Agricultural extension can work deep changes in farmersâ€™ attitudes. Ironically, the extensionists themselves often think that a change in heart is difficult to achieve, so it was good to meet some inspired farmers last week in Tamil Nadu, India, while teaching a course with Paul Van Mele to agricultural researchers and extension agents.
We wrote four fact sheets with advice for farmers and we wanted to show the papers to real farmers, as a kind of peer review. One of the participants, Mrs. P. Tamilselvi, took us to the village of Seethapappi, where she works as an extensionist. The course participants, mostly agricultural researchers, formed small groups and found farmers to talk to.
We approached a farmhouse, where entomologist K. Bharathidasan called out, asking if anyone was home. When a surprised couple emerged, Bharathidasan introduced himself and soon had the farmers reading a fact sheet in Tamil on groundnut stem rot.
After Mr. C. Sekar read the fact sheet he talked about an organic agricultural concoction he used as a fertilizer and insecticide. He called it pancha kaviya, alluding to five ingredients it contained. Bharathidasan wrote down the recipe:
Mix 1) cow dung, 2) cow urine, 3) ghee, milk and curd, 4) coconut water and 5) jiggery (a candy) or sugarcane juice. Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Keep for 45 days. Filter the liquid directly into a sprayer and spray the crop.
This was only the first of many natural agro-chemicals farmers in this village described to us. Sekar also makes an organic pesticide with eight types of local plants. He adds them to cow urine and keeps them for 20 days. Then he filters the liquid and sprays it on his crops.
When Mrs. Sekar read the fact sheet she mentioned another organic pesticide. Two more farmers had their own recipe for a home brew to spray on plants.
Farmer Prakash Kanna showed us a batch of pancha kaviya heâ€™d made, a dull brown mix in a plastic drum. It had a strong, sour smell. He put it in irrigation water to fertilize his plants. He called it a growth regulator. (The pancha kaviya adds nutrients and beneficial flora and fauna to the soil).
The farmers said they also used marigold extract and gypsum powder to control various diseases in groundnuts (peanuts). And they enhance the soil with a beneficial bacterium, Pseudomonas, mixed with aged cow dung which helps the bacteria multiply and suppress fungi that cause disease.
Thatâ€™s quite a lot of innovation.
Bharathidasan later told me that the farmers really liked the fact sheets, except for the references to chemicals. That wasnâ€™t surprising given the many non-chemical options the villagers were using.
Later that week we visited another village, Panayaburam, slightly larger than Seethapappi, with a small cooperative office where the farmers met.
Here we quickly learned of a different set of attitudes. The farmers did mention neem oil and using a net to keep small insect pests out of vegetables, but many said that â€śhere we only use chemicals.â€ť One went so far as to say that if you used a mix made from cow dung on your plants, the other farmers would say that you were insane.
Anthropologists have long known that each village is unique; conclusions drawn in one village may not apply to neighboring ones. Even so, such a big difference in attitudes to chemicals was surprising. Seethapappi farmers said that they liked everything in the fact sheets, except for the chemicals. In Panayaburam farmers only wanted to know about pesticides to manage pests and diseases.
There is one major difference between these two villages. Organic-leaning Seethapappi has a KVK (farm science center), where farmers receive training and get advice. Extension agents in that KVK have generated a lot of excitement about making inputs from local materials. Panayaburam does not have a KVK, and farmers rely on the biased advice of agro-chemical dealers to keep plants healthy.
A KVK is a permanent structure, with a building and staff, working with farmers over the years. Extensionists may become frustrated with the pace of change because farmers seldom adopt a new technique instantly. Smallholders have to try out innovations on their own. Extension agents can and do make a difference in farmersâ€™ attitudes about agrochemicals, even if it takes time.
One of the most common questions about farmer training videos is how farmers will watch them if they donâ€™t have electricity to run a projector, or own a laptop. As mobile communications improve, however, new ways are emerging that are making it easier for farmers to download, view and share videos.
This week, at a workshop in Tamil Nadu, southern India, my colleague Jeff and I were teaching local partners to validate fact sheets on major crop pests and diseases with farmers. We all learned a lot from farmers who read first drafts, and commented on their content. The fact sheets than served as basis on which partners developed scripts for training videos. Before leaving the village I was again reminded that farmers no longer need expensive hardware (such as a computer or TV and DVD player) to watch videos.
Technology has evolved swiftly and influenced lives in rural areas in ways that were hard to imagine a decade ago. Over the past decade mobile phone companies in developing countries have been offering financial services that are just beginning to see the light in Western countries.
The boom in mobile phone use has triggered new types of service providers. Teenagers in Nigeria and many other African countries now tap power from solar panels to charge the mobile phones of rural folks coming to the weekly market.
Last year, GĂ©rard Zoundji (from the University of Abomey-Calavi) sent me photographs of a farmer in southern Benin who had watched farmer training videos about vegetables on his mobile phone. Someone had bought a DVD at the local agro-input shop and converted the videos from the DVD into 3gp format to watch on his mobile. Farmers are now able to watch videos even without DVD players.
This week in India I saw farmers go one step further, and download videos. Kannappan, one of the trainees from the local NGO MSSRF, was chatting with some of the village farmers when one of them, Ramesh Permal, mentioned he was rearing fish in a pond. ICT-savvy Kannappan took out his mobile phone, connected to the Access Agriculture website, and searched among all Tamil videos, and found one on raising fingerlings. It took him less than 3 minutes to download the video to his mobile. Mr. Permal and another farmer then took out their smart phones, and swiftly connected to Kannappanâ€™s mobile . The video file was nearly 50 Mb, but they transferred it to their mobile in just over 10 seconds using the SHAREit app. For ease of downloading to mobile phones when there is not a very good internet connection, Access Agriculture has also made all videos in its library available in 3gp format, which is about half the size.
After having said goodbye to the farmers, one of them saw the Access Agriculture website address (www.accessagriculture.org) on the back of my t-shirt and asked if he could take a photograph of it (with his phone). He would use the address to download more quality training videos in his own language.
Farmers may not have computers, but they are starting to get smart phones. Some smallholders rely on extensionists to get electronic information, but others are starting to use their phones to access information on their own, directly from the internet.
We are grateful to the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (Farmer Science Centre) for helping to organise the workshop and field visits.
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Soils are indeed at the core of any crop production system. Without a healthy soil, crops cannot thrive. While measuring the effect of soil erosion at national and global scales is near impossible, all farmers see the difference when effective soil conservation techniques are in place.
Putting the right strategies in place to control erosion is becoming increasingly urgent as climate change is leading to rains falling more erratic and intense than before.
From the gentle rolling lands in Burkina Faso to the steep hills in northern Vietnam, I have seen the devastating effects of rainfall on poorly managed soils. On gentle slopes of even as small as five degrees, the torrential rains wash away the top soil and seal the top layer, after which no more water can penetrate the soil. To remedy this, farmers in Burkina Faso learned about making contour bunds (raised ridges every 20 meters across the field) to allow the rainwater to infiltrate. On steeper slopes, where the land is much more difficult to be ploughed by anaimals or machines, vegetation barriers or terraces are possible solutions to stop soils eroding.
Depending on the slope, type of soil, availability of labour and other resources a wide range of options are available to improve soil and water management. Networks such as WOCAT (the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies) support organisations working on the ground with farmers by making hundreds of sustainable soil and water management technologies available in an authoritative website.
While many development agencies and projects believe that encouraging smallholder farmers to use mineral fertilizers is the quickest way to solve low crop productivity, without proper soil conservation techniques farmers will see most of their money invested wash down the drain.
And many more under Sustainable Land Management
The WOCAT SLM database: https://qcat.wocat.net/en/wocat/
Some countries with deeply contrasting linguistic histories are now becoming literate in similar ways. In Nepal and Malawi reading is becoming more common, as governments set up more schools and encourage girls and boys to attend.
Unlike most of Africa and Asia, Nepal was never formally colonized. The British were content to recognize the kingdom and install a British ministry in 1840 to advise on key issues, especially foreign policy. And the British accepted Nepali soldiers, the famous Gurkhas, into the Indian army.
Malawi was colonized, but fairly late. The Scottish missionary-explorer, David Livingstone ambled across what is now Malawi in 1861. The first traders, the African Lakes Company, set up shop in 1878, in Blantyre, and military conquest was complete by 1890.
A countryâ€™s literary tradition can be old or recent. Nepali has been written from the very start, since the language first evolved from Sanskrit, which itself had a sophisticated writing system by the second millennium BCE. The languages of Malawi (then called â€śNyasalandâ€ť) were not written until the 1870s when Scottish missionaries devised scripts (â€śalphabetsâ€ť) to translate the Bible. By the 1890s children were learning to read and write in mission schools. In Malawi, a literary heritage of thousands of years had been compressed into a single generation.
An old literary tradition is not necessarily a democratic one. In Nepal, as late as 1900, only 5% of the population could read. Government schools gradually improved. By 1951 the literacy rate was 39%, rising to 58% in 1991. Some of this effort was motivated by a policy to promote the Nepali language at the expense of the others spoken in the country, many of which are entirely unrelated to Nepali, linguistically.
In Malawi there were never enough mission schools to meet the demand from parents who wanted their children to study. Government schools expanded, especially after independence in 1963. The languages of Malawi are all Bantu tongues, and are all fairly closely related to one another. People learn to read in their own language (e.g. Tumbuka or Yao), besides Chichewa, which is the de facto national language.
The world literacy rate (the percentage of people over 15-years-old who can read), is 86% (83% for women). Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have some of the lowest literacy rates in the world: 65% for Nepal and almost the same for Malawi at 66%. Fewer women are literate, 55% in Nepal and just slightly more, 59%, in Malawi.
I was in Nepal and Malawi this year, and while the school systems are not over-funded, in both countries I was pleasantly surprised to see people reading, even in the countryside. Even people who didnâ€™t go to school usually have someone in the household who can read a document to them. In Nepal, shops advertise their wares in writing on the storefront, and in Malawi, roadside grain buyers scrawl their maize and bean prices onto signs, to attract farmer-sellers.
In both countries, when extensionists give farmers a piece of paper, their first reaction is to read it. There is room for improvement, e.g. schools need to be better resourced and more girls and women need to be included, but even in some of the poorest parts of the world many more people can read now than in their parentsâ€™ day. This is an opportunity for communicating agriculture. It means that agencies can write fact sheets for farmers, as long as the writers can avoid jargon. While videos are an important way of reaching women, minorities and other disadvantaged groups, even a DVD of farmer learning videos is enhanced with a bit of writing, such as a cover with a title, and a menu so farmers can choose the videos they want to watch.
World literacy rates have improved so fast that it is much more common for young people to read than for elders (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2016). Letâ€™s make sure that this generation of literate farmers has something appropriate to read about agricultural technology.
McCracken, John 2012 A History of Malawi: 1859-1966. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: James Currey. 485 pp.
Roser, Max and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina 2016 â€śLiteracyâ€ť. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy/
Whelpton, John 2005 A History of Nepal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 296 pp.
Some techniques in agricultural extension are like â€śwaiter music,â€ť explains Eric Boa. This is when waiters put on their favorite music, regardless of whether the diners like it or not. Extensionists do something similar when they promote techniques that are impractical or farmers donâ€™t need them.
For me, the classic example of waiter music is bokashi, an organic fertilizer invented in Japan in the late 1800s. Bokashi is made of many ingredients, including rice husks and animal manure.
In Latin America, extensionists have been promoting bokashi since the early 1990s, if not before. The extensionists eagerly gather the ingredients, including some like molasses that have to be store-bought, and mix them together into 100 kilos or so of dough. Farmers are told that if they stir the bokashi every few days the mixture will be composted within three weeks.
Like any organic fertilizer, bokashi is bulky, and 100 kilos of it is only enough for a very small garden. As far as I know, no farmers in Latin America have ever adopted bokashi on their own, I suspect because it is a lot of work to make, and because some of the ingredients are store-bought. Despite these major drawbacks, extensionists continue to promote bokashi.
So this week, when in Nepal, I was delighted to meet Amrit Narayan Shristha, who told me that he owned a bokashi factory. We met in Hemja, a small town in the hills, where Mr. Shristha was visiting agro-dealers to sell them neat, 5 kg bags of bokashi.
As luck would haveÂ it, my travels would later take me to the distant town across the country, where Mr. Shristha has a factory producing bokashi.
Even after 15 years of running his factory, Mr. Shristrha was breathless with excitement about the fertilizer. He gave us a pamphlet which expounded on the virtues of bokashi for soil health and clearly listed its chemical components, including the relatively low amounts of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous compared to inorganic fertilizers. However, like any organic fertilizer, bokashi has all of the types of nutrients a plant needs, including the minor ones like zinc and boron.
With my Nepali colleague, Abhishek Sharma, we were warmly received. I was hoping to see machinery turning out large volumes of bokashi, because, if it could be made in large enough amounts, and cheap enough, it might be a viable option for smallholders.
A large mechanical grinder is used to reduce the rice hulls to dust, and another grinder for the other ingredients. The rice hulls go into a large machine that mixes them with chicken manure, cow dung, wood ash, mustard oil cake, sawdust and â€śeffective microorganismsâ€ť These may be one of the most important ingredients, because they are beneficial bacteria and yeasts.
Later we talked to an extensionist and a group of farmers, who were using bokashi to improve their soil. They add a bit less than a ton of bokashi to a hectare of rice, along with chemical fertilizer, and they are pleased with the increases in yield that they get from the combination.
We were surprised to see four workers on hands and knees on the factory floor, picking sticks and debris out of risks husks from a rice mill. There is still a lot of manual work even in a mechanized factory. Workers stir the bokashi on the shop floor, every few days, using a hoe. Labor and space limitations keep the factory from making more than 20 or 40 tons a month. However, as Paul and I saw during our study of African Seed Enterprises, if a company can stay in business for several years, this alone is a good sign of success.
The factory receives a government subsidy, but it is producing a product that farmers are using, if not as a bulk fertilizer, then as an amendment to improve their soil with organic matter, micro-nutrients, and beneficial microorganisms.
Farmers may not want to make their own bokashi, or need to. If someone else makes it for them, at an affordable price, farmers will use the stuff. As with many agricultural innovations, the trick is not to get farmers to make all of their own inputs, but to encourage entrepreneurs to make products that they want. Manufacturing a product that farmers will buy and use is like a waiter who plays the music his customers enjoy.