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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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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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Head transplant: the art of avocado grafting October 1st, 2017 by

Grafting is the surest way to get the fruit you want. If you grow a fruit from the seed, the new plant may not be the same as the one you planted.  Although grafting was practiced in ancient Greece and China, even American trees like avocados can be grafted, as my agronomist wife, Ana Gonzales, recently explained to me in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Ana has been grafting avocados for a couple of years now, in part because she knew someone who planted a grove of the small, but tasty Hass variety. He went to the trouble of flying in grafted trees from Chile. When the owner sold his land for a new housing development, Ana wanted to keep the variety going before the trees were all destroyed. She found an agronomist who ran a nursery and was willing to show her how to do the grafts. The second year she practiced on her own, and although she lost many of her trees that year, practice pays off and she’s pretty good at grafting now.

The first step is to grow the rootstock. We save all of the avocado seeds or pits at our house. We soak the pits in shallow water for a few days, before planting them in soil in a black plastic bag. It may take a year to grow into a seedling big enough to graft.

When you cut a tree you open the door for pathogens, so Ana starts by washing her tools in soapy water and disinfecting them with a weak bleach solution. She cleans the tools after working on each tree to avoid spreading fungi and bacteria which might kill the little plant.

I am a bit surprised when Ana takes the pruning shears to a flourishing seedling and cuts off its entire, leafy top. Now it looks more like a pencil than a tree. She uses a razor to slice a vertical cut into the stump of the decapitated seedling. This is going to be the rootstock of a new tree.

Next, she takes the scions, the small branches she has cut from the tree she wants to reproduce. When Ana began, she would go to orchards in the Cochabamba Valley to look for Haas avocados. She got several scions from trees still left on that housing estate that had once been an avocado grove. But it is better if you have the donor tree closer to hand. Freshness really matters in grafting.

The rootstock and the scion should be about the same diameter. Any mismatch in size and the two pieces of living wood don’t meld. Ana cuts the tip of the scion into a long, thin wedge and gently, but firmly slips it into the razor cut of the rootstock.

Ana says that sun and wind can dry out the graft and kill it. So she wraps a strip of paraffin tape around the wound, to bind the scion to the rootstock. She tears off a bit of newspaper, soaks it in water and wraps it around the top of her grafted tree, and then covers the newspaper with a small, new plastic bag and ties off the bottom of the bag, to keep it moist.

Ana sells most of the successful grafts, usually to family and friends. She sold one to a cousin and every time we visit we step out into the garden to check on Ana’s avocado tree, which is doing well.

 

Ana offers a guarantee. If the customer plants a tree and it dies, she replaces it. Most orchard deaths are due to careless transplanting or neglect. You never know what people are going to do to your little tree, but Ana gives her customers the benefit of the doubt and a replacement. She doesn’t want any disappointed customers. Human relations are fragile, like a grafted tree; it’s important to nurture them both.

Further viewing

Watch a detailed training video on grafting mango trees

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The tyrant of the Andes August 20th, 2017 by

Near my home in Cochabamba, Bolivia, there is a park named after the most famous Viceroy of the Andes, Francisco de Toledo. A statue of the stern Viceroy frowns at passers-by, suggesting that Toledo was a tough administrator, but a recent history by Jeremy Mumford confirmed just how bad Toledo was for Andean farmers.

Francisco de Toledo was born in 1515 and was raised in the royal households of Spain. In 1565 King Phillip II appointed Toledo to be the Viceroy of Lima, to rule in the king’s name over a vast area that is now roughly the modern states of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Toledo’s instructions were to reform taxes, improve government and introduce the Spanish Inquisition to South America.

Before leaving Spain for his new post, Toledo read through reams of letters and reports from officials and travelers archived by the Spanish crown in Seville. He concluded that the main problems of the Andes were “drunkenness and idolatry.” Drunkenness was simply drinking low-alcohol, homemade maize beer (chicha); idolatry was observing rituals, including the prayers and offerings that farmers made at planting and harvest time.

Other Spanish writers had complained about indigenous drinking and the survival of pre-Hispanic spirituality. Toledo’s innovation was to decide that the best way to exterminate these humble pleasures was not with an inquisition (individual court cases), but with a “reducción general,” a general resettlement.

Prior to Toledo’s arrival, the Spanish had resettled indigenous peoples in the Caribbean, Mexico and Guatemala, but not in the Andes. Resettlement was a harsh and elegant idea. All native peoples were forced to settle into planned towns of about 2000 people, laid out with straight streets around a plaza with a church where the residents could receive Christian instruction. It was easier for colonial authorities to keep an eye on people if they were gathered into a town.

Toledo arrived in Lima in November, 1569, and left just 11 months later with a large entourage of officials for a five-year tour that would pass through Cusco, PotosĂ­, Chuquisaca, and Arequipa, in what is now the southern Andes of Peru, and highland Bolivia.

Although the crown was losing enthusiasm for native resettlement, Toledo pressed ahead, forcing Andean farmers to move from scattered villages to live in towns which were often a day’s walk or more from their fields. This made it hard to do the agricultural work that was the basis of the tribute that native people paid the Spanish.

Demanding a tribute was an old idea. Before the Spanish conquest, the Incas had also taxed the local people, in goods and in forced labor, but the Incas had enough local knowledge to leave farm communities with enough food to survive. The Spanish lacked this intuition and tried to maintain tribute at high, fixed levels, even as the native population declined. The results were disastrous.

About 1.4 million Andean people were assigned houses in town and ordered to destroy their old homes. Toledo’s laws for resettlement show how he created new layers of bureaucracy to oversee resettlement. But few reports have survived on what actually happened on the ground.

It seems that many Andeans continued to live near their farms, with or without permission. Farmers might report to the town center just once a year for major festivals. Other native people resisted resettlement through the courts, appealing and often being granted the right to form satellite settlements nearer their fields.

In spite of resistance, resettlement meant that many small villages were indeed consolidated into fewer large towns. Famines and epidemics ensued, in part because the crowded towns spread disease and because after paying tribute, people starved on the meagre amounts of food left. As the population declined, many Andeans escaped their tribute obligations by leaving to find work in the cities or on Spanish haciendas (large farms). The people who were left behind had to work just that much harder.

A viceroy, literally “vice-king”, reigned like a monarch over distant American provinces, with the power to make laws, wage war, and sentence people to death. Communication with the Spanish crown was slow. Over the years, many wrote letters of complaint to the king. Some were justified, as when native peoples protested corrupt priests or the resettlement. Other complaints now seem laughable, as when the encomenderos (the heirs of the conquistadores) whined that Toledo had stripped them of their authority (but not their rents). Toledo himself eventually grew tired of ruling the Andes and begged Philip to replace him. Twelve years after Toledo arrived he sailed back to Spain in 1581, a figure so unpopular that the king refused to grant him a high office, the usual reward for a returning viceroy. Toledo retired to one of his estates, where he died alone.

Toledo was an unbending idealist determined to stamp out what comfort a conquered people could find in a drink and in ancestral rituals. According to Jeremy Mumford’s analysis, Toledo’s resettlement ranks as one of the earliest and grandest feats of modern rural social engineering, mirrored 400 years later by other miserable failures such as Julius Nyerere’s model villages in Tanzania, or the Soviet collective farms.

The resettlement also failed to achieve Toledo’s two main aims in the Andes: chicha is still popular and so are Andean rituals, at least in Bolivia, where burnt offerings to the Pacha Mama (Earth Mother) are widely and openly practiced, even by the Hispanic middle class.

Agricultural policies must be drafted by pragmatists, not by idealists. And parks shouldn’t be named after tyrants.

Further reading

Mumford, Jeremy Ravi 2012 Vertical Empire: The General Resettlement of Indians in the Colonial Andes. Durham: Duke University Press. 293 pp.

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Farmers produce electronic content August 6th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación 

Earlier in this blog we have told how smallholders in India and Kenya are using smartphones and tablets to surf the web for information. In Bolivia, some smallholders are not only accessing content on the web, but also using it to share their own observations and experiences.

quinoa standBernabé Choquetopa and Antolín Salazar are two quinoa farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano, the astonishingly high plains at 3,700 meters, between the ranges of the Andes. At this altitude it can be difficult to grow even potatoes. Quinoa does well, if it rains, but the Andean rains are now coming later in the year, threatening a whole way of life on the high plains.

Bernabé and Antolín are part of a group of 98 expert farmers, called yapuchiris, who teach their neighbors techniques to adapt to the changing climate. In 2015 a Bolivian organization, Prosuco, formed a group on WhatsApp, an online social media platform that one can access from a cell phone. Ten yapuchiris from different parts of the Altiplano joined the group, and called it the Observer’s Network, dedicated to sharing information about the weather in their areas. Farmers in other parts of Bolivia, and a few non-farmers, have joined the network, so that it now has over 60 members.

In 2016 several farmers wrote in to tell how the drought was killing the harvest of nearly all the crops. But there is also encouraging information. Bernabé often reports on “indicators,” the name the group uses for signs that predict the weather in the near future. For example, when the foxes leave the plains to seek out warm cover in the hills, the night will be cold. This knowledge reminds farmers to double check that livestock are well sheltered.

nest of oven birdThe oven-bird makes a round, hard, covered nest. The birds seem to sense the coming wet weather and do their best to build a dry nest, so if the walls of the nest are especially strong and hard, it will be a wet year. Knowing this lets farmers know that they can plant even in somewhat dryer areas, and that they can start planting with the first good rains. Some of the users also upload satellite based weather predictions onto the Observers’ Network. At first I thought the yapuchiris might feel upstaged, and might stop uploading their own predictions, but they didn’t. The farmers are happy to see satellite images and bird nests alike. Information is appreciated no matter where it comes from.

The internet, inexpensive cell phones and user-friendly social media are making it possible for at least some smallholders to start posting their own ideas. It’s an exciting new trend, because those of us who share information with farmers on the Internet may soon find it easier to use the web to share high quality messages with farmers on a mass scale.

Acknowledgement

Written with the help of Eng. Sonia Laura who works at Prosuco, www.prosuco.org, a non-profit organization.

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AGRICULTORES PRODUCEN CONTENIDO ELECTRĂ“NICO

6 de agosto del 2017 por Jeff Bentley

Ya hemos escrito en este blog que los campesinos en la India y en Kenia usan smartphones y tablets para navegar la web para buscar información. En Bolivia, algunos productores no solo bajan contenido del web, sino que también lo usan para compartir sus observaciones y experiencias.

quinoa standBernabé Choquetopa y Antolín Salazar son quinueros del Altiplano sur boliviano, esa planicie sorprendentemente alta que está sobre los 3,700 metros, entre las cordilleras de los Andes. A esta altitud puede ser difícil producir hasta la papa. La quinua da bien, si llueve, pero ahora las lluvias llegan cada vez más tarde, amenazando toda una forma de vida en esas zonas altiplánicas.

Bernabé y Antolín son parte de un grupo de 98 productores expertos, llamados yapuchiris, quienes enseñan técnicas a sus vecinos para adaptarse al cambio climático. En el 2015 la institución Prosuco formó un grupo en WhatsApp, una plataforma de medio social que se usa desde el celular. Diez yapuchiris de diferentes zonas del Altiplano se unieron al grupo y lo llamaron la Red de Observadores, dedicada a compartir información sobre el clima en sus zonas. Algunos técnicos, y agricultores en otras partes de Bolivia, se unieron a la red, hasta tener más de 60 miembros.

En el 2016 cuando varios campesinos escribieron para contar que la sequía atrasaba azotaba a la cosecha de casi todos los cultivos. Pero también hay información alentadora. Bernabé a menudo informa sobre los “indicadores,” el nombre que el grupo usa para las señales que predicen el tiempo a corto plazo. Por ejemplo, cuando los zorros salen de las llanuras para buscar lugares cálidos en los cerros, hará frío en la noche. El saber eso hace recuerdo a los agricultores a asegurarse que sus animales estén bajo cobertura.

nest of oven birdEl hornero hace un nido redondo, duro y cubierto. Los pájaros sienten la llegada del tiempo húmedo y hacen lo posible para hacerse un nido seco, entonces si las paredes del nido son fuertes y duras, será un año lluvioso. Este conocimiento informa a los agricultores que pueden sembrar hasta en lugares más secos, y que pueden empezar a sembrar con las primeras buenas lluvias. Algunos de los técnicos también suben pronósticos basados en satélites a la Red de Observadores. Al principio pensé que eso podría quitar protagonismo a los yapuchiris, pero no fue así. Los agricultores están felices de ver imágenes satelitales y nidos de pájaros. Se puede apreciar información de varias fuentes.

Gracias al internet, los celulares baratos y los e-medios accesibles, hoy en día es posible que algunos campesinos empiecen a publicar sus propias ideas. Es una tendencia emocionante, que facilita el trabajo de los que compartimos información con los campesinos. En el futuro será más fácil compartir mensajes de alta calidad, a gran escala, por el web.

Agradecimiento

Escrito con el apoyo de la Ing. Sonia Laura, quien trabaja en Prosuco, www.prosuco.org, una entidad sin fines de lucro.

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