilizer in Nepal, see The bokashi factory). But no, in Bolivia, swine farmers are using a mix of bacteria and yeast called BioBull, which is made by Biotop, a subsidiary of the Proinpa Foundation in Cochabamba.

José Olivera CamachoAt a nearby stall I caught up with José Olivera of Biotop who was displaying not just BioBull, but other biological products as well, including insecticides and fungicides for organic agriculture. José travels all over the Bolivian Altiplano selling these novel inputs to farmers. He may soon have another product to sell, if research goes to plan at the Panaseri Company, in Cochabamba. Panaseri collaborates with Proinpa to produce food products from the lupine bean, packaged for supermarkets under the brand Tarwix.  At the Panaseri stand, Norka Ojeda, a Proinpa communicator, explained that the Tarwix factory buys lupine beans (tarwi) from farmers and washes out the poisonous alkaloids, rendering the nutritious tarwi safe to eat. (Read more about lupines at Crop with an attitude).

tarwixThe people at Panaseri originally disposed of the alkaloids without any treatment. But they became concerned about the environmental impact, so they installed filters at their plant to remove the toxins from the water. Now researchers at Biotop are studying the possibility of using the alkaloids as ingredients in new botanical insecticides.

Linking researchers to farmers’ associations and companies seems to be bearing fruit. Raising swine without the bad smell is crucial for keeping livestock near cities, where it is easy to get supplies and the market for the final product is nearby. Inventing new bio-pesticides is key to keeping chemical poisons out of our food.  Many heads think better than one.

Acknowledgements

The innovation fair was hosted by FundaciĂłn Valles, Fundesnap and other partners of the Fondo de InnovaciĂłn on 28 June 2017, with funding from Danida (Danish Aid).

Further viewing

Watch a video on tarwi here.

CINCO CABEZAS PIENSAN MEJOR QUE UNA

Las ferias de innovación se están volviendo una manera popular de mostrar la invención agrícola, y para organizar a algunas personas creativas en una comunidad mayor.

El 28 de junio asistí a una feria de innovación en Cochabamba, en un salón de eventos que normalmente se alquila para bodas y quinceañeras, pero con algunos ajustes sirvió perfectamente para el encuentro de agricultores e investigadores. Cada organización tenía una mesa donde podían mostrar sus productos o muestras, con sus pósteres a la vista detrás de los interesados.

Por ejemplo, en una mesa conocí a un destacado agrónomo con una cabellera blanca, Gonzalo Zalles quien explicó su trabajo con “camas profundas” para criar a chanchos sanos sin olores. Le conté al Ing. Zalles de los cerdos que yo había visto en Uganda (Smelling is believing), pero él explicó que él hace una cama un poco más sofisticada. Empieza cavando una fosa, agregando una capa de cal y una de arena. En Uganda, Algunos agricultores innovadores crían a los cerdos en aserrín, pero el Ing. Zalles usa cáscara de arroz como la última capa. Él dice que es más absorbente que el aserrín.

Le pregunté si él agregaba los Microorganismos Efectivos (una marca registrada de levadura con otros microbios que se usa ampliamente, no solo en Uganda, sino también para hacer fertilizante tipo bokashi en Nepal, vea The bokashi factory). Pero no, en Bolivia, los porcicultores usan una mezcla de bacteria con levadura llamada BioBull, un producto de Biotop, que es un subsidiario de la Fundación Proinpa en José Olivera CamachoCochabamba.

En otra mesa encontré a José Olivera de Biotop quien mostraba no solo el BioBull, sino otros productos biológicos, incluso insecticidas y fungicidas para la agricultura orgánica. José viaja por todo el Altiplano boliviano vendiendo esos insumos novedosos a los agricultores. Él pronto tendrá otro producto para vender, si la investigación va bien con la compañía Panaseri, en Cochabamba. Panaseri colabora con Proinpa para producir empaquetar tarwi (lupino) para supermercados, bajo la marca Tarwix.  En el stand de Panaseri, Norka Ojeda, comunicadora de Proinpa, explicó que la fábrica de Tarwix compra tarwi de los productores y lava los venenosos alcaloides, para que el nutritivo tarwi sea sano para comer. (Lea más sobre el tarwi aquí: Cultivo con carácter fuerte).

tarwixLa fábrica de Panaseri tiene que descartar los alcaloides, pero la empresa se cuestionó del impacto ambiental, así que instalaron filtros en su planta para quitar las toxinas del agua. Ahora los investigadores de Biotop están estudiando la posibilidad de usar los alcaloides como ingredientes en nuevos insecticidas botánicos.

Vincular los investigadores con asociaciones de productores y empresas parece dar fruto. Criar cerdos sin malos olores es crucial para la porcicultura cerca de las ciudades, donde es conveniente comprar la comida de los cerdos y vender los productos finales. El invento de nuevos bio-plaguicidas es clave para evitar de envenenar nuestra comida. SĂ­ parece que varias cabezas piensan mejor que una sola.

Agradecimientos

La Feria de InnovaciĂłn fue auspiciada por la FundaciĂłn Valles, Fundesnap y otros socios del Fondo de InnovaciĂłn el 28 de junio del 2017, con financiamiento de Danida (Ayuda Danesa).

Para ver más

Vea el video sobre tarwi aquĂ­.

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On the road May 14th, 2017 by

View to Rwenzori from Beni roundabout copyEven a dangerous, war-torn province may be on the road to economic recovery, as I saw last week when I was driven from Beni to Komanda. The two hour, 120 km journey was part of my on-going involvement with cocoa growing here in North Kivu, DR Congo.

North Kivu has a bad reputation. The British Government map shows the province in blood red and “advises against all travel”. The capital, Goma, is associated with chaos and on-going conflict. North Kivu is at the heart of internecine battles involving countless, shifting factions, watched closely by neighbouring countries with their own interests to safeguard. Beni is a long way from Goma, yet it also has periodic outbursts of violence.

Our journey started and ended peacefully. We passed more motorbikes than cars. The motorcyclists drove cautiously, partly because they were loaded up with people, produce and belongings. Bunches of bananas, bags of leeks, cassava and charcoal – lots of charcoal. A few wore helmets. Traffic is increasing year on year, but it’s all remarkably peaceful compared to the heaving roads of Kenya. We moved smoothly along.

But still we had an early reminder of the dangers of driving. A truck driver had ploughed off the road the previous evening and one person had died. A UN armoured car was parked at the side of the road, one of several that we’d seen on the outskirts of Beni. People walk pass the white UN behemoths, ignoring the blue helmets that protrude from the turrets.

Brasimba adverts on walls copyThe roadside houses had walls made of mud plaster over wooden slats and corrugated roofs. We went through many small towns. There were more shops than I remembered from last year’s journey to Komanda. The local Beni brewery, Brasimba, advertises its various brands of beer by painting buildings in yellows and reds, both bright, optimistic colours. Mobile phone companies do the same all over Africa, a sure-fire way to be noticed. Beer and phones: signs that investment and businesses are growing, part of an increasing prosperity in Beni that is closely linked to cocoa.

We stopped in Oisha at a cocoa depot. Outside, a farmer was carefully tending his cocoa beans, which he had brought a bit too wet to sell. A motorbike was refuelling from a mini-depot, small stands stacked with plastic bottles of petrol. The vendor poured the fuel through a funnel while the passengers remained in place. They looked cramped but soon they were on their way.

Mini-depot and fill motorbike copyWe passed through areas of tall eucalypts, a tree maligned by some ecologists but hugely popular with farmers. The tree grows fast and straight; producing light but strong timber for construction and fences. Oil palm groves flashed by, the seeds crushed in simple presses to produce a viscous, orange cooking oil. More bags of charcoal by the road as we headed north, a sign that were getting close to forested areas. But the most surprising part of the journey so far was that we were on a tarred road, a real luxury in North Kivu: 60 km of smooth highway, courtesy of China – another investment in the future.

Just after Eringeti we stopped at a local government checkpoint marking the boundary with Orientale province. My colleague went to report my presence, clutching my passport. Such checkpoints are of dubious legality, a way to exact tolls and exercise notional authority. Haggling over payments can be protracted, but Patrick returned after 10 minutes: “all he wanted was a bottle of water”.

Shortly afterwards the tarred road ended. There were bumps and lurches but the graded road was well maintained and surprisingly smooth as we made good progress. My mobile phone signal stayed strong throughout the journey. Many more mobile phone masts have been erected in recent years, another tick on my mental list of improvements that makes peoples’ lives easier.

Komanda is an important but nondescript town, strategically positioned at the crossroads of three major roads: Beni to the south, Bunia to the east and Kisangani to the West. All of us gave a little gasp at the brand new hotel in the centre of town, with modern façade, multi-storied and all gleaming blue windows (de rigeur in North Kivu).

Oxygen hotel frontA modern hotel in Komanda? We entered the Oxygen Hotel and looked around. The owner from Butembo had invested a lot: proper beds and en suite bathrooms, a big improvement on the decrepit but serviceable hotel where we stayed last year. Here was another sign of confidence in the future, and in the most unlikely of places. I don’t pretend that one hotel in the back of beyond is a harbinger of economic prosperity, but it is a significant step forward.

Robert Louis Stevenson, the great Scottish writer, said that the journey was as important as the destination. The view from the car paints only a partial picture, yet it is still an important window on other people’s worlds and backs up what I’ve seen in the wider countryside. My journey gave me hope, reinforcing improvements I’ve seen over the last 13 years, powered by a steady increase in cocoa production. Decline and disarray is not inevitable nor irretrievable, especially if the agricultural economy is thriving. There is still violence and civil society struggles to flourish in North Kivu, but there are plenty of people who are optimistically investing in their future.

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