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To see the future October 7th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

When Francisco Condori stopped working as a bricklayer in La Paz, Bolivia, he returned as a 23-year old to his home village of Cutusuma, near Lake Titicaca. He felt that because of his years in the big city he was missing some agricultural knowhow. So he consulted with the older people of Cutusuma.

More than anything, the elders taught Francisco what are now called “the indicators” that is, the signs of nature that tell when to plant and if it will be a good year. This is indispensable information in a place like the Altiplano, generally good land for farming, but sometimes hostile.  Frost, hail and drought can destroy crops at any time. That is why forecasting the weather is a specialty on the Altiplano.

For example a bird, the quiri quiri, makes nests like little ovens in the totora reeds of Titicaca and the small lake of Cutusuma. The bird seems to know how high the water will rise. In dry years it builds its nest low, and in rainy years it makes a nest high on the totora plant. Francisco learned to take a raft into the lake and seek out the nests. The height of the nest in the dry season indicates the level that the water will reach in the rainy season.

Don Francisco also learned to look for the sank’ayu cactus. If it bears fruit early, one should plant potatoes early, in October. If it fruits late, one should plant in November.

Besides looking for his own indicators, Francisco also listened to the weather forecast on the radio and on the TV, but it wasn’t always reliable. He and his friend Antonio remember that once the radio announced that there was going to be a frost and the farmers should “take care of their potato crop.” Francisco and Antonio just laughed, because it was June—winter and the dry season—and nobody had potatoes in the field.

In 1998 Francisco met Edwin Yucra, an agronomist with an interest in climate and in local knowledge. Edwin worked in Prosuko, a project that was supporting the development of sukukollus (planting beds inspired by the agriculture of the ancient civilization of Tiwanaku).

Edwin collaborated for years with Francisco and Antonio and their neighbors. In recent years, Edwin taught them that there was a free app on the Internet that farmers could download to predict the weather with the help of satellites and weather stations. Many farmers have smart phones nowadays which give them access to apps like this one, called Weather Underground.

By 2017 Edwin, now a professor at the Public University of San Andrés, worked in seven communities, including Cutusuma. They managed to build a small weather station in Cutusuma to register the weather, including temperature, wind and rain.

Francisco and Antonio go over the data from the station constantly. They log onto Weather Underground every day on their cell phones. They still listen to the forecast on the radio and on TV and they still make their own forecast based on the indicators, which their write on their Pachagrama (see blog story Predicting the weather), so they can track the weather over the year.

Don Francisco and don Antonio are conducting a deep study of the weather. They combine local knowledge with modern science. Thanks to this, Francisco has become a sort of expert and celebrity. His neighbors frequently ask him what the weather will be like. When don Francisco goes to market in the town of Batallas, the people there recognize him and ask him about the weather. In recent years Francisco has appeared on several TV channels explaining the weather, the indicators and describing climate change.

It is an example of how one can respect local, even ancestral knowledge, while still appreciating modern science.

CONOCER EL FUTURO

Por Jeff Bentley, 7 de octubre del 2018

Cuando don Francisco Condori dejó de trabajar como albañil en La Paz, Bolivia, volvió a sus 23 años a su aldea natal de Cutusuma, cerca del Lago Titicaca. Sintió que debido a sus años en la gran ciudad le hacía falta saber de la agricultura. Así que se fue consultando con la gente mayor de Cutusuma.

Los ancianos más que nada le enseñaron a Francisco lo que se llaman los “indicadores” o sea los señales de la naturaleza que dicen cuándo sembrar y si va a ser un año bueno. Esa información es indispensable en un lugar como el Altiplano, tierra productiva para el agro, pero a veces también hostil.  Heladas, granizadas y sequías pueden destruir los cultivos en cualquier momento. Por eso el pronóstico del tiempo es una especializad en el Altiplano.

Por ejemplo, una pájaro, el quiri quiri, hace sus pequeños nidos como hornito en las totoras de Titicaca y de la pequeña Laguna de Cutusuma. El pájaro parece que sabe dónde llegará el agua. En años secos hace su nido bajo, y en años lluviosos hace su nido en la parte alta de la planta de totora. Francisco aprendió a entrar en balsa a la laguna y buscar los nidos. La altura del nido en la época seca indica el nivel que el agua llegará en la época lluviosa.

Don Francisco también aprendió a revisar el cactus sank’ayu. Si daba fruto temprano habría que sembrar la papa temprano, en octubre. Si daba su fruto tarde, habría que sembrar en noviembre.

Además de buscar sus propios indicadores, Francisco también miraba el pronóstico de tiempo en la radio, y en la tele, pero no era siempre confiable. El y su amigo Antonio recuerdan que una vez la radio anunció que iba a haber helada y que los agricultores deberían “cuidar su papa.” Francisco y Antonio solo se reían, porque era junio—invierno y época seca—y nadie tenía papa sembrada.

In 1998 Francisco conoció a Edwin Yucra, ingeniero agrónomo con interés en el clima y el conocimiento local. Edwin trabajaba en Prosuko, un proyecto que apoyaba en desarrollar a los sukukollus (camellones agrícolas, inspiradas por el agro del antiguo imperio de Tiwanaku).

Edwin colaboró durante años con Francisco y Antonio y sus vecinos. Edwin, en los últimos años, les enseñó que había una aplicación gratis en el Internet que los agricultores podrían bajar y pronosticar el tiempo en base a satélites y estaciones meteorológicas. Muchos agricultores tienen smart phones hoy en día que les da acceso a estas aplicaciones como este, llamado el Weather Underground.

Para el año 2017 Edwin, ahora catedrático en la Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, trabajaba con siete comunidades, incluso Cutusuma. Lograron poner una pequeña estación meteorológica en Cutusuma para medir el tiempo, como la temperatura, viento y lluvia.

Francisco y Antonio revisan los datos de la estación constantemente. Chequean el Weather Underground cada día en sus celulares. Siguen escuchando el pronóstico en la radio y la tele y todavía hacen su propio pronóstico en base a los indicadores, lo cual apuntan en su Pachagrama (vea blog sobre Prediciendo el tiempo), para seguirlo durante el año.

Don Francisco y don Antonio están haciendo un estudio profundo del clima. Combinan el conocimiento local con la ciencia moderna. Gracias a eso Francisco se ha convertido en una especie de experto y celebridad. Sus vecinos frecuentemente le preguntan cómo va a ser el tiempo. Cuando don Francisco va al pueblo de Batallas para hacer mercado le reconocen los del pueblo y le preguntan sobre el tiempo. En los últimos años Francisco ha salido en la tele y en varios de los canales explicando el tiempo, los indicadores y que el clima está cambiando.

Es un ejemplo de que se puede respetar el conocimiento local y hasta ancestral, con amor a la ciencia moderna.

The intricacies of mulching September 9th, 2018 by

Everybody working in agriculture knows something about mulching, which can lead us to think that we know all about it. But mulching is a surprisingly complex topic, as I recently realised while following a video from start to finish. For example, different crops may require different types of mulch, and some mulches are better avoided under certain conditions. As with other farming techniques, to make a video on mulch, manuals are often inadequate; one needs to rely on the experience of farmers.

We started preparing for the video on mulch during a workshop in Pune, India, in February 2017, where Jeff and I had trained a number of local partners to write fact sheets and video scripts for farmers (read an account on this workshop in: Nourishing a fertile imagination). One of the scripts was on mulch. When I revisit the first draft of that script it is striking how generic our early ideas were.

Among other things, the script mentioned: “Mulch allows more earthworms and other living things to grow by providing shade. The earthworms make the soil fertile and dig small tunnels that allow the water to go more easily into the soil.” That is all well and good, but that first script was a little light on how to go about mulching, although it had an idea of using dry straw.

More than a year (and 10 versions of the script) later, cameraman Atul Pagar from Pune, India, finished his video “Mulch for a better soil and crop”. For the past two years, Atul has been steadily producing quality farmer-to-farmer training videos, such as on the use of herbal medicine in animal health. Each of the videos is a testimony of the richness of local knowledge and practices.

For instance, the final version of the video mentions that fruits and vegetables like cauliflower, watermelon and others that grow close to the ground are best mulched with dry straw and sugarcane trash or other crop residue in between every row.

Commonly available wheat husks are not suitable for such crops, as Ravindra Thokal, one of the farmers featuring in the video, explains. “After harvest, we used to burn the crop residue. Now we do not burn it, but I use it as mulch in my cauliflowers. I do not mulch with wheat husks because they are easily washed away by rain. And when blown away by the wind, the husks can settle on the cauliflowers, which may damage them.”

In less than 12 minutes, the nicely crafted video also explains what to consider when mulching fruit trees, how to fertilise your mulched crop with liquid organic fertiliser, how to control rats that may hide in mulch, and what the pitfalls are of using plastic mulch. None of these ideas were in the first draft of the video script. The script had been improved over the intervening months by discussing the ideas with farmers and other experts. Although I had read quite a bit about mulching, a lot of the information in the video was new to me.

Farming is intricate. To produce good training videos for farmers requires people who have a keen eye, an open mind and the patience to learn from farmers. Atul has all of these. You can find his videos on the Access Agriculture video platform.

Related blogs

We have written many blog stories on soil fertility management, such as:

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

What do earthworms want?

Nurturing ideas, and seed

Chemical attitude adjustment

The bokashi factory

Smelling is believing

The big mucuna

Crop with an attitude

Related videos

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Making a vermicompost bed

The wonder of earthworms

Reviving soils with mucuna

Dick’s Ice Box September 2nd, 2018 by

In 2005, a few years before my Mom died, she took some of her grown children and grandchildren to Dewey, Utah, a ghost town on the Colorado River, to show us one of the strangest structures I’ve ever seen. On a blistering day in July we walked through the sage brush and the red sand to a canyon wall. Mom led us through a neat little door through the cliff-face into a darkened room, surprisingly cooler than the outside and big enough for a dozen people to crowd in.

Mom’s grandfather, Richard Dallin “Dick” Westwood had carved this room from solid stone. Dick’s children called the place ‘Dad’s Ice Box.” Dick would stack winter ice from the Colorado River into his ice box to keep food cold all through the summer. “They could even keep butter in here,” Mom added proudly. My great-grandfather lived from 1863 to 1929; there was no electricity in Dewey and household refrigerators were rare before 1927.

Off and on between 1901 and 1916 Dick ran the ferry at Dewey, where the wagon road from Moab, Utah to Grand Junction, Colorado crossed the Colorado River. The trip was a hundred miles (160 km), so travelers often spent the night at Dewey, where my great-grandmother Martha had a little boarding house and diner. The family had a small farm and some cattle that provided meat and other provisions. The ice box filled with food was important for Martha’s business.

That day in 2005, my Mom told us that Dick carved the ice box with dynamite. The rectangular doorway and the spacious room it led into were clearly the work of a craftsman. Carving stone with dynamite is a dangerous business, a good way to lose life or limb, and I always wondered how Dick knew what he was doing.

This remained a mystery until this year, when my cousin, Richard “Rick” Westwood wrote a book about our great-grandfather. It finally helped me make sense of Dick’s Ice Box.

Dick held many professions, from sheriff to muleskinner to Shakespearean actor, but until I read Rick’s book I never realized that Dick was also a miner. From childhood I knew that Dick had staked a mine claim, which he named “The Silver Dick.” I was aware that my great-grandfather had a sense of humor, but until I read Rick’s book I didn’t know that the Silver Dick was a working silver mine. Discovered in August 1908, it may have been the only one in Southeastern Utah. Dick worked the mine until 1909 when he filled a box car with valuable ore, enough to make his fortune. Sadly, this never happened, because the shipment was stolen by railroad workers en route to buyers. But Dick’s mine enriched him with the skill of working sandstone with dynamite.

The Ice Box may have been partly inspired by the root cellar, a small structure dug into the ground, topped off with a timber roof. Many families in Utah stored their food in root cellars. During their early years in Dewey, Dick and Martha’s root cellar burned down. Martha would later tell my grandmother how devastating it was to lose all their stored food. Dick took the loss stoically, saying: “Oh we’ll get us another sack of flour and another bag o’ taters (potatoes) and we’ll be as good off as ever.” But losing the root cellar may have inspired Dick to think of a fire-proof place to store the household food. As luck would have it, Dick was well placed to get ice. Rick explains that in the early 1900s, the Colorado River used to freeze so hard in winter that Dick could drive his family over the river in a wagon drawn by a team of horses. The ferry was sited between two sharp bends in the river, near the modern-day Dewey Bridge. In the spring the ice would break with great force, and some big slabs would pile up on the bank, where they were relatively easy to collect.

In her history of ice, Elizabeth David observes the sunken ice houses made by Scandinavian farmers, but in the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century USA, ice houses were typically wooden barn-like structures, made and operated by professional ice mongers, not by smallholder farmers. Dick’s Ice Box is the only one I know of carved into a sandstone cliff.

The ice box was crucial for running a family business on a small, desert farm.

Farmers’ creativity is often stimulated by new ideas, as we often say in our weekly Agro-Insight blog. Those ideas can come from science or from a technology the farmer learned somewhere else, even by mining. Dick was flexible, tough and creative. He took misfortune in stride, and adapted, just like many of the farmers we still meet today.

Acknowledgement

I thank my cousin, Rick Westwood, for letting me read his book manuscript. Thanks also to Rick and to my brothers Brett and Scott Bentley for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this story. I gratefully acknowledge Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele who gave me thoughtful feedback on this story, as they always do.

Related blog story

The Ice Harvest

Further reading

Richard E. “Rick” Westwood is publishing his excellent biography, Sheriff Richard Dallin Westwood later in 2018.

See also:

Westwood, Richard E. 2010 Westwood Family History, Vol II. R. Westwood: Highland, Utah.

My great-grandmother, Martha Wilcox (1871 to 1962) wrote an autobiography, edited by her daughter, Grace Westwood Morse:

Autobiography of Martha Anna Wilcox Westwood Foy, privately printed in 1983.

And for the definitive story of ice boxes:

David, Elizabeth 1994 Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices. London: Faber and Faber. 413 pp.

Veterinarians and traditional animal health care August 19th, 2018 by

It is unfortunate that not more is done to safeguard and value traditional knowledge.

In Pune, Maharastra, the Indian NGO Anthra has devoted a great part of its energy in documenting traditional animal health knowledge and practices across India. Dr. Nitya Ghotge along with a team of women veterinarians founded Anthra in 1992 to address the problems faced by communities who reared animals, particularly peasants, pastoralists, adivasis (indigenous peoples of South Asia), dalits (formerly known as untouchables – people outside the caste system), women and others who remained hidden from the gaze of mainstream development.

In their encyclopaedia Plants Used in Animal Care, Anthra has compiled an impressive list of plants used for veterinary purposes and fodder.

To ensure that local communities across the global south benefit from this indigenous knowledge, Anthra started collaborating with one of Access Agriculture’s trained video partners (Atul Pagar) to gradually develop a series of farmer-to-farmer training videos on herbal medicines (see: the Access Agriculture video category on animal health).

While Indian cities are booming and the agro-industry continues its efforts to conquer lucrative markets, many farmers and farmer organisations across the country treasure India’s rich cultural and agricultural heritage. Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere. In many countries, local knowledge is quickly eroding as the older generation of farmers and pastoralists disappear.

 

A few years ago, I was thrilled to work with traditional Fulani herders in Nigeria, only to discover that none of them still made use of herbal medicines. Even to treat something as simple as ticks, the young herders confidently turned to veterinary drugs. Although the elder people could still readily name the various plants they used to treat various common animal diseases, the accessibility and ease of application of modern drugs meant that none of the herders still used herbal medicines. The risks of such drastic changes quickly became apparent. As we were making a series of training videos on quality milk, which should have no antibiotics or drug residues, we visited a hospital to interview a local doctor.

“If people are well they are not supposed to take antibiotics. If such a person is sick in the future and the sickness requires the use of antibiotics, it would be difficult to cure because such drugs will not work. It can even make the illness more severe,” doctor Periola Amidu Akintayo from the local hospital confided in front of the camera.

Later on, we visited a traditional Fulani cattle market. For years, these markets have been bustling places where the semi-nomadic herders meet buyers from towns. People exchange news on latest events and the weather, but above all assess the quality of the animals and negotiate prices. Animals that look unhealthy or have signs of parasites obviously fetch a lower price. Given that the cattle market is where the Fulani herders meet their fellow herders and clients, I quickly realized why the entire market was surrounded by small agro vet shops. Competition was fierce, and demand for animal drugs was high.

Modern drugs come with an enclosed instruction sheet, but as with pesticides nobody in developing countries reads this advice. To keep costs down, many herders and farmers administer drugs to their own animals, to avoid spending money on a veterinary doctor. Perhaps even more worrying: few people are aware of the risks that modern drugs pose to human health, whether it be from developing resistance to antibiotics or drug residues in food. In organisations like Anthra, socially engaged veterinary doctors merge local knowledge with scientific information, thus playing an undervalued role that deserve more attention. The training videos made with these veterinarians and their farmer allies will hopefully show more people that it is important to bring the best of both worlds together.

Related training videos

Herbal medicine against fever in livestock

Herbal treatment for diarrhoea

Managing cattle ticks

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Related blogs

Trust that works

Big chicken, little chicken

Nourishing a fertile imagination

Predicting the weather August 5th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

Most city dwellers are only interested in short term weather forecasting. Will it rain over the weekend when we plan to invite friends to a barbecue? Do I need to carry an umbrella or wear a coat tomorrow? Fortunately for urbanites, TV, radio and web-based services provide short term forecasts.

Farmers are interested in short term weather forecasting too, but also in long term predictions. Knowing what week the rains will start is crucial for deciding when to plant rain-fed crops. Knowing how much it will rain helps farmers choose whether to plant on high or low ground.

I learned this recently from Edwin Yucra, a researcher at UMSA, the public university of San Andrés, in La Paz. Edwin has spent years working with Andean farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano, helping them to make use of weather forecasts based on the latest scientific data. For example, not long ago, Edwin noticed that there was an unexpected rain forecast for two or three days hence. Farmers usually like rain, but not on this occasion. The farmers he works with were about to freeze-dry potatoes into chuño, when dry nights are essential. To warn the farmers, Edwin didn’t have to meet with them. He let them know on social media. The farmers were able to delay making chuño and save their potatoes from rotting.

Scientific weather forecasting is not particularly accurate over a whole year. This leaves farmers more or less to their own devices. One group of master Andean farmers, called the “yapuchiris” (which means “farmer” in Aymara) is paying attention to long term weather forecasting. During the dry season, the yapuchiris notice the behavior of animals, plants or stars. For example, birds nesting on high ground are interpreted as a sign of a wet year, while low-lying nests suggest a coming drought.

The yapuchiris write down their meteorological predictions, and then painstakingly record the weather every day for the next year, to see if their forecasts are accurate. The yapuchiris use a paper form which they and their partners at PROSUCO (an NGO) have been perfecting since the early 2000s. They use a large chart called a Pachagrama. They coined this term by blending the Aymara word for earth and weather (“pacha”) with the Spanish ending “-grama” (as in telegrama). The “Earth-gram” includes 365 columns for each day of the year and rows for different kinds of weather (sun, wind, rain, hail etc.) The yapuchiris draw a dot in each row every day to add further information. For example a dot placed higher in the sun column means a sunny day and a lower dot is a cloudy day. Later the dots can be connected to draw a graph of the year’s weather.

PROSUCO is now doing a statistical study to show how well a dedicated group of 18 yapuchiris have accurately predicted weather for several years. The university tracks modern meteorology sites for short-term forecasting, while the Pachagrama validates local, long-term weather predictions. These two efforts are different, but farmers value both of them, and will use them to see what the weather will be like this week, and this year.

Read more about the yapuchiris:

Farmers produce electronic content

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Or about chuño:

Feeding the ancient Andean state

Acknowledgement

This work with weather is funded by the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Photos courtesy of PROSUCO.

PREDICIENDO EL CLIMA

Por Jeff Bentley

5 de agosto del 2018

La mayoría de los citadinos solo estamos interesados en el pronóstico del tiempo a corto plazo. ¿Lloverá durante el fin de semana cuando pensamos invitar nuestros amigos a una parrillada? ¿Debo llevar un paraguas o un abrigo mañana? Afortunadamente para los citadinos, los servicios meteorológicos de la televisión, la radio y web hacen tales pronósticos a corto plazo.

Los agricultores también están interesados en pronósticos meteorológicos a corto plazo, además de predicciones a largo plazo. Saber qué semana comenzarán las lluvias es crucial para decidir cuándo sembrar cultivos de secano. Saber cuánto va a llover ayuda a los agricultores a elegir sembrar en terreno alto o bajo.

Esto lo aprendí recientemente de Edwin Yucra, investigador de UMSA, la Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, en La Paz. Durante años, Edwin ha trabajado con agricultores en el Altiplano boliviano, ayudándolos a hacer pronósticos meteorológicos, incluso con métodos científicos. Por ejemplo, no hace mucho tiempo, Edwin notó que había un pronóstico de lluvia inesperada para dos o tres días. A los agricultores generalmente les gusta la lluvia, pero no esta vez. Estaban a punto de congelar las papas en chuño, cuando las noches secas son esenciales. Para advertir a los agricultores, Edwin no tenía que reunirse con ellos. Él les hizo saber en las redes sociales para que pudieran esperar para hacer chuño y evitar que sus papas se pudran.

El pronóstico meteorológico científico no es muy preciso para predicciones de un año entero, lo cual deja a los agricultores más o menos a sus propios recursos. Por otro lado, un grupo de agricultores andinos, los llamados yapuchiris (que significa “agricultor” o “agricultora en aymara), pone atención a la predicción del tiempo a largo plazo. Durante la época seca, los yapuchiris se fijan en el comportamiento de los animales, plantas o las estrellas. Por ejemplo, las aves que anidan en un terreno más elevado que el normal se interpretan como señal de un año lluvioso, mientras que los nidos más bajos sugieren que habrá sequía.

Los yapuchiris escriben sus predicciones meteorológicas y luego registran minuciosamente el comportamiento del tiempo todos los días durante el próximo año, para ver si sus pronósticos eran ciertos. Los yapuchiris usan un formulario en papel que ellos y sus socios en PROSUCO (una ONG) han estado perfeccionando desde principios de la década de 2000. Usan una tabla grande llamada Pachagrama. Ellos acuñaron este término combinando la palabra aymara para la tierra y tiempo (“pacha”) con la terminación “-grama”. Ese Pachagrama incluye 365 columnas para cada día del año y filas para los diferentes tipos de clima (sol, viento, lluvia, granizo, etc.). Los yapuchiris dibujan un punto en cada fila todos los días para anotar la información. Por ejemplo, un punto colocado más arriba en la columna del sol significa un día soleado y un punto más abajo es un día nublado. Más tarde, los puntos se pueden conectar para dibujar un gráfico del clima del año.

Prosuco ahora está haciendo un estudio estadístico para ver si un grupo de 18 yapuchiris diestros ha predicho con precisión el clima durante varios años. La universidad rastrea los sitios modernos de meteorología para el pronóstico a corto plazo, mientras que el Pachagrama valida las predicciones meteorológicas a largo plazo en base a observaciones ecológicas. Estos dos esfuerzos son diferentes, pero los agricultores valoran ambos y los usarán para ver cómo será el clima esta semana y este año.

Lea más acerca de los yapuchiris:

Agricultores producen contenido electrónico

Inspiración de Bangladesh a Bolivia

O sobre el chuño:

Feeding the ancient Andean state

Agradecimiento

Este trabajo con el clima es financiado por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación sobre Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight.

Las fotos son cortesía de PROSUCO.

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