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How are we doing? A double century of blogs since 2013 September 24th, 2017 by

The first Agro-Insight blog appeared in October 2013. Jeff and Paul continued publishing weekly stories until May 2015, when I joined them. Now, after nearly four years, we have reached blog number 200, and I thought it was a good time to pause and reflect on what stimulates us to write, the subjects we’ve covered and what we’re trying to achieve.

We write mostly about personal experiences, prompted by meeting people, events we’ve witnessed or taken part in and other things we’ve come across while working on projects and consultancies. Stories about Africa have featured in nearly half our blogs. Latin America blogs account for 30% of the total, mainly because Jeff is the most prolific contributor and lives in Bolivia. The Asia-Pacific region is the next common source of inspiration (13%), plus a smattering of blogs from North America, Europe and Central Asia.

We are hugely privileged in being able to visit so many countries, to work with different organisations and learn more about the unsung efforts of their staff. Every visit we make confirms how much there is to learn, and share, about the ingenuity of farmers and the dedication of the many people (particularly in extension) who contribute in unseen ways to agriculture.  People and their actions are the main inspiration for our blogs.

Sometimes we also write about things that we’ve read, such as the last blog by Jeff on photographs of Bolivian miners or a more recent one by Paul on allotments in the UK and Belgium (where he lives: we don’t always have to go far to find sources of inspiration). I wrote about Wilson Popenoe after reading a biography. He was an intrepid plant explorer and the founding director of El Zamorano, the leading agricultural university in Central America. Popenoe’s endeavours resonated strongly because I’m intrigued by the discovery of new crops. And I remembered a visit, many years ago, to the marvellous La Casa Popenoe, a small museum, in Antigua, Guatemala.

Jeff is a keen linguist and trained archaeologist, hence a series of blogs on etymology (Reaper Madness) and links to historic and ancient agriculture (such as the Origin of the sunflower). Many of Paul’s blogs have come from his and Marcella’s (Paul’s wife) experiences of making videos with and for farmers (such as Aflatoxin videos for farmers). My own varied career has given rise to blogs on wild mushrooms, photography, the rise of cocoa in the Congo, and of course plant health. Sometimes we like to call attention to examples of natural resource management gone seriously awry, as in the near extinction of North American bison. We also like to see the lighter side of agriculture and development, as in Paul’s story about bullets and birds.

Each week we submit our ideas to the other two for comments. Writing is a collaborative effort and one of the big pleasures for me is being able to hone each other’s blogs, delivering a better and cleaner message. We try to avoid preaching and to lead our readers to gentle conclusions which encourage fresh thinking.

Not all ideas that we have are published as blogs. In one failed effort, I wrote unconvincingly about the new sustainable development goals. Paul and Jeff suggested it needed more work. They were right. The first blogs were quite short, just a few hundred words. They’ve become longer, though we rarely exceed 1000 words. We know that our readers are busy people, and there’s always a danger with a longer story that you stray from the main topic.

When we write about people we always try to show them the blog before we publish. We want to get our facts right and also check we haven’t written anything that an individual or organisation is unhappy about. Sometimes they don’t want too much publicity or maybe we’ve written prematurely about a work in progress. We had to kill one story about the problems with community centres to feed children, when our horrified partners realized that we were saying too much, too soon. Cannabis growing is legal but still controversial in Alaska, yet the owners were more than happy to share their experiences more widely, provided I didn’t reveal the precise location in the blog.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of having published 200 blogs is how little we know about our audience. Although we get regular comments from colleagues and others who we alert directly about blogs we welcome wider feedback via email (just add Paul or Jeff or Eric to @agroinsight.com.

We don’t know what we will write for blog 300 and beyond, but there is no shortage of things to discover or unheard voices of farmers to report. Thanks for staying with us. Feel free to pass these stories on to friends, family and colleagues. We look forward to hearing from you!

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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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Lazy farming September 3rd, 2017 by

In 1970, after studying Asian history and soil science at the University of California, 22-year-old Larry Korn boarded a ship bound for Japan. After travelling a bit he began working on farms, where he learned to speak Japanese and to love farming. A couple of years later, Mr. Korn heard about “natural farming” and a book, One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka. Mr. Korn travelled to Mr. Fukuoka’s small farm on the Island of Shikoku, in southern Japan, and spent the next two years working there and studying with Mr. Fukuoka.

Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was trained as a plant pathologist. He was the son of a village landlord who lost most of his farm during land reform after World War II. After working as a government customs inspector for a few years, Mr. Fukuoka decided to try to live a more natural life, and he returned to what was left of his family farm, just an acre and a quarter (5000 square meters) of rice fields. He was later able to buy 13 acres (5.2 hectares) of orange orchard.

Mr. Fukuoka began to question traditional Japanese agriculture, as practiced from about 1600 up to the late 1940s. Was it really necessary to weed, plow, fertilize and flood rice fields? Mr. Fukuoka experimented to see which of these practices could be skipped and eventually concluded that he could eliminate them all.

Instead, in the fall before harvesting the rice Mr. Fukuoka would broadcast rye seed in one rice field and barley seed into another field of standing rice. He always kept white clover growing in these fields, to fix nitrogen and suppress weeds. The rye and barley seeds would fall between the growing rice plants, among the clover and the weeds. When he harvested the rice, the rye and the barley plants would still be small, but would start to grow faster without the shade of the rice. After threshing the rice he would spread the straw back in the field as mulch, to keep the weeds down. The rye and barley would grow all winter, and a couple of weeks before harvesting them, Mr. Fukuoka would broadcast rice in the rye and barley, and after harvesting the rye and barley, the young rice plants would start to grow more vigorously. He harvested all his grain by hand, with sickles, with the help of family and students.

After two years of working on the farm, Larry Korn helped translate One-Straw Revolution to English, and found a publisher in the USA (Rodale Press). In 1979 Larry Korn hosted Mr. Fukuoka on his first trip to the USA, where he became a kind of celebrity, later making trips to India and other countries as well.

Forty years later, in 2015, Larry Korn treated the public to a delightful book about his experiences with Mr. Fukuoka.

Mr. Fukuoka’s “natural farming” was largely his own invention. It was not traditional Japanese agriculture which, to paraphrase Larry Korn, was lots of compost and lots of work. In his charming, self-effacing way, Mr. Fukuoka said that he was trying to avoid some of that work. He said that his style of agriculture could be called “lazy farming.” Even so, harvesting a grain field with sickles is a huge amount of work, especially since by the 1970s they could have used machinery. Larry Korn says that there were about five students on the Fukuoka Farm at any one time, and they were all working pretty hard. That is a lot of labor, actually, on such a small farm. But his rice yields were not bad, 5.9 tons per hectare, which was the average rice yield for Japan in 1979, according to Ricepedia.org. He was also building up the soil, forming a thick layer of rich, black earth, alive with earthworms.

I have made compost for nearly thirty years. I love the way it converts orange rinds, egg shells and old newspapers into rich, natural fertilizer. But as I was reading about natural farming, I realized that making compost really is a lot of work. At our house we usually cheat, and hire a day laborer to dig out the compost pit. We still make compost from kitchen scraps, but now we have started leaving the cut weeds in the garden as mulch, instead of tossing them into the compost pit. As soon as we started mulching we noticed that there was less weeding to do. And that is the mark of a good book: it gives you new ideas to think about.

Further reading

Korn, Larry 2015 One-Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green. 224 pp.

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Mending fences, making friends August 13th, 2017 by

Clipston is a small village at the geographical centre of England, set in fields where arable and livestock farming has existed for millennia. All Saints Church was built in the early 13th century and still holds regular services. The local primary school has just celebrated its 350th anniversary. Bar some new houses and better roads, the village is recognizably the same from photographs taken over a hundred years ago.

I have visited Clipston regularly over the last forty years, ever since my parents moved there. The village and its surrounding agriculture looks much the same today as they did four decades ago: grazing cattle and sheep and fields of wheat and rapeseed (canola). But it was only a few weeks ago that I spoke to a farmer for the first time and began to appreciate how little I knew about the landscape that defines the village.

Clipston continues to thrive; the village website reveals a vibrant community, even though there’s no shop and public transport is limited. Clipston thrives in spite of rather than because of agriculture. Job opportunities in farming are few and prospects for new farmers are uncertain, as I learnt from talking to a local shepherd, Martin Fellowes. Most of the employed people who live in Clipston today work somewhere else, some travelling long distances each day. Fast trains from nearby Market Harborough reach the heart of London in just over an hour, a journey of about 100 miles.

People who choose to live in villages for their rural charm and tranquillity can sometimes find it difficult to cope with the everyday messiness of farming. The pervasive smell from spreading slurry on fields, drifting smoke from burning stubble or mud spread by tractors on roads are all sources of potential dispute between farmers, who rely on the land for their living, and other residents.

My chance encounter with Martin arose from a domestic issue. The sheep in the neighbouring field would occasionally get into my parents’ garden and munch merrily on flowers and foliage, much to the dismay of my mother and father. A single strand of barbed wire between field and garden was clearly inadequate. The only solution was to erect a sturdier fence, which is what I was doing when I noticed someone in blue overalls in the field. Martin came across when I waved my hand.

Martin explained to me that he’d just taken over the lease of the field and an adjacent one. I felt a little guilty about mentioning the sheep invasions since these were related to a previous tenant. He explained that “the fence is the responsibility of the land owner”. His replies were courteous but wary. I sensed that he had other things of greater concern to consider. I wondered later about Martin’s response to a letter in the Clipston Newsletter some years ago which said: “It is a terrifying prospect that land surrounding this lovely village could easily fall into the wrong hands.” The writer was fearful about a drop in the value of her house.

Martin’s demeanour changed when I told him that I also worked in agriculture. I pointed to my T shirt, which by chance featured a plant health workshop held in Rwanda. I asked him more about his job. “It’s difficult trying to get established as a farmer today”, he said. He was pleased to have a signed lease for the fields behind my parent’s house for his sheep for the coming year, even though the owner was selling up. He was renting other fields in another nearby village and I began to imagine the challenges of moving animals back and forward between different sites.

The sale of the land prompted some gentle mutterings on the price of land. In nearby Market Harborough housing estates are springing up all around the town. Farm land has become increasingly valuable, not only for housing but as an investment. The result is that it’s nigh on impossible for a new farmer such as Martin to own his own land. Leasing creates uncertainty, yet clearly Martin loved what he was doing and was willing to work hard.

I was surprised and delighted that Martin knew about a recent unexpected best seller on sheep farming, The Shepherd’s Life, written by James Rebanks, a shepherd in the north of England. Martin had been given this as a present and confirmed that the descriptions of sheep farming were spot on. “I’m not a big reader”, Martin confessed, but clearly the book had caught his attention. “Sheep farming is tougher up north”, he added, “but down here it’s also difficult to get established”.

People take the gently rolling hills and the seasonal changes in farming for granted. Not far from Clipston is an outstanding farm shop, one of several that have flourished in and around Market Harborough as the population has expanded. Stuffed full of fine food from impeccable sources, much locally produced, it is easy to imagine that this renaissance in food retailing indicates a stronger, more vibrant agriculture.

My short meeting with Martin was proof that new farmers are willing to have a go but that it will be an uphill struggle. Commuters who move to villages bring new life to a fragile rural economy, but living in the countryside also carries a responsibility to take a wider interest in agriculture.

Talking to farmers reveals how hard they work. If commuters move to the countryside for the scenery, it’s worth remembering that farmers have nurtured that land for generations. Sometimes a bit of fence mending goes a long way.

Read previous blogs

Modern ideas for an ancient land

Further information and reading

Clipston village website. What farming delivers for Northamptonshire (NFU infographic).

Rowland Parker (1975). The Common Stream. (An excellent book on the enduring life of an English village.)

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A farm in the city June 25th, 2017 by

Orchard and fields copyAerial views of the fertile plains of Kyrgyzstan reveal a dominant pattern of long, narrow fields, endlessly repeated into the distance. The colours of the fields give some indication of what’s being grown. In early June the wheat is almost ready to harvest and the green swathes are starting to go yellow. Maize fields are lush, the plants growing vigorously. Cotton, another popular field crop, is still establishing and cover is more patchy.

Large-scale farming in Kyrgyzstan is no longer the centrally-planned, target-driven model of the Soviet era. Farmers may be free to plant what they want, but market forces still determine the range of crops that are economically viable. The demand for wheat is steadily increasing and cotton has ready markets in Turkey, a close partner of Kyrgyzstan.

P1040244 copyBut there’s much more to agriculture in Kyrgyzstan than field crops. One gets a view of a more diverse production as the plane descends to land at major cities such as Bishkek and Osh. The irregular spaces between the long, narrow fields are filled with mostly fruit trees. Orchards can occupy up to several hectares, particularly in Osh district and in the southwest of the country generally, but many are relatively small. A smattering of polytunnels (small greenhouses) around the outskirts of Bishkek points to a year-round capacity to produce vegetables, meeting some of the local demand during the long, cold winter.

Then, just before the wheels touch the tarmac, small plots of vegetables and fruit can be seen around many houses. One of the privileges of the work Jeff, Paul and I regularly experience is to meet small-scale farmers, but this is usually in a rural setting and not in cities. A quick glance at Google Maps shows that while the centres of Bishkek and Osh are densely packed, gardens are still a prominent feature in the spreading suburbs.

P1120610 copyMr Orunbai Dosmatov, senior entomologist at the phytosanitary laboratory for Osh province and guide for my three-day visits to the southwest of Kyrgyzstan, invited me to stay at the family home in Osh city. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was looking forward to learning more about urban agriculture. The family home was fronted by a vegetable plot about 25 metres by 25 metres, complete with tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, pumpkins and maize.

Just beyond this was an orchard of cherries, the trees laden with juicy and flavoursome fruit. Orunbai told me that a local trader would organise the harvesting for an agreed price. Running your own farm in addition to a full-time job requires careful management. Cherry picking is a time-consuming task, even with family members to hand. At the back of the house, lucerne (alfalfa) was being grown to feed the three goats held in a covered area attached to the side of the house. Hay was stored in an open loft for the winter months.

There were more fruit trees in a separate field on the other side of the short track up to the main house. Orunbai had one cow on a summer pasture. Water flowed freely through the garden, diverted from a natural stream that flowed from the hills behind Osh. Ironically, despite the natural abundance of water, the supply to the house was restricted and unreliable.

P1120626 copyA grapevine wove in and out of a high metal frame outside the upper floor rooms which I occupied during my stay. A tandoor oven below my bedroom window was used for baking delicious bread. Yet it takes a lot of hard work to make good, local food. The crops have to be planted, weeded and tended. The goats need to be fed and looked after regularly. The garden may produce 30 cabbages in one go and so the family has to sell them or preserve them for later. Fruit can be turned into jam, though there’s a limit on how much of this you need throughout the year.

Later I was invited to Orunbai’s brother’s house in Kyzl Kiya, the main city in Batken region and around two hours from Osh. I saw another intriguing mix of vegetables and fruits, with large baskets of cherries ready to sell.

P1040433 copySalaries are low so city farming helps salaried people, even highly educated ones, to feed their families, save money and perhaps even earn a bit of extra income. Some years ago, I watched people sell berries, mushrooms and home-grown vegetables outside Tallinn railway station in Estonia. The value of each vendor’s produce was little more than 30 euros (around $34), a small sum but clearly valuable enough to warrant the cost of setting up the stall and hanging around all day for customers.

Field crops dominate agriculture in Kyrgyzstan but there’s also a strong tradition of growing your own food. The shops may be full of fresh produce, a welcome change from limited choice and uncertain availability during Soviet times, but it is expensive. Producing your own food is a way to eat well and cheaply and to combine the benefits of city and rural life. Orunbai is rightly proud of his urban farm and is showing the way for his sons and daughters to grow their own.

Related blogs

To drip or not to drip (peri-urban agriculture)

Things ain’t what they used to be (Kyrgyzstan)

Smelling is believing (peri-urban agriculture)

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Nurgazy and Akmaral for assistance with translation. And of course to all the Dosmatov family who made my stay so memorable.

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